Power Lines: Do Electromagnetic Fields Cause Cancer? (1994)
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Power Lines: Do Electromagnetic Fields Cause Cancer? (1994)

Electricity is our friend. It keeps us warm in winter and cool in summer. It gives us light to work by and heat to cook our food. Could it also be a sinister, subversive health hazard, causing cancer in our children and leukemia in our loved ones?

Paul Holmes


Electricity is our friend. It keeps us warm in winter and cool in summer. It gives us light to work by and heat to cook our food. It provides us with entertainment and the ability to communicate. It enables businesses to operate profitably and hospitals to save lives. Electricity is our friend.

Could it also be a sinister, subversive health hazard, causing cancer in our children and leukemia in our loved ones?

That is the contention of a growing chorus of voices, including scientists, public health experts, parents and environmentalists. Drawing on research that indicates some statistical relationship between the powerful electro-magnetic fields generated by power lines and cancer clusters, they warn that the electric lines that provide so many benefits may also carry risks.

The evidence, however, is inconclusive. Many within the scientific community have attacked the research done on this subject to date as "junk science" and accused environmentalists of creating undue alarm. They point out that almost all the studies to date have involved very small patient popu­lations and produced results that fall well within statistical margins of error. They insist that no one has suggested a plausible biological mechanism by which EMF could cause cancer.

All of this uncertainty leaves the utility industry in an unenviable position. With the scientific jury still out, the industry must weigh the possibility of enormous legal exposure if future research does show a connection against the huge cost of eliminating a phenomenon that may prove harmless, and mounting public suspicion until a definitive answer is found.

In many ways, the question facing deci­sion-makers at American utilities is one of the central questions of risk manage ment: What is the right thing to do when sci­entific evidence is inconclusive?

The answer for the majority of utilities has been a policy known as "prudent avoidance." It involves adopting a number of simple mea­sures that incur little expense and result in incremental improvements in safety. It is a policy that seems to please no-one and that may, ultimately, have little benefit in either legal or reputational terms.

According to Richard Claeys, director of corporate communications for the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, a research organization funded by the utilities industry, the evolution of the EMF issue par­allels the classic "model" of the evolution of a major public policy debate.

In the late `70s, articles began to appear in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, follow­ing preliminary research by Soviet scientists and an investigation in Denver that appar­ently showed a link between childhood leukemia rates and large overhead power lines, and by the early '80s they had found their way into the microwave and specialty trade press.

The publication of research by University of North Carolina professor David Safitz in November 1986 brought the issue into the utility trade press. By mid-1987, it was a mainstream concern, attracting coverage in The Wall Street journal and The New York Times. The publication of a three part New Yorker series in 1989 fueled another wave of interest, and today the issue has spread to regional press, electronic media and even television movies of the week.

In last year's CBS movie about the Amy Fisher Joey Buttafucco case, one character explained the young protagonist's bizarre behavior by reference to the EMF issue: "It's the wires. The wires aren't buried under­ground, so it fries some people's brains." And that came just a couple of months after an

Eddie Murphy movie, The Distinguished Gentleman, had its hero battling an unscrupu­lous utility attempting to cover-up cancer clusters under its power lines.

EMIT may not yet be at the top of the national agenda, but it has entered into the popular culture, and attracted a growing activist movement. While the larger environ­mental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have yet to proactively campaign against EMF, many smaller com­munity-based groups have formed to address the issue.

"This issue is a sleeping giant," says Sebia Hawkins of Greenpeace, which has not yet made EMF a priority but is watching the recent flurry of activity with growing interest. "It's an enormous issue with enormous impli­cations."

Organized opposition began in 1987, when a group called Citizens Against Overhead Power Lines Inc. was formed in Seattle and succeeded in preventing Seattle City Light from constructing a pair of 230,000 volt lines on Route 509. Two years later, Resident Against Giant Electric (RAGE) was formed in New Jersey and forced Jersey Central Power & Light to abandon plans to con­struct similar transmission lines in Monmouth County.

There is even a Mothers Against Commonwealth Edison (MACE) organiza­tion in Illinois, battling to prevent that com­pany from constructing new power lines and substations near schools and residential neighborhoods.

The issue has expanded to the point that a survey by the Public Utility Commission of Texas last year found 201 challenges to utility company projects around the U.S. in which EMF was an issue.

The legal exposure of utilities would appear to be expanding also.

As early as 1985, a jury in Houston found "clear and convincing evidence" of potential power line health hazards, and awarded dam­ages to a school district that brought suit against the Houston Lighting & Power Co. for installing a high voltage transmission line on school property. The utility later removed the line at a cost of more than $8 million.

In 1988, the residents of nearly 100 homes next to a power-line right-of-way in Florida brought a class action lawsuit against Florida Power & Light Co. in an effort to obtain damages for reduced property values, and to prevent the utility from adding more power lines to the right-of-way. After three years, an out-of-court settlement was reached and con­struction of the additional lines was post­poned.

In February of this year, the parents of a five-year-old kidney cancer victim filed suit against San Diego Gas & Electric, which is also being sued by homeowners who claim power lines lowered their property values. Pacific Gas & Electric in northern California faces similar cancer and property value suits.

Those representing the utility companies are clearly concerned.

Tom Watson, a Washington attorney whose firm has represented about 140 utilities in EMF related cases, says his EMF work has tripled in the past five years and warns that if utilities start losing "You'll see a very substantial increase in litigation, and that could be an understate­ment." Fortunately for the industry, Watson says he has not lost a case yet.

Over the past ten years, as community opposition has grown and legal challenges have become more common, industry spending to research the health implications of electro-magnetic fields has increased at a rapid pace. In 1985, utilities were spending about $1.5 million to exam ine the issue; today, the figure is in excess of $10 million. Even so, the matter remains unresolved.

"Evidence about the risk, since it involves complex relationships between basic cell science and the pursuit of `associ­ations' inherent in the inexact science of epidemiology, is still being determined," says Claeys. In the meantime, he acknowl­edges, "Attempts to quantify the risk do little to allay concern."

In 1987 a study by experts at Hunter College and Columbia University Medical Center showed that magnetic fields similar to those given off by power lines could alter RNA transcription—the way genetic instructions are carried out in organisms—and possibly increase the production of proteins found in tumor cells. Then, in 1989, the International Journal of Epidemiology published a study claiming that children whose fathers were electri­cians were three and a half times more likely to develop tumors of the central ner­vous system than other children.

But the most compelling evidence of a real problem, at least as far as the indus­try's critics are concerned, comes from a recent study in Sweden. In September, 1992, officials of that country's National Board for Industrial & Technical Development for­ mally announced that the government intended to "act on the assumption that there is a connection between exposure to power frequency magnetic fields and cancer, in par­ticular childhood cancer."

The new Swedish policy was the result of two epidemiological studies—one of households located close to power lines, the other of utility employees—that apparently found a dose-response rela­tionship between magnetic field expo­sure and the occur­rence of childhood leukemia.

Utilities point to flaws in the Swedish study. Northeast Utilities of New York dis­tributes a paper prepared by Bailey Research Associates to consumers who inquire about EMF. The paper cites several weaknesses of the Swedish study, including the small number of cases. In the 26 years covered by the study, 38 cases of chidhood leukemia occurred, 27 of which were in homes not exposed to EMF.

Says Professor David Savitz, author of some of the most oft-quoted research into EMF: "Using standard levels for scientific proof, the argument that these fields cause cancer, reproductive damage, or other health effects falls far short of convincing. From the perspective of public health protection, how­ever, one might ask whether the suggestions of health effects raised in some studies have been convincingly negated by superior research. The answer is that they clearly have not."

Robert Park, of the American Physical Society, has been one of the most vocal critics of the research purporting to show a link between power line EMFs and cancer, and of the general climate of fear created by what many scientists regard as scientific illiteracy.

"The market for fear has never been better," says Park. "The sky rains acid; the ocean regurgitates filth from our cities; toxic fumes percolate up from forgotten waste dumps beneath our homes; lead is in our water and alar on our apples. And now we are told that the fields produced by ordinary elec­tricity may be addling our brains and induc­ing electricity in our children."

Park points out that despite the perception of many members of the public that tech­nologies of all kinds pose greater health risks than ever before, life expectancy in the United States has nearly doubled since the Industrial Revolution, and the increase has been most rapid since the discovery of electricity.

Other researchers, however, point to evi­dence that there had been a consistent increase in childhood leukemia rates since the 1930s. The National Cancer Institute in 1991 released a report saying there had been unexplained increases of nearly 25% in childhood leukemia and more than 30% in childhood brain cancer in recent years.

Says Paul Brodeur, author of the recent book The Great Power Line Cover-Up: "All the huffing and puffing by the utilities is designed to obscure the fact that never in history has as much evidence of the carcinogenicity of any agent as had by then bee accumulated about the cancer-producing potential of power line magnetic field been subsequently demonstrated to l invalid and the agent in question found be benign."

Government and public health officials meanwhile, are adopting the same wait-and-see approach as industry.

In March 1990, a draft Environmental Protection Agency report, entitled Evaluation of the Potent Carcinogenicity of Electromagnetic Fields found its way into the hands of Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News. Chief among the conclusions was one specifying that power line EMFs should be classified as a "probable" human carcinogen. The paragraph making that recommendation was ordered removed by the director of the agency's Office of Health and Environmental Assessment.

In spite of the deletion, the report claimed that five of six case-control studies published in peer review medical literature showed that children living in homes near power lines were developing cancer more readily than children who did not live near power lines. The researchers further declared that a "consistently repeated pattern of leukemia, nervous system cancer and lymphoma in the childhood studies" suggested a "causal link" between the develop­ment of such problems and the exposure of children to EMF.

The final paragraph of the revised Summary and Conclusions section of the report contained this sentence: "With our current understand­ing, we can identify 60Hz magnetic fields from power lines and perhaps other sources in the home as a possible, but not proven, cause of cancer in people."

However, activist and author Paul Brodeur charges that when the report was released, most newspapers did not describe its findings in detail but relied instead upon the assess­ments of officials like William Farland, who was responsible for the deletion discussed above and who attempted to downplay the power-line hazard.

"We are only saying that we are seeing a link that may be significant," Farland told The New York Times. "The real message we want to send is that this information should not cause undue alarm but does suggest the need for additional research."

Further criticism of the EPA's conduct centered around the fact that an early copy of the report was apparently released to Crowell & Moring, a Washington lobbying firm that represented several utility company clients. Those clients were allowed to schedule public comment on the issue at Congressional hearings before notice of the hearings appaeared in the Federal Register.

"The very tradition of scientific peer review is founded on the notion that truth will emerge from rigorous debate and a close examination of all viewpoints," said a letter to the EPA from Representatives Brown, Scheuer and Pallone. "To give a party with such clear vested interests as Crowell & Morin the power to arrange testimony before the Science Advisory Board is totally contrary to this tradition."

Brodeur and others charge that govern­ment has been slow to react to mounting sci­entific evidence. Even the media has been uncharacteristically subdued on this subject, concerned perhaps at the possibility of being hoodwinked as it was by environmental activists warning of the health risk posed by alar in apples.

Nevertheless, EMF is clearly an issue that will stir more debate, generate more head­lines and cause more headaches for utility industry public relations professionals over the next few years. It is also an issue that illus­trates many of the most important precepts of risk management theory.

For example, the EMF issue fits perfectly the risk = hazard + outrage equation formu­lated by Peter Sandman at Rutgers University.

Says Sandman: "If you make a list of envi­ronmental health risks in order of how many people they kill each year, and then list them again in order of how alarming they are to the general public, the two lists will be very different. Risk managers often deduce from this that the public per­ception of risk is ignorant or irrational. But a better way to conceptualize the problem is that the public defines risk more broadly than the risk assessment profession. Call the death rate `hazard'; call everything else that the public considers part of the risk `outrage'."

Sandman lists 12 factors that create outrage over an issue (see sidebar.) In the EMF case, it is clear that many of these factors apply: most people have not assumed the risk of EMF vol­untarily (which is to say they were not apprised of the risk before buying their homes); EMF is industrial, it is exotic (people do not under­stand the science of electricity), it is memo­rable, it is controlled by others, it is unfair. And in many cases, the infor­mation people receive comes from untrustworthy sources, and there is a feeling that the process is unresponsive.

As in many risk manage­ment challenges, control is a central issue in the debate over EMF. When consumers feel they have control over an issue, their outrage at the risk to which they are subjected decreases substantially. Thus driving is perceived to be a lesser risk than flying; and smoking provokes less out­rage than pesticides sprayed on food products.

EMF is generally felt to be a force over which consumers have little control. In fact, industry argues, that is not the case. EMIT exposure can come from many sources within people's control, and conscious choices about seating, location and duration of appliance use, even the prox­imity of an electric alarm clock to one's bed, can have a dramatic impact on one's level of exposure.

One of the industry's problems, however, is that its historic record on environmental concerns does not add to its credibility. For years, utilities fought conservation measures that many now find profitable, and for over a decade they denied that pollution from coal fired generating sta­tions added to acid rain.

Moreover, the sci­entific process is not able to respond swiftly to the demand for more information.

"A new and unre­solved risk brings with it rippling waves of curiosity and concern," says Richard Claeys. "In this case, however, the search for conclusive answers will be long and complex. We will not be able to satisfy the normal appetite of a concerned public for conclusive information, supported by credible evidence."

Until conclusive information is available, the industry clearly cannot assume a business­as-usual attitude. The public relations and legal pressures for action are becoming more intense. Yet most utilities hold to the line that any action at this time—particularly any action that would result in significant increases in the cost of electricity to con­sumers—would be precipitous.

"This is a double-edged sword," says Michael Main, EMF risk manager for Puget Sound Power & Light. "While the company would clearly be legally and ethically culpable if it ignored scientific evidence of a genuine hazard, "if you spend a lot of money and there's no problem, the shareholders take it in the neck and you have the utility commis­sion to answer to."

The policy most utilities espouse, known as "prudent avoidance", was first advocated by Dr Granger Morgan, head of the depart­ment of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. He identifies three available options:

"Conclude that there is not yet enough to warrant any action. Don't make any changes in the way we do things until new research tells us clearly whether there is a risk, and if so, how big it is."

“Conclude that there is some basis for concern. Adopt a position of `prudent avoid­ance,' which means limiting exposures that can be avoided with small investments of money and effort. Don't do anything drastic or expensive until research provides a clearer picture of whether there is any risk and, if there is, how big it is."

"Conclude that we have a real problem and spend some serious time and money on an aggressive program of limiting field expo­sures now, while recognizing that we may eventually learn that some or all of this effort and money has been wasted, either because it wasn't needed or we spent it the wrong way because we didn't understand the science well enough to spend it effectively."

Many utility industry execu­tives favor the first course: do nothing. They are concerned, apparently, that even minor adjustments in the way they do business might lend credibility to a theory they consider absurd, and might therefore lead to greater panic than cur­rently exists.

This view may be sincerely held. It is not, however, sensi­ble. If some connection between EMF and cancer is shown—and the possibility, however remote, does exist—the industry would be vilified in the media and punished in the courts with enormous sever­ity. Utilities only need to look at the experience of asbestos manufacturers and the image of the tobacco industry to see how their future might look. Even if the link between EMF and cancer is later disproved, a "do nothing" strategy does nothing to allay public concern in the short-term. As the Sandman model indi­cates, the public is more alarmed when industry appears unre­sponsive to its con­cerns. Simply put, inaction creates the impression that industry does not care about the public's fears.

The third option—the immediate invest­ment of vast financial resources in remedia­tion—is not one the industry is prepared to accept. The cost would be staggering, and the action would likely be interpreted by plain­tiffs' attorneys as an admission that there is a problem, opening the floodgates to a torrent of new suits.

Burying existing power lines, experts say, could cost up to 20 times more than the cur­rent method of hanging them from pylons. When Pennsylvania Power & Light studied the cost of curbing EMF from the utility's 3,700 miles of overhead lines, the figure it came up with was in excess of $600 million. Multiply that by the number of utilities in the U.S. and its clear that the economic implica­tions of wholesale change are enormous. Wholesale change would increase the cost of electricity by several percentage points.

Granger Morgan therefore suggests the middle course—"prudent avoidance"—as the wisest and industry, for the most part, appears to concur.

Morgan's advice: "If you are buying a new home it might be prudent to consider the location of distri­bution and transmission lines as one of the many things you consider. However, remem­ber that even if fields are ultimately demon­strated to pose a health risk, things like traffic patterns in the streets and radon levels in the house are likely to be more important for you overall safety."

Such advice has been at the heart of most of the communications materials developed by the utilities over the past several years.

EPRI's strategy has been prepare member utilities to deal with the issue at the local level, says Claeys, providing them with video­tapes, background briefings, reprinted articles and speakers kits to enable them to address the issue in their own communities. The Institute has also broadened its network of informed spokespeople to include public health officials and regionally recognized sci­entists, and tried to frame EMF as a broader issue than one of power line emissions.

"While much EMF concern has involved power line exposure, it is also clear that household wiring, appliances, office equipment and power tolls all have a relation­ship to this phenome­non," says Dick Claeys. "Accordingly, while the electric power industry is supporting much of the current research, we continue to encourage other institutions to become involved and to participate in the public dialogue."

There have been differences in the level of proactivity. Public Service Electric & Gas of Newark placed ads in local newspapers acknowledging that there are concerns about EMF and encouraging readers to write for more information. General manager of communications Robert Mnkead told The Wall Street journal: "You can't stop people com­plaining about transmission lines and substa­tions, but you can help them understand."

Many utilities, including Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, make their technicians available to visit concerned residents in their homes and workplaces and test for EMF.

"Very often we will find that the highest levels of electro-magnetic fields do not come from power lines, but from other sources," says vp corporate communications Lewis Phelps. "In some schools, for example, the strongest EMFs come from lighting, and we can find ways to help them minimize that risk."

Other companies have been less respon­sive. Consolidated Edison of New York, for example, has refused to do home measure­ments, because "we don't know what they mean," according to one spokesman.

And some utilities define "prudent avoid­ance" more broadly. A handful have invested quite heavily in reconfiguring power lines to avoid residential areas and schools. Hawaiin Electric Industries, for example, spent about $5 million rerouting lines after the issue arose in an attempt to avoid lawsuits.

Others are burying lines and even offering to buy up homes along power line routes to ease public anxiety, though that can create problems of its own. Dick Claeys cites a Canadian utility that made a well-intentioned offer to purchase homes from residents close to a new transmission lines. Instead of calm­ing public concern, the gesture actually cre­ated a panic that resulted in a torrent of front-page headlines about the problem and subsequent legal actions.

In addition to prudent avoidance activities, there is a substantial educational effort under way, most of it stressing what the scientific community, the utilities, and the environ­mental movement

don't know about EMF, rather than what they do. In addi­tion, the utilities emphasize the com­mitment they have made to additional research.

S o u t h e r n California Edison mails out a two-page brochure to customers who requested information on EMF, telling them that the company was "working with the California Department of Health and other government agencies to resolve your concern and share all new information as it is developed" and quoting a 1989 report issued by the Department of Health Services and the California Public Utilities Commission recommending that the state "take no action at present to regulate" on EMF because "such actions are pre­mature given current scientific understanding of this public health issue."

The utility has also added a new dimension to its Customer Technology Application Center in Irwindale, designed to educate consumers and public policy makers about how electricity works. A new exhibit explains EMF and includes demonstrations that illustrate how rapidly fields decline in strength as one moves further and further away from the source, as well as comparing EMF from power lines to the electro-magnetic emanations from household appliances.

"A lot of people in the public policy arena are not experts in electricity and how it works," says Paul Allen of Ogilvy Adams & Rinehart, which works with the utility on a number of issues. "This helps them understand some of the technical issues. We have also made the center available to sci­entific researchers. It serves as a teaching facil­ity for researchers too."

While the industry is spending millions of dollars on communications efforts of this kind, activists are not impressed. Says Paul Brodeur: "There is a deliberate attempt by utilities to treat EMF not as a medical prob­lem but as a public relations problem that can be explained away with a brochure."

There are criticisms of many of the indi­vidual communications vehicles too. EPRI materials have, for example, included dia­grams of various sources of electromag­netic fields that people might come into con­tact with in the course of an average day. Those diagrams indi­cate that magnetic fields close to household appliances are far stronger than those that emanate from power lines.

Environmentalists claim that such materi­als fail to take into account that the fields from almost all such appliances fall off sharply within a few inches of their source, and that since people rarely stay close to hairdriers, toasters and vacuum cleaners for eight hours a day, they cannot possibly be subjected to the same kind of long-term exposure as a child attending a school situated within a few feet of a high-current feeder line.

Residents in Fresno, meanwhile, report a meeting at which a spokesperson for PG&E "pulled a hair dryer out of a suitcase and tried to tell us that the magnetic fields it gave off would be greater than those given off by transmission lines. At that point, people in the audience reminded her that nobody holds a hair dryer to his head for 24 hours at a time, and that she should know better than to make such a statement."

Ultimately, however, the truly important question is whether the "prudent avoidance" strategy has any real benefits to industry. Certainly, should researchers find more evi­dence of a connection between EMF and cancer-related illnesses, it seems unlikely that the public will see prudent avoidance as any more than a fig leaf.

"A defense claiming that the medical and scientific evidence is inconclusive may well prevail in some of the early lawsuits, just as a 

similar defense prevailed 20 years ago in some of the early asbestos trials," Paul Brodeur acknowledges. "The utilities would do well to remember, however, that the defense of inconclusivity proved to be a sand castle in the path of a rising tide of proof that asbestos was extremely dangerous to inhale."

Many risk management experts suggest that rather than adopting a doctrine such as prudent avoidance more or less unilaterally, a better long-term strat­egy would rely on a process through which a decision on how to proceed could be made not by the utilities alone, but by a consen­sus-building process.

"You can't change the science, whatever it, says," says Mary Woodell, senior prin cipal of Washington's CMRC & Co., advi­sors in controversy management and risk communications. "But the process has to be market driven. Too often, corporations and researchers work in a scientific ivory tower when they should be working in the market. Scientists dismiss an issue like EMF because they think it's stupid. They have to realize it doesn't matter how stupid it is, it's preventing them getting where they want to go."

There are various ways in which a collabo­rative process might work in this case. Kenneth Kearns, a principal in Boston's Kearns & West, a communications counsel­ing firm with several utility clients, suggests that the most productive role for collabora­tive process in EMF debate might be in guid­ing the research.

"There's a great deal of dispute over the data in this case," says Kearns.

Indeed, one of the biggest credibility prob­lems the utility industry has is that most of the research currently being conducted is financed by industry money. Industry explains this phenomenon by pointing out that it alone has the financial resources to do what needs to be done, and argues that rep­utable scientists are not going to risk their reputations by twisting their findings to meet the objectives of their sponsors.

"To alleviate that problem, industry can form a collaborative team to oversee the research," says Kearns. "It could include rep­resentatives of industry, government, health care, environmental and consumer groups. At least that way when the results of the research are released they have some credibility."

Jan van Meter, evp and general manager of the New York office of Fleishman-Hillard, and an expert in risk management, agrees. "Industry has to be willing to surrender control of this issue to

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