Lentis/Power Lines and Public Health

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Introduction[edit]

The electrical current travelling through power lines creates a broad electromagnetic field (EMF). Beginning in the late 1970’s, researchers found correlation between proximity to power line EMF’s and increased likelihood of developing cancer[1], stirring public concern about potential danger from power lines. These early studies linking power lines to health problems were discredited[2][3]; however, substantial public alarm remains. The ongoing debate shows the importance of public perception, illuminates research weaknesses, and demonstrates hidden agendas.

Initial Study[edit]

In 1979, Nancy Wertheimer and Ed Leeper conducted a study of “the relation between electrical wiring configurations and childhood cancer" in Colorado. They studied wire thickness and proximity of wires to homes to assess which homes were exposed to “high-current configurations”. Only children that had died of cancer were included in the study. The results of the study suggested that “the homes of children who developed cancer were found more often near electric lines carrying high currents”[1]. Wertheimer and Leeper noted that the reason for this relationship is “uncertain.”

This study was discredited later on. Martha Linet of the National Cancer Institute noted that the study contained proxy estimates of EMF strength that caused “uncertainties about the relation, if any, between childhood leukemia and exposure to magnetic fields”[4]. Linet remarks that the 1979 study’s use of a “power-line classification scheme” or “wire-coding” as a surrogate for electromagnetic field strength is “inconsistent”[4]. Linet’s work was one of many studies challenging Wertheimer and Leeper’s study. Despite contentions about the study, it was still the starting point for the anti-EMF movement and was cited for years to come in the debate.

Counter Research[edit]

A host of research was performed in response to the 1979 study, presenting contrary evidence to what Wertheimer and Leeper found. In 1988, a study by David Savitz investigating “the relation between residential exposure to magnetic fields and the development of childhood cancer,” used the same wire code scheme as the Wertheimer-Leeper study (“Wertheimer-Leeper scheme”), and found that “a modest association for childhood cancer and magnetic fields measured under low power conditions was observed whereas no association for magnetic fields measured under high power conditions was found” and that “electric fields were not related to childhood cancer”[5]. Martha Linet’s 1997 study that discredited the Wertheimer-Leeper study concluded that “little evidence that living in homes characterized by high measured time-weighted average magnetic-field levels or by the highest wire-code category increases the risk” of cancer in children[4]. Another study performed in England 1989 to “investigate the association between leukaemia and residence near electricity transmission equipment”[6] found that for the 0.6% of the subjects that lived within 100 meters of a powerline, “a statistically non-significant evaluated relative risk for leukemia was observed”. Over 40% of the subjects lived within 100 meters of an “electrical substantiation” and “no increased risk of leukemia was observed for this group”[6]. An analysis of children up to age 18 was done, which “showed a non-significant increased relative risk”[6]. The WHO also convened a task force in 2005 to “assess any risks to health that might exist from exposure to ELF electric and magnetic fields in the frequency range >0 to 100,000 Hz (100 kHz)”[2]. The task force concluded that “there are no substantive health issues related to ELF electric fields at levels generally encountered by members of the public”[2].

Proliferation of Public Fear[edit]

Despite significant public debate surrounding the dangers of electromagnetic fields, fear continues to spread as a result of Wertheimer and Leeper’s initial study. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, other work emerged that expanded upon the original study [7]. Relevant expert communities conclude no evidence correlating adverse health effects and electromagnetic fields exists. Controversy among the public still remains. A number of books, articles and publications contribute to this skepticism.

Paul Brodeur[edit]

Paul Brodeur (born May 16, 1931) is an investigative journalist and author. After nearly 20 years writing about the dangers of asbestos, Brodeur began researching EMFs. In 1989, The New Yorker published three of Brodeur’s articles about the dangers of electromagnetic fields. They appeared in the section Annals of Radiation and described his research about power lines, video display terminals, electrically heated beds, blankets, and other electronic devices.

Brodeur continued his career by publishing the novels Currents of Death (1989) and The Great Power-Line Cover-Up: How the Utilities and Government Are Trying to Hide the Cancer Hazard Posed by Electromagnetic Fields (1993). In both, Brodeur disputes the validity of existing research and warns about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation. In The Great Power-Line Cover-Up, he argues the government and power industry have suppressed investigation of these claims.

The work of Brodeur contributed to the proliferation of public fear about potential hazards of EMFs[8]. His articles and novels have motivated investigations into power lines in public spaces, including those near Independence Elementary School[8] in Chicago, IL and Louis N. Slater Elementary School in Fresno, CA[9].

His career as a science author has been met with consistent criticism since the New Yorker’s release in 1989. Physicist, technoscience observer and author, Robert Park, wrote that Brodeur’s series “has produced an epidemic of electrophobia.”[1] Park released another statement in 2010 calling Brodeur “a crackpot” and his articles “hopelessly misinformed.”[1] The National Cancer Institute has asserted there is “no significant increase” in Cancer among people who live near power lines and that “no mechanism by which ELF-EMFs... could cause cancer has been identified.”[4]

Other Published Works[edit]

Research about the dangers of EMFs and power lines is still underway. Anders Ahlbom and Maria Feychting released a 1993 study citing a possible association between magnetic field and childhood cancer in Sweden.[10] J.H. Olsen claimed a “significant association” between “all major types of childhood cancer combined and exposure to magnetic fields” in his 1993 study[11]. Verkasalo and his colleagues documented that “a statistically significant excess of nervous system tumours was found” among Finnish boys exposed to magnetic fields[12]. In 1997 and 1998, two more studies emerged about the association between power lines and childhood cancer.[13]

Multiple organizations, including the National Cancer Institute and World Health Organizations have conducted counter studies[2]. Individual researchers have discredited the studies from the 1990s. Ahlbom himself was part of a 2000 study that pooled all existing research, including his own, and claimed no concrete evidence exists about the association between EMFs and cancer. Many of the studies had limited sample sizes or were subject to sampling bias[4].

Consequences of Public Fear[edit]

Independence Elementary School[edit]

Brodeur's original article stated “that high levels of EMFs had been measured in classrooms on the east side of Independence school”[8]. Brodeur’s article caused parents to worry about students’ health at the suburban, Illinois elementary school. To address the parents’ concerns, the school district formed an “EMF task force”[8]. The task force included representatives from the school’s parents and members of the scientific community: oncologists, lab technicians, environmentalists, and agents from the American Cancer Society[8].

The task force did not find any proof that EMF’s from the nearby power lines were causing any of the claimed health effects[8]. Despite the research disproving Brodeur’s claims, the debate resulted in “a two-year struggle”[8]. Many participants harbored a “personal discomfort over the closeness of power lines,” and their perception of them as a threat led them to fight against their proximity to the school, despite contradictory research[8] .

The continued concern about power lines, however, cannot be written off as an irrational distrust of science. Many parents suspected the task force’s findings, believing that the study was influenced by "corporate and government interests,” not solely by scientific ambition[8]. This accusation is not novel. Health science research at the University of South Carolina was suspected of being influenced by Coca Cola to remove the unhealthy stigma of its products[14]. And, a 2018 report in the British Medical Journal suggests that US dietary guidelines are out of date due to industry biases[15].

Uncertainties Remain: Obstacles to Broadening Research Findings[edit]

In a summary of current research, the American Physical Society (APS) showed “no consistent, significant link between cancer and power line fields”[16]. As the APS acknowledges, however, it is “impossible to prove that no deleterious health effects occur from exposure to any environmental factor”[16].

The research must be done case by case, so it is impossible to eliminate the possibility that EMF’s have no health effects without testing every possible health effect. For the same reason, the World Health Organization admits that “uncertainties remain” about EMF dangers, even though “no major public health risks have emerged from several decades of EMF research”[2]. Thus, opponents of power lines and EMF exposure can cling to their position because research cannot completely eliminate the possibility of EMF’s causing health problems.

Similarly, the opponents of water fluoridation in a small New England town cited the few experts who questioned the safety of fluoride, and asked “since the experts disagree, should we not wait?”[17]. The critics of fluoride used these few dissenting viewpoints to create a sense of disagreement in the scientific community and instill doubt about the scientific results among the town’s citizens. This tactic highlights the same issue of research. Experiments “can never achieve complete certainty” or provide “absolute assurance for what will take place in the future,” so critics can hold on to their skepticism[17].

The same tactic is often used by climate change skeptics. Despite 97% of climate scientists agreeing that climate change is caused by humans, skeptics often point to the other 3% of researchers to highlight “continued scientific disagreement,” which justifies their doubt[18].

EMF Protection Products[edit]

Controversy surrounding the dangers of EMFs and power lines led to the development of products to protect against EMF exposure. They range from pendants to computer, cell phone, bedding, wiring, and “dirty” electricity shielding devices[19]. Amazon.com returns more than 3,000 results when “EMF Protection” is searched. Some products, like the Swiss Shield EMF Protection Fabric, cost nearly $1,000. The Federal Trade Commission has issued warnings about radiation protections scams, and accused companies of “preying on concerned people.” According to their website, “there is no significant proof that so-called shields significantly reduce exposure from these electromagnetic emissions,” [20] alluding that these companies latent function is to make a profit, despite their manifest function of providing protection.

Conclusion[edit]

The debate that has sprung up around EMF’s illuminates the concept of falsifiability and how it can present a problem to civil discourse. Falsifiability is “the capacity of some proposition, statement, theory or hypothesis to be proven wrong”[21]. Therefore, a concept is not falsifiable if it cannot be disproven without reasonable doubt. Even if it was discredited because of faulty proxy estimates, opponents of EMF’s used the fact that a correlation was found in the Wertheimer-Leeper study to build their case. Other studies couldn’t actually disprove the findings in 1979, and could not prove EMF opponents wrong when they pointed to the study.

The Thomas Theorem states that “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”[22], which means that the interpretation of a situation causes the action. This concept is very applicable to the EMF debate. Even though counter-research suggested that EMF’s do not cause cancer, the perception of power lines and EMF’s as dangerous led people to try and distance themselves from power lines.


  1. a b c d Wertheimer, N., & Leeper, E. (1979). Electrical Wiring Configurations and Childhood Cancer. American Journal of Epidemiology,109(3), 273-284.  https://academic.oup.com/aje. Invalid <ref> tag; name ":4" defined multiple times with different content
  2. a b c d e WHO (2016). World Health Organization. Electromagnetic fields and public health. (2016, August 04).  https://www.who.int/peh-emf/publications/facts/fs322/en/
  3. Steven T. Corneliussen Steven T. Corneliussen. (2014, July 11). Electromagnetic fields generate a quarter-century of health worries.  https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.5.8056/full/
  4. a b c d e Linet, M. S. (1997). Residential Exposure to Magnetic Fields and Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in Children. The New England Journal of Medicine,337, 1-8.  https://www.nejm.org. Invalid <ref> tag; name ":5" defined multiple times with different content
  5. Savitz, DA. (1988). Case-control study of childhood cancer and exposure to 60-Hz magnetic fields. American Journal of Epidemiology,128(1), 21-38.  https://academic.oup.com/aje.
  6. a b c Coleman, MP. (1989). Leukaemia and residence near electricity transmission equipment: A case-control study. The British Journal of Cancer,60(5), 793-798.  https://www.nature.com/articles/bjc1989362.
  7. Feychting, M. and Ahlbom, A. (1993) Magnetic Fields and Cancer in Children Living near Swedish High-Voltage Power Lines. American Journal of Epidemiology, 138, 467-481
  8. a b c d e f g h i Gregory, T. (1992, December 23). Tensions Persist Over Power Lines Near Grade Schools. Chicago Tribune. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1992-12-23-9204260713-story.html
  9. Brodeur, P. (1992, December 7). The Cancer At Slater School. New Yorker.  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1992/12/0les7/the-cancer-at-slater-school
  10. Feychting, M. and Ahlbom, A. (1993) Magnetic Fields and Cancer in Children Living near Swedish High-Voltage Power Lines. American Journal of Epidemiology, 138, 467-481
  11. Feychting, M. and Ahlbom, A. (1993) Magnetic Fields and Cancer in Children Living near Swedish High-Voltage Power Lines. American Journal of Epidemiology, 138, 467-481
  12. Verkasalo PK, Pukkala E, Hongisto MY, Valjus JE, Järvinen PJ Heikkilä PV and Koskenvuo M (1993) Risk of cancer in Finnish children living close to power lines. British Medical Journal 307: 895–899
  13. Tynes T and Haldorsen T (1997) Electromagnetic fields and cancer in children residing near Norwegian high-voltage power lines. American Journal of Epidemiology 145: 219–226
  14. Firger, J. (2015 Aug, 8) Big Beverage Still Wants You to Think Soft Drinks are Healthy. Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/big-beverage-still-wants-you-think-soft-drinks-are-healthy-362126
  15. Mozaffarian, D., Mayer, J. (2018 March) Dietary Guidelines and Health -- Is Nutrition Science up to the Task? British Medical Journal. https://www.bmj.com/content/360/bmj.k822.full.
  16. a b Zeman, G. Health Risks Associated with Living Near High-Voltage Power Lines. HPS.org. https://hps.org/hpspublications/articles/powerlines.html.
  17. a b Hutchison, J. (1953 Nov) Small Town Fluoridation Fight. The Scientific Monthly (77). https://www.jstor.org/stable/21169?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.
  18. Cook, J. (2016 Oct.) Countering Climate Science Denial and Communicating Scientific Consensus. Oxford Research Encyclopedias. http://oxfordre.com/climatescience/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228620-e-314
  19. Less EMF from http://www.lessemf.com/emf-shie.html
  20. Federal Trade Commission - Cell Phone Radiation Scams. (2018, March 13).  https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0109-cell-phone-radiation-scams
  21. Rouse, M. (n.d.). What is falsifiability? - Definition from WhatIs.com.  https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/falsifiability
  22. Merton, R. K. (1995). "The Thomas Theorem and the Matthew Effect" Social Forces. 74 (2): 379–422. doi:10.1093/sf/74.2.379. JSTOR 2580486