Volume 24, Number 4 October 1995
Power Line Fields and Health
The article by David Hafemeister and the APS Statement did a good job of summarizing the lack of scientific evidence for concern. However both articles left the impression that huge amounts of money were being spent solely to mitigate potential EMF effects. I believe this to be incorrect.
Older homes and urban areas are crisscrossed by power lines. In many cities most utility services have been relegated to alleys in the back. But if one looks at newer subdivisions and shopping centers of suburban America, utility poles are absent. Despite the subjective nature of aesthetics, almost everyone agrees that power lines are unsightly. In the absence of any concerns whatsoever about EMF, disputes about the costs and value of placing power lines underground should be expected.
I live near Fermilab, where legend has it that first lab director and architect Bob Wilson was responsible for some aesthetically designed power lines. On one side of Fermilab, near a large housing development, there have been conventional high voltage power lines for years without controversy. Recent plans to put new lower voltage power lines along a nearby bike trail have generated a brouhaha similar to those mentioned in Hafemeister's article. This has been accompanied by loud public concern over EMF and calls for prudent avoidance. It is human nature to embrace arguments which support a position already taken. In a dispute such as the one about power lines, much of the public will embrace pseudo-scientific arguments as quickly as arguments based on science. As scientists, we have a role to help educate the public so they can separate the two.
But scientists also must not use bad economic arguments. If the resolution of the issue regarding power lines along bike path leads to a more costly solution, I would attribute those costs, along with Bob Wilson's poles, to aesthetic and land use concerns, and not to fear about EMF. Likewise, I suspect that the $1-3B estimated cost attributed to EMF is a gross overestimate and mostly includes the cost of reducing visual pollution due to power lines across the USA.
I take issue with David Hafemeister's remarks (July 1995, pp. 9-11) concerning moneys spent on emf research. By concentrating on risk management and its catchy derivative, "prudent avoidance," he and the APS are suggesting that the potential billion dollar costs of mitigation are somehow ties to the orders-of-magnitude smaller research costs. These are quite separate issues. One cannot attack the research in this area through the back door of mitigation.
Furthermore, it is simplistic to assume that reducing research funds will have any effect on the public's concerns. In fact there is a good case for just the opposite. Outcries of "cover-up" are often heard when environmental concerns do not get a proper hearing.
Hafemeister presents a lop-sided version of the epidemiological evidence. Yes, it is true that any one study carries considerable error. However, is this not the reason why measurements are repeated? Since the first report in 1979 dealing with ELF magnetic fields and childhood leukemia there has been a remarkable narrowing of the mean odds ratio as new reports have been added, the complete set tending towards an approximate value of two. This data is graphically summarized, for example, in the April 1994 issue of the British journal Engineering Science and Education, in an article by Swanson and Renew, engineers with the National Grid in England who are by no means disposed to sounding unnecessary alarms. Indeed, most of the people I know in the electric power industry now voice similar opinions, that the epidemiological studies are simply too consistent to be ignored.
Further, granted that there is no convincing credible biophysical mechanism to support the epidemiological evidence, one cannot simply put aside the many experimental reports connecting weak ELF magnetic fields to altered physiological responses. I wonder at any reading of the literature which asserts that there have been no replicable findings.
Hafemeister and the APS question the admissibility of the epidemiological data mainly on the basis that no credible mechanism exits to explain the results. However, there is likewise no credible mechanism yet available to explain the reports on altered cellular responses. If ELF fields that are presumed to be ineffective can somehow alter cell response then why should similar fields be precluded from affecting other biological events? Paraphrasing Bronowski, what we should fear most is the replacement of knowledge by certainty.
It is disheartening to see how quickly science becomes lost in this debate. Those of us actively pursuing research in the ELF area understand that a much larger question is involved, that cancer is just one of many endpoints. There are behavioral effects in rats due to weak low-frequency magnetic fields, replicated in a number of laboratories. Successful therapeutic techniques have been approved by the FDA and are already in use. It has been shown that plant growth can be altered. In my laboratory, we recently observed changes in the rate of regeneration in planaria. Another series of papers have established that critically important growth factors are released in cell culture following exposure to such fields.
One may well ask, where is the scientific curiosity that is supposed to drive people in physics? Given that there is a wealth of biological data, that the epidemiological results albeit small are very consistent, and given that both epidemiological and laboratory evidence present a potentially fascinating physics puzzle, should not critics like Hafemeister be chafing at the bit to resolve this question?
It is also sad to see the ELF/cancer issue politicized. It is generally suspected that the EPA report was not distributed because the White House wanted a different answer to the question as to whether weak magnetic fields might be carcinogenic. Because of the tactics employed by the presidential science advisor, including trying to pack a hastily convened review committee, many otherwise objective observers were radicalized overnight. I, for one, still do not trust any of the so-called "scientific review panels" that Hafemeister puts so much faith in.
The APS is wrong for two reasons: First, it has taken a position on a subject for which it lacks competence. Second, the subject itself needs more study before any policy statement, even by a competent group, is warranted.
My opinion is that there is indeed a risk to children, a risk which at present seems rather small in view of the measured odds ratio. An important epidemiological question surrounds the magnetic metric, the specific aspect of the ELF magnetic field that provides the coupling mechanism. It is conceivable that, for those smaller sets of humans more exposed to this metric, odds ratios greatly in excess of two will be found. It seems clear that once we have a proper understanding of the physical mechanism(s) underlying the biological reports, the epidemiologists will be enabled to design better studies.
In short, despite the APS statement, more research is needed, not less.
A.R. Liboff raises several interesting points: (1) Research Funds: Liboff says that in my paper the "potential billion dollar costs of mitigation are somehow tied to orders-of-magnitude smaller [EMF] research costs." My papers are silent on research budgets and they DO NOT "somehow" connect mitigation costs and EMF research. I support continued research into the EMF question. I am concerned about (i) frightening the populace, (ii) excessive litigation, (iii) a national standard of 2 mG which would waste more than $250 billion (as stated in the General Accounting Office study, reference 7 of my P&S article, July 1995). (2) Epidemiology: I stand by the work of Washburn et al (reference 6) and the various interdisciplinary review panels, such as the Oak Ridge study, which found the totality of the data to be inconsistent. More recent compilations of over 100 epidemiology studies show the EMF effect fading away. Gary Taubes article "Epidemiology Faces Its Limits" (Science , 14 July 1995, pp. 164-169) is telling on this subject. (3) Who should speak on EMF? Many interdisciplinary panels have come to the same conclusion as the APS, such as the American Medical Association which concluded in 1994 that "Most studies of magnetic field effects in children, workers and other populations do not meet accepted scientific criteria in terms of accurately measuring past exposure, identifying comparable test and control groups, and accounting for potentially confounding factors. Findings of studies are inconsistent in terms of whether a risk exists, what conditions might be related to exposures, and risk magnitude. Positive studies indicate, for the most part, that the associated relative risks are low."
I was the session chair and organizer of a March 1995 APS session entitled "Federal Policy Initiatives in Sustainable Technologies" (see "Symposium on Sustainable Technology and Jobs" in this issue). If that session were held today, I would be far less optimistic about the prospects for physicists in this area. It now appears certain that the federal government will significantly decrease its investment in sustainable technologies.
Last July, the Clinton Administration identified the Department of Energy (DOE) as home to much federal research on sustainable technologies. Specifically, 72% of the FY94 federal expenditure in pollution avoidance technologies was at DOE, much of it classified under energy conservation. Now, according to a 29 August 1995 report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, DOE's energy conservation budget will be cut 36% from the president's request. The report also projects that DOE's energy conservation R&D will be reduced by 62% in constant dollars by 2002 if Congress implements the budget cuts outlined in its Budget Resolution.
These sustainable technologies must be developed together with the private sector that will produce and sell them. But the House has zeroed out all of the President's proposed technology partnerships. This is not a partisan issue. Even though the Republicans are largely responsible for the legislation, it was Secretary of Labor Robert Reich who first started the attack on "corporate welfare," as these joint industry-government partnerships have been misnamed.
I left a physics research career to work in the area of global environmental problems and sustainable technologies. I now realize that the government doesn't have all the answers and the private sector must have a leading role in much of the R&D on sustainable technologies. But I still believe that there is an urgent need for federal involvement in directed basic and applied research in sustainable technologies. I also continue to believe that physicists can and should play an increasing role in this type of research.
I urge my colleagues who are concerned about developing win-win solutions to environmental problems (and about jobs for physicists) to convey the following ideas to our House and Senate representatives:
------ Slowing and eventually stopping the unsustainable growth in pollution and resource depletion (see article for details) requires that we all start using orders of magnitude more resource-efficient pollution-avoiding technologies.
------- The private sector must make and sell these technologies, but it will not and cannot do so without help.
------- The government has a mission to protect the environment and provide energy and resource security, and it supports the unique technical capabilities that are needed to do so.
------- Therefore, government-industry partnerships are clearly the best way to provide these technologies, and should be a high priority.
From my years in Washington I know that, if constituents and organizations present clear arguments to Congress, budget priorities can be changed. I urge FPS members, including those physics colleagues funded by programs such as DOE High Energy Physics and Basic Energy Sciences that have received increases in FY96, to support these sustainable technology partnerships. It does not make sense to cut so disproportionately into an area that is so important to society.