Long After an ’80s Scare, Suspicion of Power Lines Prevails


    If you are old enough to have been watching television before the advent of plasma screens, your parents may very well have ordered you not to sit too close to the set. Bad for your eyes, they probably said. Worse, they warned, the TV’s cathode ray tube emitted radiation that could cause who-knows-how-much harm.


    Comparable fears arose when microwave ovens came along, reflected even in our language; how reassuring could it be to have your dinner “nuked”? Hair dryers, cordless phones, computers, cellphones and assorted other devices that people now take for granted have all at some point caused concern. With many of them, the perceived villains are the waves of radiation that they emit, known as electromagnetic fields. The magnetic part is the big worry: anxiety over possible damage that it inflicts on the body. Scientific studies suggest there is some correlation between magnetic fields and a risk of certain cancers, notably leukemia in children. That said, the incidence of leukemia in young people is so low to begin with, and the electromagnetic throbbing in most devices is so faint, that a fairly broad consensus among researchers holds that no significant threat to public health has materialized.

    But fear is a persistent devil. A prominent example of it is examined in this latest offering from Retro Report, part of a weekly series of video documentaries harking back to major news stories of the past. In the late 1980s, palpable dread gripped parts of the country after reports that clusters of cancer had developed among children whose families lived near high-voltage power lines. Parents in those places panicked at the very thought that an object that made so much of modern life possible — an electrical distribution line — was a potential menace to their loved ones. They were hardly put at ease by findings like those from David A. Savitz, an epidemiologist who was at the University of North Carolina back then and is now at Brown University. He concluded that children who lived near power lines were twice as likely to develop cancer as those who did not, because of the electromagnetic fields the lines created.

    But as the years passed, other scientists looked at this issue more closely, and then more closely still. They could not find a pervasive public health peril. Indeed, a committee of the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, reported in 1996 that it had found no persuasive evidence that household appliances or power transmission lines presented a threat. Even Professor Savitz came around to a conclusion that, as he said to Retro Report, “it’s quite questionable whether these fields cause leukemia at all.”

    According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 20,000 American children is at risk of getting leukemia. (A child is defined here as a boy or girl age 14 or under.) Proximity to a power line, researchers agree, might raise those odds to two in 20,000. Imagine a packed house of children at Madison Square Garden, which has a capacity just shy of 20,000 for a basketball game. Statistically, the likelihood is that one of them has leukemia. If fears about electromagnetic fields are realized, one additional boy or girl in that large arena may be affected. Is that a tragedy for those children and their families? Of course. But with numbers so small, does it suggest a health crisis? Not to many who have delved into the matter, including John E. Moulder, director of radiation biology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “Current state of the science says power lines cannot be a major public health threat,” Professor Moulder told a Retro Report interviewer.

    “On the other hand,” he added, “we cannot prove that the risk is zero.”

    Some scientists remain convinced that the threat is every bit as worrisome as it seemed in the 1980s. Among them is Dr. David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, a campus of the State University of New York. “Almost nothing has changed in 25 years in terms of the controversy, although the evidence for biological effects of electromagnetic fields continues to grow stronger,” he told The New York Times in July.

    One thing worth keeping in mind is that, despite the studies pointing to no crisis, we are talking about the well-being of children. Is there any greater worry for a caring parent? It is thus not surprising that protests against new overhead power lines continue across the country — scientific conclusions be damned — from upstate New York, to Illinois and on to Washington State. Once a bell of fear is rung, it seems exceedingly difficult to unring it. Nor does fright have to be in sync with objective reality. Many more people are killed in auto accidents each year than in air disasters, and yet, broadly speaking, people are far more afraid of flying than they are of driving. When it comes to a worry like a possible EMF-cancer connection, Professor Moulder said, “once something like this becomes part of our collective memory, there is no way to remove it from that memory.”

    Perhaps, some say, there is a need for a more finely calibrated balance between fear and perceptible risk. David Ropeik, who was interviewed for this video, has written extensively on the subject, including a 2010 book, “How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.” Interviewed by The Times a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mr. Ropeik discussed the distress that consumed many people in the wake of that cataclysm.

    “We have to recognize that there are very real risks out there,” he said, “but one of them is fear.”