Newly-released reports list health risks of electricity pylons and electrical wiring

Among the findings of the reports are that there is more than a 50% possibility that electro magnetic fields (EMFs) at home or at work could cause a very small increased lifetime risk of childhood leukaemia and adult brain cancer as well as a 5-10% added risk of miscarriage.

Information contained in two reports on EMFs, compiled by the California Electric and Magnetic Fields Program of the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) has finally been released for public comment, following a threatened lawsuit by two NGOs. The first of the reports is a compilation of all available scientific evidence until June 2000 on the health implications of exposure to low frequency EMFs from power lines and other sources, while the second reviews possible options for dealing with EMFs in California, considering the uncertainty about possible health effects.

The three reviewers from the CDHS agreed that while statistical studies in the human population suggest there may be health implications from EMFs, for the most part, studies in animals do not. The findings include:

  • it is “more than 50% possible” that EMFs at home or at work could cause a very small increased lifetime risk of childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease);
  • it is “more than 50% possible” that residential or occupational EMFs could cause a 5-10% added risk of miscarriage;
  • it is “10-50 % possible” that EMFs at home or work could be responsible for a small increased lifetime risk of male breast cancer, childhood brain cancer, suicide, Alzheimer’s disease, or sudden cardiac death; and
  • It is “very unlikely (2- 10% possible) but not impossible”, that residential or occupational EMFs could be responsible for even a small fraction of birth defects, low birth weight, neonatal deaths, or cancer generally.

Research last year showed that EMFs have the potential to promote tumours (see related story).

The policy report found that:

  • relatively modest cost measures to add protection against EMFs from transmission lines might cost $136 million to avoid 27 deaths in California over the projected 35-year life of the lines, while the expensive option – placing lines underground – might avoid 495 deaths over this period but could cost $248 billion;
  • for distribution lines – those bringing power to homes and workplaces – the modest cost estimates are $234.5 million to save 47 lives over the period, or $5 billion to save 1,005 lives over the period; and
  • different grounding procedures within homes might cost $200 per home and save 22 lives over the period.

The reports were released on 13 July after two NGOs, the California First Amendment Coalition and Citizens Concerned about EMFs, filed a lawsuit to attempt to force the CDHS to release the reports, which they say cost Californians more than $7 million. “These reports in their uncensored versions are important to the public because they reflect an unbiased risk assessment of the effects that EMF exposure from electric utility facilities has on human health,” said Peter Frech, executive director of Citizens Concerned About EMFs. “If these reports were censored for political reasons or delayed until the state of California had bought the transmission grid from the utilities, then the whole purpose of the California EMF Research Program – to inform the public about such risks – would have been defeated.”

The draft conclusions of the CDHS scientists who wrote the reports are now open for a two-month comment period, which can be done on the department’s website. Following the comment period, the evaluators will respond to comments or revise the draft as appropriate, and an independent Science Advisory Panel will advise CDHS on whether to formally issue the final documents.

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