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Power lines: Short circuits to illness

MagazineApril 2009 (Vol. 20 Issue 1)Power lines: Short circuits to illness

Electromagnetic fields (or EMFs) from electricity lines almost certainly cause leu-kaemia, Alzheimer's disease and other degenerative illnesses

Electromagnetic fields (or EMFs) from electricity lines almost certainly cause leu-kaemia, Alzheimer's disease and other degenerative illnesses. Yet, most scientists-and every power supplier and government planning department around the world- continue to deny that power lines are a health hazard.

The International Agency for Cancer Research of the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified extremely low-frequency (ELF) EMFs as a possible carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) in light of the over-whelming evidence that has been uncovered in recent years. Indeed, the Agency's latest position, reported in 2001, is a complete reversal of its stance of four years ago, when it agreed with most scientists that there is no evidence of a causal link between power lines and severe illnesses. The WHO also recommends that power lines be sited well away from homes "to reduce people's exposure".

In the UK, the government-funded advisory group SAGE (Stakeholder Advisory Group on ELF EMFs) reported in 2007 that there is now sufficient evidence of a causal link between power lines and childhood leukaemia for power companies to adopt a precautionary approach. In particular, SAGE recommends that, in future, power lines should be placed underground, and that no new homes should be built within 60 metres of existing power lines.

It's a view shared by the State of California, which commissioned a $7m, 10-year review of power-line safety in 1993. The study, called the 'California EMF Project' (2002), concluded that magnetic fields from power lines and other sources are a likely cause of childhood and adult leukaemia, adult brain cancers, spontaneous abortions and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), the degenerative disease that afflicts astrophysicist Dr Stephen Hawking.

The EMF Project researchers state that "even a slight additional life-time risk could be of concern to regulators, who already regulate other environmental concerns that convey even lower risks."

So why do scientists persist in remaining ambivalent over the research-based evidence, and why are governments, regulatory bodies and power suppliers refusing to act when they must certainly be aware that overhead power lines represent a reasonable health risk?

Before we answer these questions, let's look at some of the studies published since 2000, the watershed year that heralded the beginning of all the research that began to draw compelling links between EMFs and their effects on the human immune system.

Power lines and leukaemia

The possibility that power lines cause childhood leukaemia has attracted more research than any other health concern associated with EMFs.

One of the strongest associations was established by what is now referred to as the 'Draper report', a case-control study that discovered that children under the age of 15 years who lived within 100 metres of power lines were nearly twice as likely to develop leukaemia compared with children who lived further away (BMJ, 2005; 330: 1290-4). The team of researchers, led by Gerald Draper and based at the University of Oxford, included a representative from the National Grid Transco plc as scientific advisor. They arrived at their conclusions after examining the profiles of 29,081 children who developed cancer between 1962 and 1995 in England and Wales.

Although the findings were of considerable public interest, the UK Government's Department of Health, which had funded the research, suppressed the report for four years. Officials at the Department were first informed of the preliminary results in 2001, yet the report was not published until June 2005.

What's more, even when it finally made it into print, Geoff Watts, science editor of the British Medical Journal, declared that the Draper report simply means that only "five cases annually of childhood leukaemia may be associated with power lines" compared with the 32 children who are killled annually in house fires or the 200 who die every year on UK roads (BMJ, 2005; 330: 1294-5). Nevertheless, it was still an admission that power lines can affect our health.

Two researchers-Anders Ahlbom from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and Sander Greenland from the UCLA School of Public Health in Los Angeles, CA-have conducted a range of studies into EMFs and childhood leukaemia since 2000. Indeed, in that year alone, they both published papers-one of which was a pooled analysis of 15 studies-that demonstrated a doubling of leukaemia rates among children exposed to the same levels of ELF fields as are generated by standard power lines (Br J Cancer, 2000; 85: 692-8; Epidemiology, 2000; 11: 624-34). A year later, Ahlbom followed up with another review of the "voluminous epidemiologic literature on EMF" that confirmed the association of childhood leukaemia and postnatal exposures to EMFs (Environ Health Perspect, 2001; 109 [Suppl 6]: 911-33).

Power lines and Alzheimer's

Several studies have produced compelling evidence for a causal connection between EMFs and Alzheimer's disease. The latest study, published in November 2007, comes from Switzerland, where researchers have established that people who are living within 50 metres of a power line for 15 years or more have twice the the risk of developing Alzheim-er's disease compared with those who are living 600 metres or more from such power lines.

Researchers at the University of Bern made the discovery when they analyzed the health profiles of 4.7 million people in Switzerland who lived close to a power line. They concluded that the distance from a line, and the duration of time spent living near such a line, were both significant risk factors. The overall risk of Alzheimer's for anyone living within 50 metres of a power line for any length of time was 1.24 times greater than that of someone who lived further away (Am J Epidemiol, 2008; doi: 10.1093/aje/kwn297).

In fact, the conclusion that the duration of EMF exposure is a significant marker of Alzheimer's risk has been supported by a study of workers in Spain whose occupations bring them into regular contact with ELF EMFs. A meta-analysis of 14 studies, carried out by researchers at Valencia University, revealed that people in those occupations had twice the risk of developing Alzheimer's in later life compared with the general population (Int J Epidemiol, 2008; 37: 329-40).

EMFs and other diseases

As EMFs are believed to interfere with the workings of the immune system, it follows that they would be expected to be responsible for causing a wide range of degenerative, chronic diseases, as suggested by California's EMF Project findings. In fact, in addition to leukaemia, the researchers consider it "likely" that magnetic fields are the cause of spontaneous abortions (miscarriage) and ALS, a view that has been supported by a number of studies.

Three recent studies support the hypothesis that EMFs cause spon-taneous abortions. One such study, which reviewed 177 cases of mis-carriage in Northern California, found a close correlation with exposure to high levels of EMFs. Women exposed to the highest levels were more than three times more likely to miscarry than those whose exposure was minimal (Epidemiology, 2002; 13: 21-31).

Scientists at the Kaiser Founda-tion Research Institute in Oakland, California, arrived at a similar conclusion when they examined the cases of 969 women from the San Francisco Bay area who had exper-ienced miscarriage. Although they could find no correlations among women exposed to average levels of EMFs, those who were regularly exposed to levels of 16 mG (milliGauss) or more were nearly twice as likely to lose their pregnancy (Epidemiology, 2002; 13: 9-20).

The third study, carried out on laboratory mice, demonstrated that exposure to ELF EMFs during pregnancy would not only affect the term of the pregnancy, but could also interfere with the development of the offspring (Zhonghua Lao Dong Wei Sheng Zhi Ye Bing Za Zhi, 2006; 24: 468-70).

Further studies also suggest that high EMF levels may cause ALS. The first, which analyzed the Swedish census of 1980 against instances of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and ALS, found that workers in the electrical or electronics industry had a 40-per-cent greater chance of developing ALS than those who did not work in electrical/electronic-related occupa-tions (Epidemiology, 2003; 14: 413-9).

The Swedish study findings were supported by a later study that also found a direct correlation between the development of ALS and working in the electrical industries. The risk for those with such occupational exposures was more than two times greater than for those in other industries, although the risk was higher still-at four times-for Alz-heimer's disease (Epidemiology, 2003; 14: 420-6).

In yet another study, the researchers concluded that "there are relatively strong data indicating that electric utility work may be associated with an increased risk [of ALS]" (Bioelectromagnetics, 2001; suppl 5: S132-43).

Why scientists disagree

Power lines emit both electrical and magnetic fields. The electric field is related to the voltage running through the line-a typical cable handles between 275 kV (kilovolts) and 400 kV-whereas the magnetic field is dependent on the current being carried through the cable, and this can vary depending on the usage.

This means that any scientist researching the impact of an EMF is faced with the immediate problem of how to measure something that can fluctuate wildly over any 24-hour period. This is why only studies that have examined EMF effects over years are able to discern any causal relationship with health problems, whereas a study that is carried out for only a few days or weeks at a time is only able to determine insignif-icant effects-if any at all.

Scientists who deny any associa-tion also argue that no one truly understands how EMFs can cause cancer or damage the immune system. However, as Alasdair Philips of Powerwatch, an independent consumers' information service, says: "We still do not know the actual mechanisms by which cigarette smoking, asbestos fibre or DDT cause cancers, but we have accepted the epidemiological evidence and have introduced laws to limit or reduce human exposure."

The distance from power lines is another issue, and sceptics have argued that people living even rela-tively short distances from them should not suffer any ill effects. In effect, they appear to be suggesting that illnesses being reported may

just be psychosomatic-all in the head.

Professor Denis Henshaw, at Bris-tol University, has spent years studying this issue, and has come up with an hypothesis of 'corona ions'. He posits that the ions emitted by high-voltage power lines are ending up as tiny charged particles of air pollution that can penetrate deeply into our lungs and bloodstream. These so-called corona ions are carried on the wind and quickly become attached to microscopic particles of air pollution, thereby electrically charging them.

Professor Henshaw believes that these pollutants can be carried several hundred metres away from power lines, which would explain why children living at greater distances-and downwind-from a line can still develop leukaemia.

One task of the BioInitiative Report, prepared by 14 independent internationally based scientists in 2007, was to try to understand why there is still so much disagreement among experts, despite the fact that enough evidence has already been published to justify improvements in safety standards within the power industry.

Among the 10 reasons listed by the Report, the authors concluded that:

- different scientists use different measurements to determine the existence of any proof;

- some scientists continue to insist that every study should achieve the same results;

- some scientists are only looking

at short-term and acute effects, which do not always tell the whole story; and

- vested interests appear to have a substantial influence on the whole issue under debate.

Industry pressures

This is an exceedingly high-stakes game, one that goes way beyond deciding whether power lines should be buried under the ground or not. If governments and power industries accept the growing epidemiological evidence that EMFs cause cancer-not to mention any other chronic and degenerative diseases-then there will need to be a massive change in the way we live our lives.

EMFs are emitted from the mains electricity and all the wiring in our homes-powering everything from microwave ovens to Wi-Fi networks-but also, and more significantly, from mobile phones and mobile-phone masts.

The upshot of all this is that, while it is a matter of degrees and being reasonable, any admission from our health guardians that EMFs are causing cancer would have major effects on the world's economy-not to mention our present taken-for-granted comfy lifestyles. It is also known that the power industry, like the drug industry, recruits and richly rewards 'friendly' scientists who are always on hand to deride any research that links EMFs to cancer and other diseases. Indeed, the power industry openly-but sometimes covertly-funds research that invariably discovers no association between EMFs and illness.

This is part and parcel of the damage limitation that began in the 1960s, when field pioneers such as Drs Ross Adey, Milton Zaret and Robert Becker started investigating the effects of EMFs on humans.

Dr Zaret was among the first to discover that EMF radiation, such as emitted by microwaves, is biologically harmful and can cause conditions such as cataracts. Yet, in the course of his work, his research funds were stopped. Dr Becker worked for the US Navy, and his brief was to assess the health impact of a submarine ELF communications system. His study concluded that the health of signifi-cant segments of the American population was at risk from 60-Hz power lines. But when the State of New York was planning the construct-ion of 10 high-power lines, the Navy denied that Becker's work existed, so the high-power lines were erected.

Becker said afterwards: "The way science is currently funded and evaluated, we are learning more and more about less and less, and science is becoming our enemy instead of our friend."

Dr Adey, who died in 2004, worked on secret CIA projects in the 1970s that looked into the impact of EMFs on people's mental health. Since then, other researchers have found that these energy fields can cause depression: indeed, several noted that suicide levels were far higher among people who lived near power lines.

In 1992, Adey reported that there was "very little doubt" that EMFs affect the immune system, interfere with fetal development and cause birth abnormalities, damage healthy cell growth, encourage tumour formation, and affect the central nervous system and the brain.

In addition, as he said on BBC Radio Scotland on January 10, 1992, "This work is being carried out in many laboratories worldwide so that the old fiction that this research describes uncorroborated experi-ments is no longer true."

In the 16 years since that programme was aired, the evidence has become even stronger, but it will still be a long time before govern-ments and the so-called guardians of our public health admit it. As Dr John Bonnell, chief medical officer

for the UK's now-defunct Central Electricity Generating Board, said in 1985, on a Central TV programme entitled The Good, the Bad and the Indefensible: "If we accepted the dangers, it would mean an enormous turnabout for industry and for the country as a whole. There are no contingency plans to cope with such a turnabout."

Not only are there no contingency plans in place, but we have also seen the explosion of the mobile-phone industry in the intervening years, making any admission concerning the harmful effects of EMFs physically as well as fiscally catastrophic.

Bryan Hubbard

Reducing your EMF exposure

Power lines generate two types of electromagnetic fields (EMFs): electrical and magnetic.

- Electrical fields: Most of the materials used in building a typical home will substantially reduce electrical fields from power lines. The one weak area is window glass, but this can be strengthened by placing a wire-mesh frame on the outside of the window over the glass. The frame should be earthed.

- Magnetic fields: These penetrate through every kind of material, including lead and steel. While there are many products and devices that claim to reduce your exposure to EMFs from mobile phones and computers, there are few options for people living close to a power line. One such magnetic-screen product is called MuMetal, a nickel-iron alloy, but it is very expensive-and not designed to screen out the magnetic fields from power lines. For this reason, it may be better for you to negotiate with the power company responsible for the line. Powerwatch, the independent consumer help group, suggests the following options:

- Find out whether the power line uses four separate cables or if they are twisted together to form an ABC (aerial bundled conductor) cable. Fields from ABC cables are lower than from four individual cables;

- Negotiate with the electricity company to have the cabling reinstalled underground. As the cost of laying power lines underground is around 20 times higher than installing them above the ground on pylons, expect to pay for the reinstallation;

- Keep windows closed and don't go out into your garden when the wind is blowing from the direction of the power lines towards your home.

You can also reduce the overall EMF levels in your home by restricting your use of computers and mobile/cellular phones. The most important room in your home is the bedroom. Make sure your bed is at least six to eight feet away from any device that may emit EMFs such as a clock/radio alarm. If you use an electric blanket, always switch it off before falling asleep.

As EMFs increase the production of harmful free radicals in your body, it's important that you counter this effect by increasing your intake of antioxidants. You can do this by supplementing with vitamins A, C and E as well as by eating lots of fresh green vegetables and fruit.

You can also measure the levels of EMFs in your home with a magnetometer. These devices can be rented or purchased from a number of sources, including Power-watch (www.powerwatch.org.uk; tel: 01353 778 422), Coghill Research Laboratories (www.cogreslab.co.uk; tel: 01495 752 122) and Tom's Gadgets (www. tomsgadgets.com; tel: 0845 456 2370).

Are you electrosensitive?

Whatever the levels of EMFs, some people are so disabled by them that they are unable to lead a normal life. The problem, called 'electrohypersensitivity' (ES), affects around 3 per cent of the general population and, as with any health issue, has various degrees of severity. In the milder or early stages of the problem, the sufferer may experience generalized feelings of malaise and being 'run-down'. One sufferer, Alasdair Philips of Powerwatch, has described the onset of his ES as an overall feeling of impending flu that never quite breaks out (Philips A, Philips J. Electrical Hypersensitivity: A Modern Illness. Powerwatch, 2004).

A Swedish trade union carried out a survey to determine the major symptoms of ES and found that the main manifestation was eye problems, such as smarting, irritation, a 'grit-in-the-eye' sensation and an aversion to light (photophobia). The second major symptom was skin problems, including irritation, warmth, itching, dryness and tingling. Sufferers also reported reddening of the skin that led to an outbreak of rash or even pustules. Other problems included headache, fatigue, loss of concentration and short-term memory problems, depression, breathlessness, excessive thirst, numbness and weakness in the joints, culminating in fibromyalgia (Med Hypotheses, 2000; 54: 663-71).

ES has also been likened to multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a condition brought about by exposure to toxic chemicals such as pesticides. Both share similar features characteristic of an immune-system disorder caused by toxic overload-and EMFs can certainly be regarded as toxins (Becker RO. Cross Currents: The Perils of Electropollution. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1990).

Dr William Rea, a US-based physician who suffers from both MCS and ES, has treated thousands of patients with environmental illnesses. Often, it is difficult to distinguish between the two conditions as ES often becomes worse on contact with toxic chemicals.

In fact, the notion that ES and MCS are parallel conditions has been reinforced by one study that discovered that EMFs produce an allergic response in the cells of the body that is similar to that produced by, for example, pollen in hayfever sufferers (Med Hypotheses, 2000; 54: 663-71).

While conventional doctors mostly regard ES as a problem that exists solely in the head of the sufferer, Swedish scientists have demonstrated clear objective, measurable changes in ES patients; for example, they display significantly different physiological features from non-sufferers, such as changes in both heart rates and galvanic skin responses (GSRs). ES sufferers have also been found to be much more sensitive to physical and psychosocial environmental stressors than the rest of us (Bioelectromagnetics, 2001; 22: 457-62).

Not surprisingly, ES sufferers are also much more sensitive to EMFs, as was demonstrated by a study that involved exposures to fake and real magnetic fields (Clin Ecol, 1990; 6: 119-28). In addition, Dr Rea obtained similar results when he carried out a double-blind trial in which neither the doctors nor the patients knew when EMFs were actually being generated (J Bioelectr, 1991; 10: 241-56).

Another study found that some ES sufferers them-selves are emitting EMFs strong enough to cause electrical equipment to malfunction (Philips A, Philips J. Electrical Hypersensitivity: A Modern Illness. Powerwatch, 2004).

Nevertheless, although there is now sufficient evi-dence to conclude that ES is a genuine physiological reaction, scientists remain unclear as to its underlying mechanisms and why it happens. One theory, presented at the EMF Engineering Review Symposium, held 28-29 April 1998 in Charleston, SC (see www.emf-data.org/ symposium98.htm) suggests that EMFs may be able to interfere with the body's ability to produce melatonin, a natural anti-cancer agent. However, these preliminary studies have yet to be successfully reproduced.


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