Why unproven health fears persist around grid projects

It’s been 20 years since Congress tried to settle the debate over power-line health risks.

In the 1992 Energy Policy Act, lawmakers instructed the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to lead a five-year investigation into the health effects of electric and magnetic fields, or EMFs.

The process involved scores of scientists from dozens of disciplines, from electrical engineers to molecular biologists. The results were compiled in a 500-plus-page report written at a nine-day meeting in Brooklyn Park, Minn., and released in 1998.

It concluded — despite studies in the 1980s suggesting a link — that two decades of research showed only a “weak association” between EMF exposure and childhood leukemia, and no link between EMF exposure and adult cancers.

For all its depth and breadth, though, the institute’s report was hardly the final word for transmission line opponents. Health fears regularly come up during power-line disputes, most recently with the CapX2020 project.

“It’s a hearty perennial,” says John Farley, a UNLV physics professor who has followed the controversy for decades.

While worries about cell phone EMFs have received more attention in recent years, Farley said he still gets emails once every week or two from people asking whether it is safe to buy a home near a power transmission line.

“I say I don’t think it’s a problem,” says Farley.

Magnetic fields are measured using a unit called a gauss (named after German physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss).

We’re naturally exposed to between 300 and 500 milligauss from the Earth’s magnetic field, says Farley. The precise amount depends on your proximity to the planet’s magnetic poles. The magnetic field at ground level from a power line, by comparison, is usually only 1 or 2 milligauss.

“The additional magnetic field from the power line is maybe 1 percent or less than the magnetic field you get from just standing around on Earth,” says Farley. “I just don’t think it’s an issue.”

Meanwhile, an MRI exposes people to a magnetic field of about 10 million milligauss.

So why are power-line fears so persistent? Farley has a few theories.

One: people don’t trust experts. “There’s a distrust of experts, and to a certain extent it’s a healthy thing. The experts have reassured us about things that weren’t true at all,” says Farley. “So now, even if the experts are telling the truth, some people don’t believe them.”

Secondly, “People don’t know what a magnetic field is, unless you’ve had a physics class,” says Farley.

And lastly, you can’t prove a negative. “The problem is you can never prove there is absolutely no risk,” says Farley.

You can, however, compare the known risk to other risks, he says. “Last time I checked, something like 35,000 Americans are killed each year in auto accidents,” says Farley. “But no one’s ever going to say ‘never get in a car.'”

Concerns about power-line health effects first originated from a flawed and never-reproduced study in 1979, says Farley. They’ve persisted for decades, despite the lack of scientific evidence.

The fears were popularized by a series of New Yorker articles by Paul Brodeur, who later wrote a book called Currents of Death. In 1995, a PBS Frontline investigation called Currents of Fear questioned Brodeur’s reporting.

“The researchers have been researching this for a couple of decades and they haven’t found anything,” says Farley. “Either there’s no effect — and it’s hard to prove there is absolutely no effect — or the effect is small enough that you don’t have to worry about it.”

Photo by Emily Hoyer via Creative Commons

6 thoughts on “Why unproven health fears persist around grid projects

  1. Health problems or not, I think many people just have no interest in living under these things. They are loud, ugly, invasive and ultimately reduce quality of life/property for those forced to reside nearby. Not to mention that the benefit of these things is rarely seen by those who have to carry the burden of housing them, yet they see others further down the line having no negative impact but receiving all the “good.” Unfortunately, none of those things seem to hold up very well in court, so people hold on to the health threat potential, as small as it may (or may not) be. Until we start valuing aesthetics and people’s right to freedom from corporate enterprise infringing on private property, this issue will keep coming up.

  2. Well, sure. But they have to go somewhere, don’t they? How does the electricity get to *your* home?

  3. Agreed Ken, this NIMBY crowd ready to shell out the dough for on-site fuel cells, storage, solar, diesel generators, etc.??? Thought so. Also not sure about right to freedom from corporate enterprise infringement on private property… Any land owners are compensated to the best that the utility can offer, even though it’s no windfall for the infringed upon, every dollar they get for their property is a dollar from all other rate payers. Regarding EMFs, I’d be more concerned about high frequency sources such as cell phones, radios, microwaves, etc. but even those aren’t too critical in my opinion. Lastly, even if the land owner is not connected directly to any transmission line running through or adjacent to their property, there are still a wide array of benefits (reliability, lowered production costs, more renewables penetration, etc.) that they do in fact receive… We’re a society/nation/planet/species admittedly addicted to the grid, so unless we all agree to kick the habit, or heavily investing in on-site production, what are our choices?

  4. I’m not talking about the small wooden telephone pole type of line or even smaller metal ones. I’m talking about ones like the huge 500 kV line they are proposing in SW Montana now. The type of power lines I believe this article is referring to are usually for transporting large amounts of electricity to substations to be sent elsewhere.

    The problem I see with lines like the one proposed in Montana is that most of that renewable wind power will be sent to California. How is sending wind energy a couple thousand miles away “renewable” or sustainable? How is that a benefit to residents and landowners in Montana? The power company in this case wants the cheapest route, which is generally across private (read residential) property, even though there are public land options.

    So, to answer your question. Yes, some lines need to go somewhere, BUT power needs to be more localized. High density urban areas need to rethink consumption and conservation. Rural areas shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of cost, regardless of where the power is generated and available.

  5. All valid points. But nevertheless, if you’re in SW Montana, the electricity you use was probably generated at a power plant in Wyoming or South Dakota, and carried hundreds of miles via transmission lines, all passing by the homes of people who’d just as soon not look at the things. What’s the benefit to them?

    I’m just trying to figure out the threshold here. When is a power line OK to impose upon a landowner? Is it a matter of size? Distance?

    For the record, I grew up two miles from a coal plant in rural Nebraska, surrounded by high-voltage lines. So I’m sympathetic. Just trying to gain an understanding.

  6. Power being more ‘localized’ is generally not a publicly favorable option either. If you think permitting and building a simple powerline in an area is unpopular and conflicting, try building a power plant in that same area. Everyone is addicted to electricity and is a part of the grid. When it becomes an acutely inconvenient issue, like a power line being sited on or near your property, then people complain that it is bad for health and unnecessary. Until you’ve become completely accountable for yourself and removed all of your power consumption to a source other than the grid, you’re throwing stones while living in a glass house. I recognize that they’re not desireable or attractive to look at, but we need to recognize that there is a need and unless we make wholesale changes as a country, there will continue to be a need.