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Study: no clear proof electromagnetic fields pose health risk


Questions remain about childhood leukemia

October 31, 1996
Web posted at: 8:05 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After combing through two decades of research on the health effects of high-voltage power lines, a panel of scientists reported Thursday that they had found "no conclusive and consistent evidence" that electric and magnetic fields cause any human disease.


"The current body of evidence does not show that exposure to these fields means electromagnetic fields present any human health hazard," said Dr. Charles F. Stevens, chairman of a National Research Council committee that spent two years studying the issue. (298K/8 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Stevens said his panel analyzed about 500 studies conducted since 1979 that ran the gamut from people to animals, down to cells in a test tube.

But the committee found no conclusive evidence to link electromagnetic fields with cancer, reproductive and developmental abnormalities, learning or behavior.

Even laboratory studies on animals and cell cultures have failed to find biological damage caused by electrical fields, Stevens said. Some of the studies used energies thousands of times stronger than the fields found in the average home.

Childhood leukemia

The committee could not rule out an apparent statistical link between power lines and childhood leukemia. But Stevens said members found studies linking the two to be flawed.


"The evidence is not conclusive yet," he said. "So far, there's no evidence that electromagnetic fields are the reason for the association ... We really don't know." (213K/10 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

The leukemia link, Stevens said, is based on the assumption that homes near transmission lines are immersed in stronger magnetic and electrical energy fields than other homes.

Stevens said later research has shown that such estimates are inaccurate. Electromagnetic fields in homes near power lines are actually lower than estimated. Still, some critics said the panel is being overly cautious about the risk of childhood leukemia and power lines.


"They say that living next to a high-current power line is a risk for childhood cancer," said Louis Slesin of Micro Wave News. "What they aren't willing to say is that it is the electromagnetic field from those power lines. But they are also unable to point to any other factor." (298K/13 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Nevertheless, the report called for more research into the question of childhood leukemia and power lines, as well as possible ties between electrical fields and breast cancer.

Some consumers unconvinced

Though scientists have been arguing the question of a link between electricity and disease for about 20 years, some consumer groups have sued power companies or forced utilities to move power lines or install shielding.

And however thorough, the latest report is not likely to end the controversy. The panel did not conclude that exposure to power lines is safe, only that there is not enough evidence to prove it will make you sick.

Congress has ordered four government laboratories to conduct a five-year, $65 million study to test whether electromagnetic fields harm nerve cells, trigger breast cancer cells or affect other biological processes. Findings from that study are expected next year.

CNN Correspondent Jeff Levine and The Associated Press contributed to this report.  

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