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Health Risks Associated with Living Near High-Voltage Power Lines

Gary Zeman, ScD, CHP

Potential health concerns about power lines were first raised in a 1979 study which associated increased risk of childhood leukemia with residential proximity to power lines. More recent studies such as that by Draper et al., confirm a reported association between elevated risk of childhood leukemia and proximity to resdiential power lines, but failed to clarify whether the observed association is causal or coincidental. Some scientists have argued the physical impossibility of any health effect due to weak ambient levels of EMFs, while others maintain that the potential health risks should not be dismissed even though the evidence remains equivocal and contradictory.

To address public concerns about power-line EMFs, a national program in electric and magnetic field research was authorized by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 1992. This program was called EMF-RAPID (Electric and Magnetic Fields Research and Public Information Dissemination).

In 1995, the American Physical Society (APS) spoke out on the question of power-line EMFs and health effects. The APS policy statement reads, in part: "The scientific literature and the reports of reviews by other panels show no consistent, significant link between cancer and power line fields. While it is impossible to prove that no deleterious health effects occur from exposure to any environmental factor, it is necessary to demonstrate a consistent, significant, and causal relationship before one can conclude that such effects do occur. From this standpoint, the conjectures relating cancer to power line fields have not been scientifically substantiated." (See APS Policy Statement 95.2 reaffirmed in 2005.)

In 1999 the National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council (NRC) published a review of the evidence from the EMF-RAPID program and concluded: "An earlier Research Council assessment of the available body of information on biological effects of power frequency magnetic fields (NRC 1997) led to the conclusion ‘that the current body of evidence does not show that exposure to these fields presents a human health hazard. . . .' The new, largely unpublished contributions of the EMF RAPID program are consistent with that conclusion. . . . In view of the negative outcomes of EMF RAPID replication studies, it now appears even less likely that MFs [magnetic fields] in the normal domestic or occupational environment produce important health effects, including cancer." (The NRC reports are accessible by searching for EMF at the NAS website.)

While the NRC review is fairly decisive in giving power-line EMFs a clean bill of health, a 1999 report by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) concluded, "The scientific evidence suggesting that ELF-EMF exposures pose any health risk is weak" but goes on to state, "The NIEHS concludes that ELF-EMF exposures cannot be recognized as entirely safe because of weak scientific evidence that exposure may pose a leukemia hazard." (The NIEHS report is available on its website.)

In conclusion, there are no known health risks that have been conclusively demonstrated to be caused by living near high-voltage power lines. But science is unable to prove a negative, including whether low-level EMFs are completely risk free. Most scientists believe that exposure to the low-level EMFs near power lines is safe, but some scientists continue research to look for possible health risks associated with these fields. If there are any risks such as cancer associated with living near power lines, then it is clear that those risks are small.

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