Power Line Fields and Public Health
Physicists are frequently asked to comment on the potential dangers of cancer from electromagnetic fields that emanate from common power lines and electrical appliances. While recognizing that the connection between power line fields and cancer is an area of continuing study by research workers in many disciplines in the United States and abroad, we believe that it is possible to make several observations based on the scientific evidence at this time. We also believe that, in the interest of making the best use of the finite resources available for environmental research and mitigation, it is important for professional organizations to comment on this issue.
The scientific literature and the reports of reviews by other panels show no consistent, significant link between cancer and power line fields. This literature includes epidemiological studies, research on biological systems, and analyses of theoretical interaction mechanisms No plausible biophysical mechanisms for the systematic initiation or promotion of cancer by these power line fields have been identified. Furthermore, the preponderance of the epidemiological and biophysical/biological research findings have failed to substantiate those studies which have reported specific adverse health effects from exposure to such 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.
These unsubstantiated claims, however, have generated fears of power lines in some communities, leading to expensive mitigation efforts, and, in some cases, to lengthy and divisive court proceeding. The costs of mitigation and litigation relating to the power line-cancer connection have risen into the billions of dollars ant threaten to go much higher. The diversion of these resources to eliminate a threat which has no persuasive scientific basis is disturbing to us. More serious environmental problems are neglected for lack of funding and public attention, and the burden of cost placed on the American public is incommensurate with the risk, if any.
Background Paper on "Power Line Fields and Public Health"
By: Robert B. Goldberg, Ph.D., Information Ventures, Inc.
EMF Health Report, Vol. 3, No. 3, May/June 1995.
On April 22, 1995, the Council of the American Physical Society (APS) issued a "Statement on Powerlines and Public Health" which put the Society's position on record. The APS claims there is no scientific basis for linking power-frequency magnetic field exposure to increased cancer incidence, and we would be much better off directing the funds now spent on EMF mitigation to other, more valid, environmental problems. According to the press release, the APS position was based on a "preponderance of the epidemiological and biophysical/biological research findings [which] have failed to substantiate those studies which have reported specific adverse health effects from exposure to such fields."
A position taken by a leading scientific organization like the APS, with 45,000 members, demands consideration. The statement was covered in the Sunday New York Times for May 14 by William Broad, and in Reuters and Associated Press releases carried in many papers around the country on May 14-16. Experienced technical journalists like Dr. Louis Slesin of Microwave News immediately recognized the scientific deficiencies and political nature of the Statement and supporting Background Paper on Powerline Fields and Public Health, but the media reported the APS pronouncement uncritically. Even Broad, a New York Times reporter who has covered EMF issues for the Times for many years, only quoted Dr. Robert L. Park, a Maryland APS physicist who is known for his skeptical position on EMF issues.
Park indicated that the APS position was based on "researching the EMF-cancer issue since 1989," resulting in the Background Paper which was prepared by David Hafemeister (Physics Department, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA). This review, which claims to be based on the results of some 1,000 relevant scientific papers, is available via EMF-Link on the Internet (http://infoventures.com).
The limits of the APS evaluation are evident in the Background Paper. It focuses primarily on the epidemiologic studies, which are characterized as inconsistent because different studies suggest significant risks of different types of cancer. The Background Paper shows no understanding of the limits of epidemiologic research, especially where the relevant exposure parameters are unclear. Most other types of studies, including the basic EMF bioeffects literature, are described based largely on secondary reviews, with greatest attention to "prestige" groups like the Oak Ridge Associated Universities panel. The scholarship involved in even this indirect assessment is often very lax. For example, in the brief section headed "Animals," a description of the use of the geomagnetic field for navigation is followed by a quote from an article I wrote in 1993 indicating a lack of consistent results in animal tumor promotion experiments. Not only was the subject of my article unrelated to the issue of DC magnetic field sensing, but since 1993 there have been several experimental results which indicate that magnetic fields may enhance tumor promotion.
In other instances, experimental work such as results supporting the IPR model of EMF bioeffects (discussed in the feature story in this EMF-HR issue) was summarily dismissed without supporting evidence (the Background Paper states, with reference to the IPR model, "It is generally agreed that the theoretical model is incorrect. The data are only partially replicated."). Reading this Background Paper leaves the impression that the author (and by extension, the APS Council) formed their position, then went searching through the published literature for statements that would support that viewpoint.
What purpose is served by documents like the APS Statement? There is little new thinking in the APS position, and the Background Paper contains a number of old spurious arguments (like "increasing use of electricity in this century is not paralleled by increasing cancer rates") which have been evaluated in the scientific literature years ago and found wanting.
Responsible scientists have pointed out the uncertainties and inconsistencies in the EMF data and have indicated there is no basis, at present, for assuming that EMF constitutes a significant public health risk. These scientists have also urged continued research to determine exactly how EMF affects living systems. The APS Statement was motivated, in part, by concern over the waste that results from ill-considered mitigation measures. However, a doctrinaire position such as that taken in the APS Statement only adds to the perception of cover-up and authoritarian resistance to considering possible EMF health effects. It will not have the desired effect: it is more likely to further polarize opinion on the EMF issue and drive people with concerns to seek a solution in the courts rather than in the laboratory.
"The last time the American Physical Society involved itself in a public health issue was to assure the American public that the radioactive fallout from the Atom Bomb tests in the Nevada desert were completely harmless." Paul Brodeur
A recent statement released by the American Physical Society entitled "Power Line Fields and Public Health" reported that there exists "no significant link between cancer and power line fields." The arrogance of the American Physical Society to pass judgement on an issue they know little to nothing about has been compounded by the ignorance of the mass media who have turned this statement into a feeding frenzy.
With the release of its statement the American Physical Society has endorsed a casual literature review authored by a physicist with no professional training in epidemiology or electromagnetic field (EMF) bioeffects or medical research. The Society has adopted a very extreme position on a very serious public health matter and dubbed EMF a " non- issue". All this, based, in large part on a report by David Hafemeister, a heretofore unknown physicist at the Physics Department of California Polytechnic State University who, ny his own admission has not published one peer reviewed paper examining either the biological, epidemiological or medical implications of exposure to EMF and who submitted to the Society an admittedly incomplete reports which he writes is "to be periodically updated." For the Society to make a formal statement that has global ramifications, based upon incomplete reporting and third rate scholarship does a grave injustice to the public who look to it with respect and is an indictment of its authority on this and any public health issue.
Dr. Hafemeister justified the Society's position on EMF advising the EMR Alliance, "Risks have to be looked at and then prioritized towards saving lives...We could not find a connection to cancer...I don't think the American public should be overly concerned."
Many respected leaders in the EMF arena disagree with the Society's statement. Research biophysicist David O. Carpenter, M.D., author of the New York Power Line Project and Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Albany in New York, in his November 1994 review of six residential studies that explore the EMF/cancer link wrote "...recent and well done studies...have significant public health implications. In total, these studies suggest that there is an elevated risk of certain kinds of cancer as a result of elevated exposure to magnetic fields." Dr. Carpenter continued his overview writing "Until recently, the possibility that magnetic fields cause cancer seemed unlikely. The picture is changing rapidly...The association between residential exposure and childhood cancer is, in my judgement, strong and growing stronger." Dr. Carpenter concluded saying "...On the basis of the present evidence only the most obstinate can deny that there is adequate cause for concern and an urgent need for additional study...".
When asked by the EMR Alliance why he thought Dr. David Carpenter's review of the epidemiology was contrary to his, Dr. Hafemeister replied "Who's Dr. Carpenter". After being advised of Dr. Carpenter's achievements in the analysis of EMF research, Dr. Hafemeister said "He's out of sync with most of his medical colleagues." However, Dr. Hafemeister further commented, " I try to keep an open mind and would like to review a copy of Dr. Carpenter's work." It is inconceivable that Dr. Hafemeister performed an even cursory review of the electromagnetic field issue, and was not familiar with the work of Dr. Carpenter.
Dr. Carpenter shared with the EMR Alliance his thoughts on the Society's statement: "I am surprised, really, that anyone cares what they think. It would be funny if it wasn't so sad. The physicists will simply not consider the medical and epidemiological evidence. They reject it out of hand. Unfortunately, the American Physical Society reflects a disturbing point of view held by many physicists. However, the arrogance of the American Physical Society to release such a statement is beyond belief. Physicists are not the appropriate people to go to for information on biology or medicine, hence, they have no business making a pronouncement on the health effects of EMF. I believe that the evidence is very strongly suggestive of the link they have so vehemently denied." As a member of the Biophysical Society, Dr. Carpenter is aware how out of sync the physics community is in their knowledge of the EMF issue.
Dr. A.R. Liboff, a professor of Physics at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, in response to the Society's statement advised the EMR Alliance "Right thinking individuals must believe that the American Physical Society is not in a position to intelligently judge important questions in surgery, neurobiology, molecular biology, genetics, or microbiology. Is bioelectromagnetics somehow different? Its tenuous link to physics lies in the present inability to formulate a reasonable physical mechanism to explain the experimental results. Physicists have a very bad track record when it comes to describing biological mechanisms."
Dr. Liboff continued, "Many physicists regard themselves as Masters of the Universe not believing experimental results that do not fit their preconceptions. In this sense, some in the American Physical Society have forgotten that they are also scientists and that science puts the highest premium on observation. There are simply too many confirmatory experiments in the ELF area to deny biological effects, regardless of whether there currently are reasonable explanations for these effects. Most important of all, the American Physical Society carries no special imprimatur to judge epidemiological or biological studies. The recent statement by the American Physical Society must accordingly be regarded as arising from either overweening hubris or political malevolence."
The conclusions of Dr. Carpenter and Dr. Liboff are echoed by many respected members of the EMF community. In an Internet exchange soon after the release of the Society's statement, Dr. Andrew Marino of the Louisiana State University Medical Center accused the American Physical Society of "scientific misconduct."
The EMF/cancer link is a very complex, highly debated issue. To date, the American Physical Society has not been a participant in that debate. Award winning author Paul Brodeur reminded the EMR Alliance, "The last time the American Physical Society involved itself in a public health issue was to assure the American public that the radioactive fallout from the Atom Bomb tests in the Nevada desert were completely harmless."
Members of The American Physical Society apparently believe themselves to be expert in a host of unrelated concentrations. In addition to appointing himself as an expert in epidemiology, biology, molecular physics, chemistry and EMF mitigation, Dr. Hafemeister purports to be a legal scholar as well. Dr. Hafemeister writes "In normal courtroom practice, the plaintiff has the burden to prove damages or risks in order to obtain action from society, and it should be in the ELF case as well." Dr. Hafemeister is suggesting that we never act on a public health risk until it is a proven health risk. This position is contrary to the widely held view among public health professionals who believe that precautionary measures need not and should not await definitive proof of hazard. The burden of proof that Dr. Hafemeister alludes to is that required of plaintiffs in a civil litigation. These burdens are enormously greater than those that apply to people advocating precautionary public health measures. And so it should be. Dr Hafemeister's failure to appreciate the difference is very revealing of his lack of understanding of the nature of the EMF debate.
The statement by the Society was the focus of national attention. The New York Times ran an article entitled "Cancer Fear Is Unfounded, Physicists Say" in their Sunday May 14th edition. William J. Broad, writing for the Times states "The earth's magnetic field, which humans are constantly exposed to, is about 500 milligauss. This is often hundreds of times larger than the manmade ones people worry about." What Mr. Broad conveniently does not mention, and what the Society's statement does not make clear, is that the earth's magnetic fields are not the man-made alternating current to which we are exposed from electrical power lines. The earth's static geomagnetic field does not vibrate sixty times a second as does the alternating current (60 Hz) that travels via the power transmission and distribution lines. The scores of studies linking EMF exposure to heinous health hazards deal with the alternating current of our industrialized society. Any high school physics student is aware that the earth's magnetic field does not oscillate as does man-made current. To compare one to the other is nonsensical, at best. This is yet another example of the sloppy reasoning and poor scholarship that went into the making of this statement by the Society.
Robert L. Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland and a spokesperson for the American Physical Society was quoted in the Times article saying "public concern was growing even as the epidemiologic evidence was shrinking and becoming fainter." Dr. Park has long entertained serious doubt as to the carcinogenicity of electromagnetic fields, in spite of evidence to the contrary. Paul Brodeur's expose' "The Great Power Line Cover Up" revealed Park as a haughty naysayer, long harboring the idea that EMF is not harmful. "The market for fear has never been better" wrote Dr. Park in an opinion piece that appeared in the Sunday edition of Newsday on October 29, 1989. Dr. Park continued his diatribe on EMF writing "it is possible to measure a rather strong physiological response in humans to the smell of freshly baked bread, but no one suggests that it is harmful." It appears that Dr. Park and the American Physical Society will continue to downplay the seriousness of the EMF issue until it stands up and hits them in the face, as did the Society's claim that radioactive fallout was similarly harmless.
Daniel Wartenberg, Associate Professor at the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, in a letter to the editor published in the Saturday May 20th edition of the New York Times, in response to Mr. Broad's article wrote "The American Physical Society's statement about the risk of cancer from electromagnetic fields radiating from power lines flies in the face of conventional wisdom." Rebuking the Society's dismissal and disdain of "prudent avoidance" Dr. Wartenberg writes "...prevention of exposure until the hazard is understood is good public health practice."
Judy Larm, a member of the EMR Alliance and founder and President of Omaha Parents For The Prevention of Cancer has a thirteen year old son, whose leukemia she believes was caused by exposure to EMF. Mrs Larm met with President Clinton last year and had hopes that the White House would take a strong position on this public health issue. Mrs. Larm advised the EMR Alliance, she feels "like Sisyphus, the legendary king of Corinth who was condemned to roll a heavy rock up a hill in Hades only to have it roll down again as it nears the top. Thousands of concerned citizens, consumers and parents have worked selflessly to bring the EMF issue to light. EMF truly has become a Sisyphean exercise of gigantic proportions and the American Physical Society has now taken a lead in rolling the rock back down the hill."
If poor scholarship and a lack of understanding of the issue were not enough to indict the Society's statement. Louis Vitale, an EMF mitigation expert with VitaTech Engineering, Inc. advised the EMR Alliance that "the mitigation numbers tossed carelessly by Dr. Hafemeister have no relation to the actual reality of money spent on EMF mitigation in the United States". Mr. Vitale continued saying "If mitigation were a billion dollar industry, there obviously would be more independent companies in the business instead of the three dozen or so companies that are involved in it."
Perhaps the American Physical Society is no longer concerned with scientific accuracy. It was not long ago that we wallowed in ignorance that arsenic, benzene, tobacco and asbestos were not hazardous. With a preponderance of evidence pointing to the carcinogenicity of EMF, it would be wise to be cautious, rather than throwing caution to the wind as the American Physical Society suggests.
E. Harris asks: Why no response to APS/EMF Statement ?
Why bother? The biomedical area has a long history of being afflicted with people who have little or no knowledge of biology offering their "expert" opinions to promote some notion or product. That is why all States have laws requiring a high level of training and experience in biology for one who is going to advise the public on health matters; i.e., a medical degree.
The Public does not consist of fools. They would expect, and might accept, such conclusions if offered by the American Medical Association which would be a credible source. But from a bunch of physicists? This makes as much sense as would the orthopedic surgeon society, whose members work with structures, telling the Public how civil engineers should design bridges. The Public will perceive the APS statement as one from a trade association that has a vested interest in promoting the development and use of electromagnetic energy. After all, use of emf makes jobs for physicists.
What is happening though is that some physicists, like people working in any given industry, tend to disregard risks that are not immediate and gross. They see what they want to see. Consider coal miners, textile workers, asbestos workers, smokers, etc. Barbara Tuchman spelled this out well in her book "The March of Folly."
The value of the conclusions of these physicists can be judged just by considering the history of ionizing radiation. Over many years, the physicists repeatedly misjudged the health hazard of ionizing radiation; and we ended up with a substantial body count. And some of the dead were physicists. The arguments we hear now in the APS statement are similar to those made by the physicists of years ago in their poo-pooing the "alleged hazards" of ionizing radiation.
So, why bother responding?
But then, the APS action raises a question of ethics....
Allan H. Frey email email@example.com
11049 Seven Hill Lane voice 301.299.518
Potomac, MD 20854, USA
Sunday 5/14/95 the New York Times published an article entitled: "Cancer Fear Is Unfounded, Physicists Say: Power Line Concern Is Called Needless." Notice of the report upon which this story was based has been posted.
In addition, Saturday May 20 the New York Times Letters column published a statement from Daniel Wartenberg, Assoc. Prof., Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences Inst., Piscataway, N.J. In it he said:
"The American Physical Society's statement about the risk of cancer from EMF flies in the face of conventional science.
"Epidemiologists are trying to understand and explain the patterns of cancer incidence. In 9 or 11 epi. studies of children, those with leukemia lived closer to 'high exposure' power lines more often than those without leukemia.
"In the four most recent and most sophisticated occupational epi. studies, workers in three of the four studies showed elevated leukemia and brain cancer rates. While these studies are not definitive, none of the investigated alternative explanations for these cancers have shown similar consistency.
"Whether or not exposure to magnetic fields is confirmed as a cause of cancer is beside the point. If done at limited cost and inconvenience, prevention of exposure until the hazard is understood is good public health practice."
I would appreciate comments on the original APS statement as well as this response to it -- hopefully from physicists as well as biologists.
Ellen Stern Harris
Fund for the Environment
Thanks to Ellen Stern Harris for posting excepts of my letter to the New York Times. I had not gotten around to posting it, as yet, and would be willing to continue some discussion on this issue, if others deem this useful.
Dept. of Environmental and Community Medicine
Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Piscataway, NJ
PHONE: (908) 445-0197 FAX PHONE: (908) 445-0784
The Council of the American Physical Society (APS) recently issued "Power Line Fields and Public Health", a 3-paragraph statement that expressed opinions concerning potential dangers of cancer from electromagnetic fields that emanate from powerlines. The councillors lamented "the costs of mitigation and litigation relating to the power-line cancer connection ..." and complained that there had been a diversion of resources from other environmental problems.
However, neither the identities of the councillors nor their area of expertise were identified.
At my request, the following list was provided by the APS on May 23, 1995. Individuals who attended the meeting at which the vote to adopt and issue the statement was taken are indicated by a line of asterisks. The APS was unable to provide information regarding who voted for or against adoption of the statement.
[List deleted due to length]
The Public Health Service (PHS) issued a proposed rule in which misconduct in science was defined as "fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, deception or OTHER PRACTICES THAT SERIOUSLY DEVIATE FROM THOSE THAT ARE COMMONLY ACCEPTED WITHIN THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY FOR PROPOSING, CONDUCTING OR REPORTING RESEARCH (emphasis added); ...". A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel defined misconduct in science as: "fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism, in proposing, performing, or reporting research. Research in science does not include errors of judgment; errors in the recording, selection, or analysis of data; differences of opinion involving the interpretation of data; or misconduct unrelated to the research process."
The definitions represent two competing notions of misconduct in science: the NAS view is narrowly based on the legal concept of fraud, whereas the PHS view goes beyond fraud in recognizing the existence of misconduct.
1. Perusal of the list of APS councillors that attended the meeting at which the powerline statement was adopted reveals that, insofar as I have been able to determine, not one councillor is an expert in the biological effects of electromagnetic fields and, further, none has contributed to the peer-reviewed scientific literature in the EMF area.
2. The statement, when it was issued and disseminated to the news media, did not disclose the names of the individuals whose collective judgment it reflected.
3. It seems apparent that the purpose of the statement was to lend the authority and prestige of the American Physical Society to the opinions expressed in the statement for the purposes of swaying American public opinion with regard to those issues.
I suggest, for the purposes of this discussion, that when councillors of a scientific society adopts a statement with the intent of affecting public opinion and (1) the councillors are not experts in the substantive science pertinent to the opinion proffered, (2) the wording of the statement when released to the press either fails to indicate the lack of expertise of the councillors or is crafted in such a way that the typical American citizen cannot ascertain from the face of the statement that the councillors are opining beyond their area of expertise, then, the individual councillors are guilty of scientific misconduct within the PHS meaning because their action seriously deviates from the commonly accepted practice for reporting scientific data to the general public. The substantive content of the statement - whether it is for or against any particular position - is irrelevant.
If the APS councillors lacked expertise regarding the biological effects of electromagnetic fields, then their statement would apparently not be scientific misconduct under the NAS definition in the absence of a specific intent to defraud. The statement would, however, be junk science which, by definition, is the proffering of a scientific opinion either in the absence of supporting evidence, or with supporting evidence but by a person lacking the expertise to evaluate that evidence.
For a further discussion of scientific misconduct as a general concept see J. Marks: American Scientist, vol. 81, pp. 380-382, 1993; G. Taubes: Science, vol. 261, pp. 1108-1111, 1993; and H. Schachman: Science, vol. 261, pp. 148, 149, and 183, 1993.
Andrew A. Marino, Ph.D.
Dept. of Orthopaedic Surg., LSU Medical Center
P.O. Box 33932
Shreveport, LA 71130-3932
Phone: 318-675-6177 Fax: 318-675-6186