Wednesday, March 07, 2001

Fight the power

Should we be afraid of power lines? Toasters? Microwaves? Refrigerators?

Many parents have long felt uneasy about these sources of electromagnetic fields and their possible link to childhood leukemia and other cancers. The school my kids attended for their special-ed up until this year was located under a nexus of power lines, and there were parents who would not allow their children to go there. There were teachers who weren't so hot to be there, either. I always brushed it off, more interested in good classes than bad fields. The stories I'd hear about people who allegedly got cancer from prolonged exposure to power lines, I'd pass off as coincidence.

Still, it's one of those nag-at-the-back-of-your-brain concerns. The kind of thing you'd expect medical researchers to look into and either prove or dis-. And sure enough, here comes a report based on nine studies conducted since 1994. That's a lot of research, and, presumably, a lot of research money. So does it put the fear in us, or put our fears to rest? Does it answer our questions about electromagnetic fields once and for all? Do we now know whether to avoid power lines, sticking our heads in the refrigerator, sitting in front of computers for long hours writing meaningless essays for Web sites?

Well, no.

The conclusion of all this research on the question of whether magnetic fields cause cancer is a resounding: Um, Maybe.

There was an increased risk of childhood leukemia in homes with very high electromagnetic levels -- 0.4 microTeslas. But American homes average about .09 microTeslas. And the majority of the homes with the highest levels were not located near power lines. So go figure.

Appliances must fall under suspicion if the power-line connection fades, but the report found that 30 percent or less of a house's electromagnetic-ity is accounted for by such household electronics. So don't fear your TV, don't shun your toaster oven. But what then accounts for that other 70 percent? Bad wiring? Electromagnetic mice in the walls? Plates in people's heads? Nobody knows.

And so, we're really no closer to proving or disproving a connection between big bad power sources and cancer than we were before these studies were even conceived. Sheesh. Where's Erin Brockovich when you need her?

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