Fears, risks and invisible threats

March 04, 1993

Sometimes the toughest health issues are those where the risks are suspected, but unconfirmed. Electromagnetic fields are a classic example.

If electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, do cause cancer, we are all in trouble. EMFs are generated by everything from overhead power lines to electric can openers. Whatever risk they carry must be measured against nothing less than our way of life.

EMFs have been an issue in the city of Annapolis for the last two years, ever since the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. tried to expand its Tyler Avenue substation to meet demands for power on Annapolis Neck.

Fearful residents opposed the expansion, and the city became the first Maryland jurisdiction to vote BG&E down. BG&E sued and won. The city's appeal has yet to be heard, although both parties say they are working on an out-of-court settlement.

Considering that studies have shown only a tenuous connection between EMFs and childhood cancer rates, Annapolis seems to have gone too far, too soon. If towns and counties start opposing such expansions without knowing where the problem lies, the city risks forcing utilities (and thus users) to spend large sums of money on the wrong solution.

Still, even if the city's actions may have been premature, its concern is not. Unless new data shows that EMFs are safe, utilities must be willing to offer compromises that make residents more comfortable. That might include EMF monitoring and aesthetic improvements such as landscaping. (The city has requested both).

One option that scientists agree reduces magnetic fields involves placing power lines in a certain geometric arrangement. BG&E says it is doing this in Annapolis.

Citizens should be aware, however, that scientists maintain that burying the lines does not reduce EMFs and may increase risk by bringing the lines closer to people.

Annapolis Del. John Astle's proposed state legislation encouraging utilities to put more lines underground may have other safety advantages, but reducing EMFs does not appear to be one of them.

What we need most is more research. Until scientists discover whether and how EMFs affect our health, wholesale opposition to electrical projects is unjustified. The best public policy involves compromise -- acknowledging our energy needs, encouraging risk-reducing technologies and holding utilities to their promise to be good neighbors.

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