Power line radiation, health linkage rejected But panel finds higher risk of childhood leukemia


WASHINGTON -- A panel of top scientists has dismissed claims that radiation from electric power lines causes cancer, reproductive disease and behavioral health problems. But it did conclude that children who live near clusters of high power lines suffered higher risks of rare leukemias.

"The current body of evidence does not show that exposure to these fields presents a human-health hazard," Charles F. Stevens, chairman of a National Research Council panel said yesterday.

The leukemia finding, and the fact that at least half a dozen other major studies are under way, mean that the report will not be the conclusive verdict on the health risks of electromagnetism. It did little to alleviate the fears of many people who believe that the electric and magnetic fields produced by power lines, microwaves and cellular phones are killing or hurting them.

"We went through this with cigarette smoking for many years and then with asbestos," said Shirley Linde, a Los Angeles activist who chairs the National Electric and Magnetic Field Advisory Committee, which advises the secretary of energy and the National Institutes of Health.

"Based on being absolutely pure, there may be no absolute evidence," she said, "but there is compelling evidence that there is a problem."

While the increased risk of childhood leukemia is significant, the scientists said they found no link between the electric radiation from the power lines and the disease -- which means that some unknown cause, perhaps another environmental factor, is behind the increased leukemia.

The conclusion by one of science's most august institutions came after it analyzed 17 years of scientific evidence.

The report was quickly welcomed by the utility industry. "We agree with the NRC report that there is no credible finding of a causal relationship between electromagnetic fields and adverse health effects," said Linda Schoumacher, a spokeswoman for Edison Electric Institute, a Washington trade group representing about three-quarters of the nation's utility companies.

The scientists did not specifically address the risks of users of cellular phones -- which operate at very high frequencies -- or of workers who spend long hours around high levels of electromagnetic radiation. It concentrated instead on the lower frequency dangers inside homes.

The debate over electromagnetic health risks dates to 1979, when a scientific study suggested a link between power lines near homes and childhood leukemia, which affects about one in 30,000 children in America.

Since then, people have sued electric power companies for destroying their health or because they found they could not sell homes located near high power lines. Industries ranging from computer and microwave oven manufacturers to cellular phone companies have been convulsed by charges that their products are causing brain tumors, reproductive disorders and developmental disabilities.

But nothing conclusive and consistent has been proven.

"A single report that could not be replicated or had not been replicated did not carry much weight," said Bruce Kelman, a member of the panel and national director of health and environmental sciences at Golder Associates Inc. in Redmond, Wash.

Pub Date: 11/01/96

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