The question whether powerline electromagnetic fields (EMFs) affect human health originated in the 1960s in the United States, and some time earlier in the Soviet Union. I first became aware of the question in late 1973, during a conversation with Robert O. Becker, M.D., who was my mentor when I was a graduate student (1963–68) and my chief for 12 years thereafter.
During 1974–1978, Dr. Becker and I were deeply involved in a long legal dispute in New York regarding whether powerline EMFs were a potential health hazard. In the subsequent quarter century, concern regarding health risks of powerline EMFs grew and expanded to other sources of electromagnetic fields in the environment including cellular telephones, microwave ovens, electric blankets, microwave towers, and television and radio antennas.
I did not anticipate the firestorm of controversy that was birthed by our testimony in New York nor, I think, did Dr. Becker. I was a young Ph.D. in biophysics, and a still younger lawyer, largely inexperienced in the intricacies of both professions. Dr. Becker had been involved in scientific arguments but that experience did not prepare him for the contentiousness which subsequently developed regarding powerline EMFs.
The consequences of the stand that Dr. Becker took regarding health risks of powerlines were catastrophic for him. By 1980 he lost his NIH grants, his Veterans Administration grant, his laboratory, and he was forced to retire at the age of 56.
I too lost my NIH grant, and my Department of Energy contract. We were both attacked by the Chairman of Biology at Harvard University and by the President of the National Academy of Sciences. Contracts were awarded to investigators for the specific purpose of performing research designed to contradict the results of our research. In the short period between 1974–80 I came to be regarded as a serious enemy by an uncomfortably long list of scientists, corporations, agencies, and their lawyers.
We saw the end coming as we lost our grants, one by one, and the pressure against our laboratory mounted steadily. It became difficult to do research, and we began to focus on a book we agreed to write dealing with the biological significance of electromagnetic fields. We wrote Electromagnetism & Life during the last year that the laboratory existed.
When I wrote my chapters I saw that the scientific evidence showed that environmental electromagnetic fields were potential health risks. But I also saw many uncertainties and multi-faceted scientific and sociological conflicts regarding that issue. It was going to be necessary to deal with these problems. I was willing to deal with them. I was wanting to deal with them. I felt that I had paid my dues, that I had learned the territory, and that I had something to contribute to EMF biology. I turned down the jobs that were offered to me in New York to take a job in Louisiana that promised to allow me to continue pursuing studies of EMFs, if that were what I decided I really wanted. My wife and I and our four kids moved to Louisiana in 1981 where I began work in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the LSU Medical School in Shreveport as an Assistant Professor.
I had become angry over the question of health risks from powerline EMFs. I was angry because the power industry had hired scientists specifically to attack me. I was angry because there were scientists who didnít work for the industry who disagreed with me. I was angry because, as a consequence of telling the truth as I saw it, I lost my grant and my job.
The thing that made me angriest was what I saw as a simple injustice. An unfairness. I had never practiced law for a living. Consequently, in many respects, I still harbored the law-school notion that the goal of the law is to facilitate justice among people. It is sometimes difficult for practitioners in the hurly-burly world of courtrooms and clients to remember or even recognize what justice is in particular contexts. I lacked practical experience about the law, but the absence of this experience had preserved my notion of justice.
I constantly received phone calls from people who were worried about health risks from environmental EMFs from someone who saw Dr. Becker or me on 60 Minutes or read about us in Reader’s Digest or saw our name quoted in the National Enquirer or somewhere. The caller would ask: “I live next to a powerline; is it safe?” My heart went out to those people because, but for the grace of God, there go I. At least that’s what I thought initially. Then, I began to see that I am like them. Not with regard to EMFs, because I know enough about them to avoid making the mistake of exposing myself or my family to powerline EMFs. But the situation regarding EMFs has been cloned in our society. There are many examples in which physical factors are present in the environment by virtue of the same process that led to the presence of powerline EMFs. I know the EMF literature well, but I don’t know the literature in myriad other areas. In an important sense, I am as ignorant as the general public because the evidence of risk was hidden, or because I bought the company line that the evidence did not indicate a risk.What exactly is the injustice regarding powerline EMFs that I perceived? The power company says that the EMFs from the powerlines are safe. If they are right, the power companies do not have to spend money to include safety features that would protect against exposure to EMFs. Under this assumption, there is a trickle-down benefit to homeowners living beside the right-of-way, at least in cases where their electrical service is provided by the same company that owns the powerline, because all of the company’s customers, including the resident near the right-of-way, presumably pay less for their electricity. If the power company is wrong, however, their benefit remains the same but the risk-benefit analysis for the resident is shifted enormously in one direction. Some of them will develop diseases that were partly caused by the powerline EMF.
Many factors have been implicated as causing cancer in people. But EMFs are different. It is not the case that the exposed subjects are almost all healthy men who voluntarily choose to work in a profession that results in their exposure. It is not like smoking, where mostly adults voluntarily chose to engage in an activity for which the potential link with cancer is known. Instead, it is often the young or old who are unknowingly and involuntarily exposed to EMFs.
What is the just responsibility of the power industry and its trade associations, particularly the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI)? I think it is to “lay bare the truth, without ambiguity or reservation.” What occurred, however, was the opposite—a consistent pattern of obfuscation, misrepresentation, mischaracterization, and hiding data by EPRI and the power companies, motivated, as best I can tell, by simple greed.
EPRI and the power companies seemed to have limitless resources, and they bought whatever evidence they needed to perfect their position. They entered into contracts with various companies to produce favorable research results. Sometimes the companies were large established research organizations which had pre-existing intricate contractual relations with the power industry that involved far more dollars than called for in the EMF bioeffects research contracts. In other instances EPRI and the power industry simply created companies whose major asset was a contract for research or analysis regarding powerline EMFs. The results produced by these contracts and released to the public never concluded that they had found evidence suggesting that powerline EMFs might be a health hazard. Thus, the situation was that almost everyone who didnít work for the power industry or EPRI was almost always finding evidence that suggested that powerline EMFs were health risks, but essentially everyone who did work for the power industry or EPRI was failing to find such evidence.
The industry was always well represented in all legal proceedings involving powerline EMF health-risk issues. In the legal dispute in New York, the power industry fared poorly but learned from its mistakes. The industry developed an integrated strategy to protect its interests wherever they might be jeopardized, either in court or in the court of public opinion. Power company experts spun trade-association science in court and before various blue-ribbon committees to justify the conclusion that it was acceptable and reasonable to expose the public to powerline EMFs, even when the residents had no conscious awareness of the presence of EMFs, and had never voluntarily consented to be exposed.
I thought the situation was unfair. I wouldn’t want my family exposed to powerline electromagnetic fields based on the present evidence, the families of the lawyers who work for the power companies aren’t exposed to electromagnetic fields, and the Board members of the Electric Power Research Institute and the nation’s power companies don’t live beside powerlines, even though their spokesmen maintain in every available forum that it is appropriate for you and me to do so.
More and more, in the early 1980s, the things that previously made me angry came to be a source of motivation rather than anger. Some people want to save the whales, some want to fight breast cancer or AIDS. Some people are passionate about abortion, or creation science or saving the redwoods. I have always welcomed this form of passion because I like to see people fight for what they believe. It means they care about society. These people are generally not in it for money or fame, but rather to encourage the ascendency of their ideas. The rest of us are free to accept or reject the reasoning and values of the proponents of the various causes. For me, the task would involve every aspect of the relation between electromagnetic fields and human health.
I planned to study the point-of-view of different kinds of scientists in relation to how they approach the powerline EMF issue. The legal dispute had brought me into direct conflict with scientists who seemed to have quite a different view than me regarding how scientific facts should be established. This perception was subsequently reinforced as I progressively came into greater contact with biologists. Their facts generally didn’t involve mathematical equations whereas those of the physicists (which was the larger part of my experience at that time) seemed always to involve equations. Were there different ways of establishing scientific truth? If so, which was was applicable to assessing powerline health hazards?
I began a study of the cellular biology of how stimuli in the environment are detected by the body. Both in my own research, and in the research of others, I planned to learn where and how the body transduced electromagnetic fields. Although this question was important, it was not the first question to be considered. The question how the body detected EMFs would not be ripe until the fact that the body could detect them was first proven. Herman Schwan had confounded the issues of detection and mechanism when he argued that absence of knowledge regarding mechanism of detection of powerline EMFs was evidence that no such mechanism existed. To me that view was illogical, and the Siren song of mechanism was best avoided until the phenomenon of detection of powerline EMFs was established.
I also planned to study how alterations in the neuroendocrine system could lead to disease. Dr. Becker never restricted his concern about the health effects of EMFs to cancer. He thought it might have a role in all human diseases, even AIDS. He was mocked for this suggestion, but that response only intensified my desire to pursue inquiry into the effector systems in the body whose alteration by EMFs could be linked to disease. Early in this quest I settled on the immune system as a likely target for EMFs in relationship to inducing disease. No other possibility even comes close to being able to explain the range of empirical data that has been adduced regarding the biological effects of EMFs. If the efficiency of the immune system were reduced by EMFs, then it is easy to see that the probability of disease would be increased.
I planned to study epidemiology. That gray science does not permit deductions nor provide explanations like physics, and it is methodologically incapable of demonstrating cause-effect relationships, as biology can. Nevertheless, epidemiological studies strongly influenced perceptions regarding powerline EMF health risks, and it would be necessary to be able to distinguish a good EMF epidemiological study from a bad one.
As I saw it, the question whether powerline EMFs were health hazards was only partly a scientific question. Even unlimited research funding given to the brightest scientists with the highest degree of integrity would never lead to an answer. If the question were, for example, whether under a particular set of conditions a particular EMF applied to a given strain of rats would produce a statistically significant change in a particular dependent variable, that information could be obtained with enough money and the right investigators. But the question of EMF-induced health risks was not that kind of question. Its resolution would involve the use of scientific data, but scientific data alone was not enough. There was a need to focus on the process by which, as a society, we make decisions regarding matters that involve scientific data.
Finally, I would study and document the strategy of the Electric Power Research Institute and the power industry generally as it went about the business of defending its interests. It was not that I had a historianís interest or that I merely wanted to chronicle their activities. And I didn’t really intend to offer interpretations and characterizations to try to prove that they were bad guys. What I was mostly interested in was encapsulating their activities for the purposes of posing the question, Is this what we want? Given the importance of electricity in daily life, the economic aspects of the industry, the various stake-holders in the dispute, is the present system for resolving the dispute what we want, or not?
My EMF epiphany occurred after I arrived in Shreveport. It didn’t occur instantly, but rather slowly, like the coming of spring in the South which develops imperceptibly and then, one day, is simply there. One day I realized that my real goal was not to prove that I was right and EPRI was wrong. Rather, it was to find the truth about the relation between environmental EMFs and human disease, regardless of who might be hurt or displeased.
The ultimate issue would be whether EMFs affect human health. If the answer was yes, why was it yes? If the answer was no, why was it no?
I had started my career by studying how electromagnetic fields could be used to treat diseases. Maybe they could be used to regenerate missing or diseased organs and tissues, as Dr. Becker believed so passionately. It was clear, however, that there was a problem. The Food and Drug Administration said (in 1979) that EMFs, when carefully and precisely administered by a physician under controlled circumstances, could be used to treat specific bone diseases. But, the Electric Power Research Institute said that essentially the same kind of EMFs, when administered involuntarily in a completely uncontrolled fashion, even for a lifetime, had no effect whatever on human health. Somebody was wrong.
No matter what answer lay at the end of the inquiry, knowing the answer would be a public benefit. If powerlines were safe, the homeowner could turn his attention to other areas and worry about other things. There are a lot of elephant traps in life, but at least powerline EMFs would not be one of them. On the other hand, if powerline EMFs were a health risk, then people affected by them needed to know about it. The information needed to be presented in an honest and forthright fashion, “without ambiguity or reservation.”
While I was attempting to understand the EMF health-risk dispute, a remarkable thing happened. In the 1970s, when the issue first surfaced, most scientists, and I think essentially all laymen, had no conscious understanding or awareness of what an electromagnetic field is. By the 1990s, almost everybody had heard that powerlines give off something that might be bad for your health.
Throughout the 1980s pressure continued to build on Congress to do something about the potential problem of powerline EMFs. It took a long time for the pressure to develop. I think the chief reason was that there was a kind of basic unfairness on both sides of the dispute, and for a long time these two conditions balanced out one another rather evenly. The proponents of the powerline-EMFs-are-safe view had all the money on their side. They completely controlled the targeted research and the public spin involving powerline EMFs. Research that had the potential to yield results that implied powerlines caused health risks was not funded, and opinions that powerline EMFs were health risks were infrequently voiced in high government or industry councils. What was funded was usually irrelevant. The industry viewpoint was over-represented on each blue-ribbon committee, with the unsurprising result that their conclusions were broadly reassuring to the public and supportive of the industry.
On the other hand, it was distressingly easy for a print or media journalist to do a powerlines-cause-cancer story that distorted or misrepresented the nature of the risk and that overemphasized the reliability of the evidence that was discussed in the story. I do not mean to say that all industry-supported research was without value or that most media reports were not accurate. My point is that the money factor cut in one direction and the publicity factor cut in the opposite direction, and that consequently the EMF issue simmered in the ’80s.
A prominent aspect of the Congressional interest in the powerline EMF issue was the distrust that developed regarding whether the industry would honestly evaluate the health risks of powerlines. An indication that the problem was serious for the industry was the position taken by their representatives during Congressional hearings which eventually created the law that set up the federal program to evaluate the health implications of powerline EMFs. In those hearings, high-level officials from the power industry strongly urged Congress to enact legislation aimed at determining whether powerline EMFs affected human health. This was a major shift in strategy on the part of the power industry.
The law that mandated the federal EMF program was one of the provisions in the 1992 Energy Policy Act. The law called for research to determine whether powerline EMFs “affect human health,” and it required that this issue be addressed directly in a report to Congress by the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
The Director’s report to Congress is due in November, 1998. In response to the question Do powerline EMFs affect human health? I think the Director will effectively say “I can’t tell for sure that EMFs cause cancer, therefore I recommend we do nothing under the assumption that EMFs are safe.” The reasons why this will probably be the bottom line go deep into the nature of science, and into the relationship between science and the larger society of which it is a part.