Feeling Fatigued and Forgetful? the Power Line Next Door May Be the Source of Your Burnout

updated 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Although he lives much of the year in New England, Paul Brodeur threw away his electric blanket years ago. He never bought a microwave oven. And when he sits down to write, he uses pen and paper, not a word processor.

A staff writer at the New Yorker, Brodeur, 58, is no mulish Luddite—he simply believes in practicing what he preaches. A passionate public-health advocate, Brodeur has written nine books, among them The Zapping of America, about the risks of microwave radiation. His latest work, Currents of Death, discusses the alleged dangers—birth defects and cancer among them—posed by the electromagnetic fields generated by high-current power lines, electric blankets and computer video display terminals (VDTs).

A Boston native and Harvard graduate, Brodeur divides his time between New York City, Connecticut and Cape Cod. Divorced, he is the father of two grown children, whose houses, like his own, he has measured for electromagnetic fields. He spoke with Boston bureau chief Dirk Mathison.

What is the radiation from power lines and VDTs?

It consists of electric fields produced by voltages, and magnetic fields produced by electric currents. Electric fields can easily be shielded by conducting materials. But magnetic fields can penetrate almost anything that stands in their way, including the human body.

How does this differ from X rays?

The fields from high-current power lines and VDTs are low-frequency emanations—the waves vibrate back and forth 60, 100 or 15,000 times per second. X rays are extremely high frequency waves that vibrate a million trillion times per second. It was once thought that extra-low-frequency, or ELF, radiation was not harmful, but more and more evidence suggests that it is.

What effect does ELF radiation have on us?

It can cause changes in brain chemistry and nervous system problems, including memory loss, irritability and fatigue. It can also result in an increased risk of cancer as well as adverse effects on the developing fetuses of both animals and humans.

How do we know this?

Fifteen out of 17 studies of men whose work exposed them to electromagnetic fields concluded that these workers have an increased incidence of leukemia, lymphoma and brain cancer. One study shows that electric utility workers die of brain cancer at a rate 13 times greater than unexposed workers. One of the landmark studies on this issue was done by a Colorado researcher named Nancy Wertheimer. In 1979 she studied 344 children in Denver who had died of cancer and found a statistically high number who lived in homes near high-current wires. Her disturbing results have been confirmed by two other studies.

What does ELF radiation do to the body that causes cancer and birth defects?

It's not exactly clear yet. Studies on lab animals indicate that it changes the electrochemical activity of the brain and interferes with its ability to send certain messages to the body. The fields may also suppress the body's immune system—so that while the ELF fields don't cause cancer, they may promote it. We don't know exactly how asbestos fiber causes lung cancer, either, but we know it does.

Who is most at risk?

Anyone who lives or works in an electromagnetic field—for example, people whose homes are near high-current power lines, power and telephone linemen, electrical engineers. And anyone who sits too close to a VDT.

Why are VDTs considered hazardous?

VDTs first came under suspicion in the late 1970s and early '80s, when a dozen or so unexplained clusters of miscarriages and birth defects were found in groups of women who worked with the machines. In one group of computer operators at Sears in Dallas, eight out of 12 pregnancies ended in miscarriage or neonatal death. Starting in 1982, a number of disturbing studies came out of Spain and Sweden indicating that electric and magnetic fields similar to those emanating from VDTs can cause birth defects and fetal death among test animals. In addition, in 1988 the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program did a study of 1,583 California women which concluded that those who worked 20 hours or more a week with VDTs stood an 80 percent greater chance of miscarrying than women who did similar work without VDTs.

So the amount of exposure makes a difference?

Yes, the electric utility industry tries to argue that we shouldn't blame power lines, because toasters and hair dryers, for example, also give off strong magnetic fields. But you only use a hair dryer for a few minutes a day. That's very different from living near a high-current power line or sleeping under an electric blanket eight hours a night or working all day in front of a VDT.

How has the industry responded to such disturbing findings?

Some power companies admit that there may be an association between electromagnetic fields and cancer, but they say that the evidence is not conclusive. They claim to be on top of the issue and studying it, but they have said virtually nothing about this problem to the American public for the 20 years they've known about it.

What about computer manufacturers?

They aren't admitting anything either. They may be in a legal bind, because if there is a link between their products and problem pregnancies and cancer, they could be liable. IBM will be marketing a VDT that emits a much weaker magnetic field. Why are they doing this—unless they think there might be a problem?

Are you saying there's a cover-up going on?

Yes. Because of studies done by the Navy and others, the electric utility industry knew in the early '70s that there were biological effects caused by power-line radiation. Yet the power companies said nothing, and when the Wertheimer study was published in 1979, they attacked it and tried to discredit her. As for computer manufacturers, they testified before Congress in 1981 that there was no harmful radiation from VDTs. Government health officials have been inexcusably lax in investigating the problem.

Has any action been taken on a local level?

A power company in Houston had to move some power lines near a school because a jury said that there was a health risk to the children. In Seattle, a citizens' group got a power company to cancel plans for high-current power lines through their area. Such groups are springing up in every state.

Some industry scientists dispute your conclusions. A new study from the University of Toronto, for example, shows no relationship between ELF fields and cancer.

I'm not familiar with the Toronto study. But when two out of five studies of children exposed to electromagnetic fields found no cancer link, the methodologies of both negative studies turned out to be flawed. While some studies are inconclusive, there are many more that do show a relationship between ELF and cancer. The power and computer industries always try to shoot down studies one at a time as they go across the sky. What I've done in my book is present all the evidence in one form, and when you add it all up, it's overwhelming.

How can we protect ourselves?

Before buying a new house, measure the ELF from nearby power lines. People who now live near high-current lines should get together with their neighbors and insist that the lines be rerouted or buried. People should discard electric blankets and water-bed heaters and not buy new ones until they have been redesigned to eliminate exposure. Electric dial-face alarm clocks should be kept at least three feet from the bed. Offices should be rearranged so that operators are sitting at least an arm's length from their own VDT and at least 40 inches from other screens.

Are there any safe VDTs?

The only assuredly safe ones available now are those computers, such as laptops, which use liquid crystal display screens that do not contain cathode ray tubes. This scare is starting a whole new industry, and there are a lot of charlatans in it. Some businesses sell screens to put in front of your screen. But that's crazy. You're not going to stop electromagnetic radiation with a screen.

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