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Electromagnetic fields generate a quarter-century of health worries

The New York Times reviews a feature article from 1989.

The New York Times’s occasional Time Travel column explores topics covered in the Times’s weekly Science Times section 25 years ago “to see what has changed—and what has not.” On 8 July, Kenneth Chang looked back at the biophysics of extremely low-frequency radiation under the summarizing headline “Debate continues on hazards of electromagnetic waves.”

The lengthy article recalled from 11 July 1989 began:

In the century since electric power revolutionized human existence, most people have scarcely thought, if at all, about whether it is safe to live with the electromagnetic fields radiated by the cables, wires, fixtures and appliances all around them. When the question did come up, scientists generally assured the public that there was no danger to health.

They are no longer so certain. While virtually all experts still say no proof yet exists that electromagnetic fields pose any health threat, accumulating scientific evidence has convinced many that there is cause for concern.

To document that worry, the 1989 article cited a Congressional Office of Technology Assessment report, but added that the concern “could evaporate in the face of further research.” The old article quoted David O. Carpenter, then the dean of the School of Public Health operated jointly by the New York State Department of Public Health and the State University of New York at Albany: “The whole thing is very worrisome.”

The 1989 piece explained:

Electromagnetic fields at these low frequencies do not produce the same dramatic effects on the body as are produced by two other commonly used forms of electromagnetic radiation, both at much higher frequencies: X-rays, which have enough energy to break apart DNA, which carries genetic information; and microwaves, which cause damage from heat. For years, scientists asserted that because 60-hertz fields can do neither, they could not possibly cause significant changes in the body.

That assertion is now being challenged by laboratory experiments on living cells and animals, and by the epidemiological studies that have shown a statistical association—but no cause-and-effect relationship—between cancer and exposure to electromagnetic fields from wires that carry electricity through neighborhoods and into homes.

The old article went on to discuss those experiments and other research in substantial detail. At one point it addressed an epidemiological study seeking “to find out whether there is an association between exposure to 60-hertz fields and childhood cancer”:

Two Colorado epidemiologists, Nancy Wertheimer and Ed Leeper, compared children who died of cancer in Denver between 1950 and 1973 with a control group of other children. The study found that children who lived near electrical-distribution lines were twice as likely to develop cancer as those who did not.

The 2014 article doesn’t specifically mention the quarter-century of not just criticism but mockery that ensued from physicist, technoscience observer, and author Robert Park. In his weekly What's New e-newsletter of 25 August 1989—a month and a half after the original Times piece appeared—he wrote:

A recent series in the New Yorker by Paul Brodeur on the hazards of low-frequency electromagnetic fields has produced an epidemic of electrophobia. His shocking revelations will soon appear in book form. It all began in 1976 when an unemployed epidemiologist in Denver concluded that childhood victims of leukemia often lived near power transformers. In no time at all, women who sleep under electric blankets began having miscarriages, people living near power lines began committing suicide and physicists who use computer terminals became disoriented. Just be grateful that we use 60 Hertz and not 45 or 75; an EPA researcher discovered that the effect of alternating magnetic fields on brain tissue is greatest at frequencies that are odd multiples of 15. As Brodeur correctly observes, almost all scientists are skeptical of these effects. He interprets this as evidence of a massive cover up.

Two decades later, on 10 December 2010, Park was still incensed. He wrote:

Exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) in modern society is ubiquitous, but with the exception of a few crackpots it was not thought to be a problem until 1989 when the New Yorker ran a series of hopelessly misinformed articles by Paul Brodeur linking EMF to cancer. The articles were turned into a series of books with lurid titles like Currents of Death. Brodeur had zero background in science but he managed to arouse the anti-science monster that had been in hiding since World War II. The media, trained to give both sides of the story, even if one side is the babbling of an idiot, was no help. It did not end until 1996 when the National Academy of Sciences, persuaded that the public would not accept an argument based on quantum mechanics, released a three-year study that found no effect of EMF on the human body. Almost overnight power lines stopped causing cancer. The anti-science monster had been chained, but it was still alive.

Whether or not such a figurative monster was involved or endures, Chang consulted Carpenter again for the Times’s July 2014 retrospective:

Dr. Carpenter is still at the same university, as the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment. He still finds 60-hertz radiation worrisome.

“Almost nothing has changed in 25 years in terms of the controversy, although the evidence for biological effects of electromagnetic fields continues to grow stronger,” he wrote via email last week.

The 2014 Times update ends by reporting that the World Health Organization “is working on a new report summarizing the health risks of radio-frequency fields, to be published next year.”


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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