New Mexicans for Science and Reason

EMF's (Electromagnetic Fields) and CANCER

City/County Sued over "Carcinogenic EMF's"

From NMSR Reports, Vol. 7, No. 8, August, 2001

by Dave Thomas : (Help fight SPAM!  Please replace the AT with an @ )

Attorney Sam Bregman is suing the city of Albuquerque, as well as Bernalillo county, on behalf of clients he alleges got breast cancer from overexposure to "electromagnetic fields" while working in a city/county building. Bregman, who has a private law practice, was formerly a city councilor, and lost to John Kelly in his Democratic primary bid for congress. The Trib reported on July 31st that Bregman has obtained the services of a California-based expert, Cindy Sage of Sage Associates Environmental Consultants (Santa Barbara, CA) who said that the men were exposed to levels of five to 10 milligauss, and that "chronic exposure to levels between two and five milligauss have been known to cause certain cancers." The city's own estimates of actual electromagnetic field (EMF) exposures in the offices were not very different from those of Bregman's consultant, but the city interprets the results differently, taking the view of mainstream science (which happens to be that normal EMF's are not harmful). Bregman says his expert is just as good as the city's experts, but Sage's warnings about the dangers of EMF's are simply not supported by the most detailed and exhaustive studies.

Regarding the strength of the city/county's EMF's, the levels of "two to five milligauss" that Sage alleges cause cancer are actually common in most households and workplaces. Average household background fields typically vary from one to ten milligauss (Carnegie Mellon University, Prof. M. Granger Morgan, 1991). Drills, sanders, shavers and massagers put out much larger fields, from 200 to over 500 milligauss. The fields fall off with distance from the appliances, of course, but how can you use a drill without holding it? How can you shave yourself without getting the electric razor close to your face?

I wonder if Sam Bregman thinks we should shut down the construction industry, or if he uses an electric shaver. I wonder if Sam knows that the naturally occurring fields inside living creatures are at least 100 times as intense as those produced by 60-hertz power fields (see Science, 21 July 1989, p. 241.)

The real question is, are typical levels of EMF's actually harmful? Is EMF a carcinogen? There have been about two decades of intense research on the topic of health effects of EMF's. An early study back in the 80's appeared to show a positive link between 60-hertz fields and leukemia (the Wertheimer-Leeper study), but later researchers looked at the same data, and found that the localities with higher incidences of leukemia turned out to be closer to high-traffic regions. It wasn't EMF's causing the cancers - it was probably exposure to more auto exhaust pollutants, including benzenes, which (unlike EMF's) are actually known to cause leukemia. (Science, 9 Nov. 1990, p. 739).

The most definitive study to date is the very thorough, seven-year-long long National Cancer Institute epidemiological study of residential exposure to magnetic fields, and possible linkage to a type of leukemia (acute lymphoblastic leukemia) in children. This was published on July 3rd, 1997, in The New England Journal of Medicine (Vol. 337:1). This study showed that if there is any link at all, it's much too small to cause any concern. There are much more serious problems -- real problems -- deserving of our attention. In the words of an editorial from the same journal, "...hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into studies that never had much promise of finding a way to prevent the tragedy of cancer in children. ... It is time to stop wasting our research resources."

Unfortunately, the California consultant was correct when she told the Trib that the state of California has recently issued an alarm about the dangers of EMF's. But, as Bob Park of the American Physical Society commented on July 27th, the California report is based on "old and discredited studies." Even the California report, which Sage cites as evidence that the city and county have exposed Bregman's clients to deadly carcinogens, admits that there is a "chance that EMF's have no effect at all."

There was a time when there was valid concern that normal household EMF's might be harmful. But the experiments have been done. Decades of research have consumed hundreds of millions of dollars, and untold hours of effort, but there were no discernible effects. We should be much more concerned about things that we know cause cancer - such as carcinogens like benzene.

It's good to remember that not all experts are created equal.

Read the Albuquerque Tribune's story on Bregman and EMF's...

More Resources...

Medical College of Wisconsin, "Powerlines and Cancer FAQs"

Power Line Fields and Public Health from the American Physical Society

Sid Deutsch essay on EMF's and Epidemiology:

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