Power lines — Radiation?

Originally Published: September 20, 1996
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Dear Alice,

Do you know anything about possible radiation effects from high voltage power lines near one's home, and also any adverse effects from cellular tower "radiation" or exposure? Any references you could offer would be much appreciated.

Dear Reader,

One person at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told Alice that your question is "deceptively simple." Besides cellular towers, most of the health risks suspected to be associated with power lines, and even cellular phones, are difficult to determine and define. Depending on who you speak to, you're likely to hear a range of opinions and different "answers" to your question.

First, a point of clarification: power lines and cellular towers produce two different kinds of "fields." Cellular towers, radio stations, and some electronic equipment produce radio-frequency fields. Power lines, electrical wiring, and even human beings create electromagnetic (electric and magnetic) fields (EMF), which seem to be the biggest source of concern. We are exposed to electromagnetic fields everyday; in fact, they are an integral part of our natural environment. The question then is, when we create fairly large EM fields, do we risk damaging human health? And, what is it about these fields that could possibly be damaging?

Some epidemiological studies have shown an increased probability of childhood leukemia and brain tumors in residential areas from exposure to strong EM fields, such as those created by high voltage power lines (the ones on big steel towers). In occupational settings, a similar correlation has been identified between breast cancer and leukemia and EM fields. But the risk factor of two is low, especially in comparison to a risk factor of 20 for the correlation between smoking and lung cancer. You would be hard pressed to find someone who believes that 60 Hz fields (typically what you would live near) actually cause or initiate a cancer, although it's possible for EM fields to promote or co-promote a pre-existing cancer.

Biological research has found that electromagnetic fields affect certain processes and functions at cellular and molecular levels. These biological effects have not, however, actually been linked to any specific health problems. Researchers are not even sure about which aspect(s) of electromagnetic fields actually affects human health -- voltage, frequency, or length of exposure? Furthermore, many people are still concentrating on a more basic question: is there a risk?

Beyond the aesthetics of cellular towers, they aren't much to worry about. Because these towers point upward, the fields they create do not reach the ground. A health threat arises if a tower is situated close to a multi-story building, and if people spend a lot of time on one of the upper floors (average height of cellular towers is 100-150 feet). Actually, if you're going to worry about cellular, worry about the phones. With the antenna so close to the user's head, some people are concerned about the potential risk of developing brain cancer. Don't chuck your cell phone just yet. Since research in this area is still in its early stages, nothing is conclusive so far, and we won't really know what the risks are for some time.

Alice