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Nonfiction in Brief

CURRENTS OF DEATH by Paul Brodeur (Simon and Schuster: $19.95; 333 pp.)

December 24, 1989|SONJA BOLLE

There has been evidence in circulation for years, Paul Brodeur reports, that electromagnetic fields created by power lines and electric appliances are harmful to our health. "Currents of Death" is the story of research into these dangers and an investigation into the coverups that have kept the results of the research from the public. While the static magnetic field present everywhere on the earth's surface is much stronger, low-frequency magnetic fields set up by the alternating electrical current we use seem to be correlated to rates of high infant leukemia, cancer and depression.

Brodeur begins his tale with the story of an unfunded study undertaken by an epidemiologist in Denver. Looking for patterns in infant deaths from leukemia, Nancy Wertheimer plotted her findings on a map with a plan of the area's power lines and found a persuasive correlation. From Wertheimer's studies, Brodeur proceeds to describe studies that looked into the high rate of spontaneous abortions and fetal deformities in pregnant women who work on computer terminals; another study found a high rate of suicide in houses near power lines.

As might be expected, the conclusions of all these studies have been vigorously denied--and where possible, suppressed--by power companies. But another reason for the lack of circulation of these ideas, as Wertheimer wrote in a report, is that "electrical power came into use many years before environmental impact studies were common, and today our domestic power lines are taken for granted and generally assumed to be harmless." The suggestion that our common household appliances, our video display terminals and the power lines that are an unnoticed part of our landscape might be lethal is too pervasive a danger readily to face.

"Currents of Death" does not present conclusive evidence of biological danger, but calls attention to the interests that have prevented unbiased researched from being undertaken. Just as consumers have encouraged exposure of other environmental hazards, Brodeur argues that a public outcry must prompt reliable research in this area.

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