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High-Tech High Anxiety : Consumers worry about electromagnetic fields in the home. But experts say there's no proof yet that your appliances are killing you.


The headlines sound like they've been lifted from tabloids:

"Is My Electric Blanket Killing Me?"

"Can Power Lines Cause Leukemia?"

"Are Our Computers a Health Menace?"

But these stories and dozens more have appeared recently in such mainstream publications as USA Today, Time, Fortune and Business Week.

The coverage reflects consumer alarm that the glut of large and small appliances in our homes, offices and cars might be doing more than making life easier: They might be threatening our health.

"We've gotten a lot more suspicious about the technology around us," says Dr. Raymond Neutra, chief of the Environmental Health Investigations Branch of the California Department of Health Services.

In question is the low-level electromagnetic field emitted by electricity. Some studies suggest that exposure to EMF radiation might increase risk of childhood cancers and adult leukemia and brain tumors, although scientists disagree on the evidence and the studies are contradictory.

For instance, although a number of studies have found a small increase in leukemia and brain cancer among electrical workers, a recent UCLA-Southern California Edison study of Edison workers found no link.

"It's a murky field," says Dr. David Savitz, epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, who has reviewed the research. "At this point, the research does not present a coherent picture of a causal relationship. That's because we are studying so many things--different exposures, different settings, different subjects and different health outcomes."

At USC's School of Medicine, Dr. Stephanie London was one of the researchers on a comprehensive 1991 study that found some modest association between electromagnetic fields and childhood cancer. But the study painted a confusing picture, she says, because assessment based on how far the children lived from power lines showed some association, but measurements of magnetic fields within the homes did not.

"It means there is a lot of uncertainty whether this is a true causal relationship," London says.

"To the lay public," she says, "it seems like a handful of studies have been done--and why don't people know? But it doesn't work that way. If we could take a random million people into a real lab and make them live there for a study, we probably would know."

Part of the complexity in studying EMF is the electromagnetic spectrum, which spans many types of energy traveling in waves measured by length and speed. At the high-frequency top of the spectrum are X-rays. At the bottom are electric power lines (extra-low frequency) and cellular telephones (radio frequency).

Consumer advocates have targeted electric power lines for some time, lobbying regulatory agencies to set emission standards. Their concern is that citizens living near power lines or substations have no way of knowing when the voltage is increased or what the level is.

The idea that small appliances can have very high EMF fields--that the hair dryer or electric blanket we take home might pose a risk--is a newer fear.

"What's unique about this problem," says Neutra, who oversees research in health effects of power grid and appliance radiation, "is that our whole society is dependent on electricity. Now we're saying maybe there is some risk from it. Until we are sure, we will have tremendous controversy with people who want an answer now, when science can only go so fast."

His apprehension is shared by many consumers. When USA Weekend magazine polled its 33.5 million Sunday readers about their health worries, electromagnetic fields topped the list.

Public nervousness is reflected in calls to utility companies ("We've noticed a dramatic increase in the last few weeks," says a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power spokeswoman) and in booming sales of hand-held gaussmeters that measure electromagnetic fields.

Karl Riley of Sausalito, who started Magnetic Sciences International almost four years ago, says he hasn't had a day off since Christmas. He designs and sells two basic meters priced at $215 and $250.

"I'm getting orders from all over the country," he says. "Utilities are calling because their customers are asking for meter readings. And I'm getting orders from electronics stores like Radio Shack, which means that customers are coming and asking for magnetic meters."

It's easy enough to measure EMF--the problem is what to do with the results.

"Our dilemma is that we have inconclusive data," says Margo T. Oge, director of the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Radiation and Indoor Air Office. "We have 10 field offices around the country, and we are getting hundreds and hundreds of calls."

The EPA is drafting a 35-page public education document, "EMF in Your Environment," which it hopes to have available by May in its Washington public information center and regional offices.

"We hope to provide a summary of all the information available," Oge says.

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