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BOOK REVIEW : A Link Between Power Lines and Cancer? : THE GREAT POWER-LINE COVER-UP, by Paul Brodeur ; Little, Brown and Company; $21.95, 304 pages

September 28, 1993|BETTYANN KEVLES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After reading "The Great Power-Line Cover-Up," the only thing I am convinced of is that author Paul Brodeur truly believes that electromagnetic waves from power-lines cause cancer.

Moreover, Brodeur, a writer for the New Yorker (where most of this book appeared in installments, which may account for its repetitiousness), believes that experts from America's leading medical schools as well as from the U.S. departments of Labor, Commerce, Health, Navy and Air Force have in one way or another colluded with the electric-power industry to conceal the danger from the American public.

Brodeur draws us into the story by writing about the man-on-the-street, in this case Meadow Street in Guilford, Conn. We discover that several residents of Meadow Street, past and present, have developed cancers. What distinguishes Meadow Street from the rest of this New Haven suburb is its proximity to an electric substation and the presence of power lines from the Connecticut Light and Power Co.

Brodeur then moves on to California, and in particular to schools in Montecito, Fresno and San Diego. Here children, staff and teachers in classrooms near power lines have developed cancers, especially leukemia, brain cancers and cancers of the reproductive organs.

In each of the California communities, representatives of parents and teachers presented evidence of what appeared to be clusters of disease to their school boards and representatives of the California Department of Health Services. They were greeted with indifference and assured that there were no clusters. Later, when they pressed their cases, the same authorities reacted by postponing responses, ignoring the data the parent-teacher groups provided and, in general, behaving as if these concerned citizens were an enemy to be disarmed.

Brodeur is understandably outraged at the authorities' cavalier behavior. However, his dismissals of scientific literature are even more cavalier as he builds a case against the power companies by fixating on a single part of a complicated technological situation--the magnetic fields that are part of every alternating electric current.

He also dismisses the opinions of everyone connected to the Bush Administration as tainted by their pro-business bias. Likewise, he discounts the testimony of everyone connected to the military or Department of Energy on the grounds that they are the people responsible for nuclear contamination and are therefore not to be trusted. And finally, he dismisses the opinions of anyone who has ever been connected to the electric-power industry.

There well may be a connection.

So where does all this leave us? Are power lines as dangerous to public health as asbestos and cigarettes, as Brodeur maintains? If they are, is the public being manipulated by a cabal of interests that stretches from Washington to Harvard, Yale and Stanford?

We would certainly not stop using electricity. At worst, power lines would be reconfigured, relocated, re-insulated and separated from residential and institutional use. And who would pay for this? Would the great power companies go bankrupt? More likely the cost of a changeover would be passed on to consumers, just as we absorb the cost of cleaning up oil spills.

Brodeur concludes this impassioned polemic with a feeling of confidence that the "cover-up" is about to be exposed because the injured parties are beginning to bring their cases to court. He predicts an avalanche of such cases, and I hope he is right.

We need to spend whatever is necessary to investigate with greater imagination and rigor the ramifications of living in an electrically powered world.

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