Panel Debunks Powerline-Cancer Link

WASHINGTON--An expert panel has found no scientific reason to believe that electromagnetic fields from power lines, appliances, and other everyday sources cause cancer or other health effects. But some panel members argue that the heavily studied issue deserves further scrutiny.

The panel's report, released today by the National Research Council--part of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences--is expected to weaken further what many scientists feel is an already shaky case against the harmful effects of EMFs. Several population studies over the past 17 years have pointed to a weak link between EMF exposure in the home and certain cancers, particularly childhood leukemia, prompting widespread media coverage of the alleged problem. But similar studies have found no connection, and scientists have failed to propose a plausible biological mechanism to explain how EMFs might cause cancer.

The NRC panel, chaired by neurobiologist Charles Stevens of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, looked at more than 500 human, animal, and cellular studies on EMFs and found ``no conclusive and consistent evidence...that exposures to residential electric and magnetic fields produce cancer, adverse neurobehavioral effects, or reproductive and developmental effects.''As for what this means for the average person, says panel member Bruce Kelman of Golder Associates Inc. in Redmond, Washington, ``I would be much more worried'' about air pollution than EMFs.

The panel did not dismiss all EMF findings, however. After analyzing data on childhood leukemia, the panel found a 50% increase in this rare cancer in homes with a high estimated exposure to EMFs from nearby power lines. But these estimates correlate poorly with actual measured levels of EMF inside the home, the panel says. The panel suggests further studies to explore whether the elevated leukemia risk comes from some other hazard, such as air pollution.

Not all members of the panel, which was formed at the request of the Department of Energy, believe the report should close the book on EMFs. Three of the panel's 16 members issued a separate press release imploring people not to ignore potential EMF health effects. ``We don't think the matter is settled,'' says one of the signers, cell biologist Richard Luben of the University of California, Riverside, citing the leukemia studies and cellular and animal data. To many skeptics, however, the case is at least considerably weakened.