Follow the Health Data or Follow the Money?

By Published On: August 7, 2004

The California Public Utilities Commission will soon decide what?s next in the long-running controversy over electromagnetic fields. As power line skirmishes continue to smolder across the country and around the world, California regulators may be the first to take stock of all the new health data that have been generated over the last decade. On the commission?s agenda for mid-August is a choice between mitigating electromagnetic field (EMF) risks laid out by the state department of health or following the path of denial favored by electric utilities. The choice is in a decision on Pacific Gas & Electric?s Jefferson-Martin transmission line. After eight years of work at a cost of more than $7 million, the leaders of the California EMF program, run by the Department of Health Services (DHS), evaluated all the available studies and, in a groundbreaking report issued in June 2002, concluded that power line EMFs likely play a role in the development of childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, ALS, and miscarriages. PG&E counters that the report adds little more than speculation to the shaky science of EMFs. The utility is asking the commission to leave the dormant EMF issue alone. Charlotte TerKeurst, the CPUC administrative law judge who has been reviewing PG&E?s request to build the 27-mile 230 kV line, isn?t following the industry game plan. She believes that the time is now ripe to take a fresh look at EMF health risks?in effect, rejecting the need for absolute certainty of harm before moving forward. In a proposed decision on the Jefferson-Martin line, issued on June 8, TerKeurst writes, ?While there is no definitive proof at this point, we must proceed with the knowledge that EMF exposure may increase the risk of certain health effects.? She goes on to say that ?it is entirely appropriate and prudent for us to consider the EMF levels that would be created by the various possible routings and configurations of the project.? TerKeurst has also prepared an order that would force regulators to ?reconsider? their generic EMF policies for all power lines in the state. Soon afterward, Mike Peevey, president of the CPUC, offered his own, very different opinion. In an alternate decision dated June 22, he stated that the real problem is the public?s perception?he really means the public?s misperception?of EMF health risks, not the risks themselves. Peevey rewrote TerKeurst?s key conclusion to read: ?While there is no definitive proof at this point, we must proceed with the knowledge that there is public concern that EMF exposure may increase the risk of certain health effects.? Peevey?s pro-industry outlook should surprise no one. He was a senior executive at Southern California Edison for 20 years, the last three (1990-93) as its president. Edison has a long record of aggressively trying to bury the EMF issue. What is surprising is the role played by Pat Buffler, the former dean of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, who is serving as PG&E?s EMF expert witness. Buffler dismisses the health claims cited in the DHS EMF report. Here, for instance, is what they say about the EMF?childhood leukemia risk in a filing with the commission on the Jefferson-Martin line: ?Dr. Buffler is not aware of any epidemiologic studies that show exposure to 60 Hz magnetic fields of ?3-4 milligauss or more? are causally associated with an increased risk of childhood leukemia or any malignancy in adults or children.? This totally misleading statement turns on the word ?causally??the hired gun?s favorite get-out-of-jail-free card. We all know that epidemiology can never show causal links. Buffler, like others who are paid to support otherwise untenable positions, uses the impossible burden of proving causality to dismiss conflicting associations. As everyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the EMF health literature knows, the epidemiology on childhood leukemia was the basis for the unanimous decision by a panel assembled by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to classify EMFs as a ?possible human carcinogen? in 2001. The IARC decision was based on two independent, highly regarded meta-analyses that strongly support the EMF-leukemia link. As one otherwise skeptical member of the IARC committee, Maria Stuchly of Canada?s University of Victoria, told us at the time, ?The epidemiological data are there and it is hard to dismiss them.? Apparently, it gets a lot easier to dismiss the data when one?s palms are weighed down with silver. One additional fact makes Buffler?s distortion even harder to condone. Buffler herself is a coauthor of two meta-analyses that found small but statistically significant associations between occupational EMF exposures and leukemia and brain tumors. (That Buffler found a link between brain tumors and EMF exposure at work did not prevent her from testifying against a widow of a telephone lineman who, according to the compensation claim, died of a brain tumor. Here again, Buffler was defending the interests of PG&E.) The CPUC was slated to decide whether to reopen the generic EMF issue and whether to force more EMF mitigation along the Jefferson-Martin power line at its July 8 meeting. But at the last minute, activists such as Katie Carlin of the 280 Corridor Concerned Citizens group lobbied hard for a delay because they did not believe they could muster a three-vote majority from the five CPUC commissioners. It?s not clear whether any of the five commissioners has read even the executive summary of the health department?s EMF report. Let?s hope they don?t rely on PG&E and Buffler to tell them the whole story. <i>?Louis Slesin, Ph.D., founded </i>Microwave News<i> in 1980, which covers EMF health issues. It is now available on the Web at along with the original version of this article.</i>

Share this story

Not a member yet?

Subscribe Now