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Origins of public fear of electromagnetic fields or EMF exposure: this paper discusses the origins & history of consumer, home owner, & home buyer concern that electromagnetic fields - EMF - might cause cancer in humans, the effect on house prices caused by cycles of public fear about potential, imagined, or real environmental hazards. As people become acclimated to the particular topic it loses its initial shock value. Links to other resources include EMF Procedures & Causes of EMF Measurement Error & Variation. Also see EMF RF FIELD & FREQUENCY DEFINITIONS for a simple explanation of different types of radio frequency (RF) and electromagnetic frequency (EMF) types and where they are found.
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Realtors listing or owners selling a property which adjoins an overhead power transmission line know that there are sometimes very significant marketing issues because of consumer concern for potential health issues where electric power lines expose people to strong and continuous electromagnetic fields (EMF).
A lengthy US government review of studies of the health effects of exposure to EMF concluded both that the actual level of risk was uncertain and that prudent avoidance of significant EMF exposure was warranted.
A later Swedish study of the health effects of electromagnetic fields was able to overcome important difficulties in calculating actual EMF exposure levels, and suggested that there was indeed some carcinogenic risk from EMF exposure.
The Swedish EMF study is important: it established a "dose-relationship" between the amount of exposure and the frequency of leukemia. The failure of other studies to demonstrate a specific dose-disease relationship has been used by utilities and government to assert that there is no proven relationship and no proven risk associated with EMR.
If the public exposure to EMF has been present for a long time, what causes surges in public anxiety about this topic? At times the release of cancer-risk studies regarding EMF and media focus on this topic have generated a cycle of public fear about electromagnetic fields.
The enviro-scare cycle, in my opinion, derives from periodic surges of journalist and media attention to studies of the carcinogenic effect of exposure to electromagnetic fields.
For example, there was considerable media attention to Werth's observation that living along the Denver Colorado power line right-of-way caused an EMF exposure which appeared to cause (or correlate with) a "doubling of the probability of childhood leukemia" for children living along the right-of-way of this overhead power transmission facility.
The concern for possible carcinogenic or "cancer-causing" effects of exposure to electromagnetic fields at the frequency and strength generated by power transmission lines has been studied for some time. Some contemporary research (by epidemiologist Nancy Werth, the "Denver Study") suggested a possible (but in fact small) correlation between exposure to 60 cycle electromagnetic fields (EMF) and the occurrence of leukemia in children. Her study found that the occurrence of childhood leukemia in the Denver Colorado area tended to cluster along and follow the path of a power distribution line which passed through a portion of the city. (I've already mentioned the "study of studies" and the important Swedish study above.)
Stating risk this way ("doubling the risk of childhood leukemia from power transmission line EMF exposure") is understandably frightening to parents, particularly those unfamiliar with statistics and the mathematics of risk assessment. As I will amplify below, if an exposure doubles a number which is at the start infinitesimally small, say 1 chance in 10,000, then the doubled number is still infinitesimally small, say 2 in 10,000. A careful reading of the Werth study or an interview with Werth herself would almost certainly yield a more cautious opinion about the level of risk than that generated by a public reading of news reports.
But this analysis is not comforting to everyone. The more broad topic of public fear and assessment of the level tolerable health risk has been widely discussed, and has as a component, the individual's assessment of the level of control that s/he has over the risk. So people who smoke, an act which creates a far greater health risk than power transmission lines, assess that risk as more moderate because they have a sensation of being able to "choose their poison."
Our own field measurements of EMF levels at residential properties or at specific locations within buildings have found a wide range of levels of exposure to building occupants. Remarkably, I've found that local ambient EMF levels in built-up residential areas are often quite close to the (rather low) reaction threshold discussed in the Werth and other studies, even where no obvious overhead electric power transmission facility is involved.
The implications of this observation and its accuracy merit further discussion and research since there could be small local sources in buildings which also affect occupants. Some examples are listed later in this paper.
Both the difficulties of measuring actual EMF exposure and the current level of knowledge about the health effects of EMF bear thoughtful discussion, some of which I address in this paper.
Electric utility workers who spend time repairing or installing power transmission lines and transformers probably have the highest exposure to electromagnetic fields. Consumers researching the possible health effects of EMF exposure should look closely at these studies for both the study conclusions and the care (and lack of bias) with which such studies may have been performed.
Because various parties have conflicting interests, research and advice on this topic have been confusing. The interested parties include building owners and sellers, realtors, home buyers, power transmission companies, journalists, and scientists or researchers who themselves are supported by various funding sources. A new study of studies which tests for correlation between the interests of each funding source and the results of studies performed would be a helpful test of conflicting opinions on this topic.
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