Friday, December 5, 2014
Fear of Power Lines
If you are old enough, you remember the big scare in the late 1980s about power lines causing cancer. In fact, if you are not old enough to remember the news reports of the time, you have probably heard about this idea from someone who was. There was a great deal of concern, but after over 30 years of further research, it appears to have been a mistaken assumption. Still the fear persists.
The fairly short (7:46) NY Times Retro Report is worth watching.
It begins with replays of news reports from all the major networks from 1987. It was big news at the time, and this flashback is very informative in retrospect showing how the news business operates when breaking news has the potential to stir up a lot of fear based on a very limited study. A voice-over talks about how power lines may cause cancer while showing the picture of a small bald child, apparently battling cancer (but not from power lines) – sneaky. When seven children in one Denver school developed cancer and parents blamed it on nearby power lines, one reporter says that it could be a “tragedy of enormous proportions.”
The Times calls the episode “Power of Fear” with the message that once this type of fear is introduced into our society it never really goes away.
The researcher who first suspected the problem now explains that further research has ruled out any problem. With the number and density of power lines, this should have developed into a major health problem, but it didn’t. “That suspicion (of a cancer risk) was simply wrong...The likely impact (of power lines) is zero.” Scientists in the 1990s conducted hundreds of experiments exposing rats, other animals and human cells to intense EMFs (magnetic fields around the power lines) over long periods of time with no change in the cells. “In 20 years of looking, no one has found a way that power line fields can do anything at all to cells of animals; unless it can do something to cells, it cannot cause cancer.” The National Academy of Sciences confirmed this by reviewing 500 studies and releasing their findings in October 1996. Nothing since then has altered the conclusion of no danger.
The association was always “suggestive, but very faint” but correlation does not prove causation. Yet the idea, the fear, persists and is still spread by some public figures, some advertisers who use the scare tactics to sell real estate service and by word of mouth – now with the added power of social media.
Why do some Americans believe these sources and continue to fear the presence of power lines? Psychologists tell us that risks that are invisible, that might cause suffering before death or that might affect children have uncanny staying power, even in the face of firm evidence to the contrary. This highlights the need for critical thinking, to put aside emotional responses and listen to the facts. Don’t we have enough stuff to be afraid of without dredging up errors from the past?