Strong Currents, Weak Case


By Paul Brodeur

Little Brown 326pp $21.95

Life in the late 20th century certainly gives folks plenty to worry about--nuclear waste, the thinning ozone layer, asbestos, and pesticides and other chemicals on foods and lawns. For the past five years, New Yorker writer Paul Brodeur has been painting a chilling portrait of a problem that goes to the heart of how we live: the menace posed by electricity.

In his 1989 Currents of Death, Brodeur warned of dangerous electromagnetic fields emitted by everything from computers to electric blankets. Now, in The Great Power-Line Cover-Up, he not only warns of a looming cancer epidemic, but also accuses government officials, utility executives, even the nation's top newspapers, of hiding the threat. As a result, "thousands of unsuspecting children and adults will be stricken with cancer, and many of them will die unnecessarily early deaths." Yikes!

Brodeur backs up his warning with undeniably tragic tales. A big chunk of his book chronicles the sorrow on Meadow Street, for example. Only nine houses perch on this street in Guilford, Conn., but the litany of ills is horrifying--excruciating headaches, brain cancer, ovarian tumors, epilepsy. Brodeur insists the cause is an adjacent power substation that emits magnetic fields of more than a hundred milligauss (25 times stronger than those a foot away from a computer screen). What's more, he writes, public health officials inexplicably and inexcusably concluded electromagnetic fields were not to blame.

Well, don't head for the log cabin just yet. A little knowledge of this controversy, or even a close perusal of the book, turns up enough inconsistencies, dubious interpretations, and selective reporting to cast immense doubt on the whole argument--and to reveal Brodeur as more zealot than journalist. That's too bad, because there's a need for an unbiased assessment of the dozens of often contradictory studies of power-line exposure. What's more, Brodeur's view that electromagnetic fields must be avoided at all costs means he can't reasonably address the underlying question: How far should society go to eliminate a risk that's still uncertain but probably small?

Instead, The Great Power-Line Cover-Up repeatedly strains credulity. It's difficult to believe that any single factor can cause the long list of ailments Brodeur attributes to electromagnetic fields. In fact, public health officials who studied diseases on Meadow Street and among pupils of a Fresno (Calif.) school concluded that they are too diverse to constitute a "cluster" indicative of a hazard. Brodeur's response: The officials are either incompetent of biased.

Elsewhere, Brodeur seriously undercuts his case. In addition to attributing the brain tumors on Meadow Street to magnetic field exposure, he repeatedly cites "no fewer than twelve studies" showing increased incidence of brain cancer in people exposed to fields. Then, late in the book, he describes new Swedish research that "blew away the industry's argument that the results of previous studies were suspect." The Swedes found that with greater exposure to fields, incidence of childhood leukemia rose somewhat. But Brodeur admits: "Surprisingly, they observed no association in either children or adults between exposure to magnetic fields and the occurrence of brain tumors." This apparently doesn't shake Brodeur's belief in such a link. And he doesn't mention that one study of telephone linemen cited chemicals such as solvents, not electromagnetic fields, as the probable cause of elevated rates of brain cancer.

Brodeur's charges of a cover-up are similarly unconvincing. Various prestigious scientific bodies have concluded that the cancer threat from power lines is unproven. Brodeur says the conclusions are baloney: The researchers are biased because some are utility industry consultants. But any study suggesting a small link between electromagnetic fields and cancer he treats as gospel--even if that research was wholly funded by the industry. In Brodeur's world, it seems, the main sign of being part of a conspiracy is disagreeing with him.

Power lines and electrical devices have hardly been proven benign. Evidence suggests a small increase in leukemia and perhaps other cancers among people exposed for long periods to moderately high fields. But eliminating all risk by burying power lines, shielding transformers, and moving homes and schools would cost billions--and probably prevent only a handful of cases. Far more sensible is a strategy of "prudent avoidance"--reducing exposure by taking a few cheap steps, such as regulating current flows through power lines to minimize fields or prohibiting new houses or schools from being built within a few hundred feet of high-tension wires. Many states and utilities already take such actions--in many cases because of public pressure.

The Great Power-Line Cover-Up is an odd beast. The new evidence it purports to present is too weak to have much impact on policy, and as an expos , it's remarkably lame. What's left is merely a good read that needs to be approached with a sturdy dose of skepticism.

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