Sunday, April 29, 2007

Powerful arguments

Several years ago I worked in a science museum. One of my duties involved a program about electricity. In the course of doing that, more than once a question would come up about the safety of living near powerlines - or, as they were called when I was a kid, high-tension lines. The museum didn't have an official position on the question, but all of my colleagues were dismissive of the concerns; one insisted "you get more exposure to electromagnetic radiation from your electric toothbrush."

I remained a little skeptical of that attitude, noting that more than one study panel had failed to reach a genuine consensus. So rather than dismissing people's worries, when asked I would tell people that what was universally agreed is that if the effect exists, it's a small one. If I didn't have to live near a powerline, I wouldn't - but if I wound up living near one, I wouldn't spend my time worrying about it as there are far greater dangers about which I could be concerned.

It's now several more years and several more studies down the road and it still looks like I was giving the best advice. From the BBC for Friday:
Experts have clashed over whether or not it is safe to build houses and schools near powerlines. ...

The panel of 40 included scientists, representatives from the electricity industry and health campaigners.

Opinion is divided over whether electromagnetic fields from powerlines pose a health risk. ...

In 2005, the Department of Health funded Draper Report found that children who lived within 200 metres of high voltage lines had a 70% higher risk of developing leukaemia than those who lived more than 600 metres away. ...

Some scientists have suggested that other illnesses, including brain tumours and motor neurone disease could also be linked to EMF exposure.

But others say powerlines pose no health threat.
The panel did suggest a number of ways to reduce public exposure to electromagnetic fields both in terms of the lines and individual families' efforts to avoid excess exposure in their homes - but couldn't agree on the more contentious issue of an outright ban on new construction near powerlines.

If the Draper Report is correct, the result of people now living within 200 meters of powerlines could be an extra five cases of childhood leukemia per year, just over 1% of the annual total of roughly 400 new cases. Again, a rather small effect - but not a zero one and hardly negligible for those actually affected.

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