TEXT ON SCREEN: November 9, 1987
ARCHIVAL: (ABC, EVENING NEWS, 11-9-87): PETER JENNINGS: We have a report tonight about an unattractive part of the countrys landscape that may also be hazardous to your health.
NARRATION: In the late 1980s, news reports that electromagnetic fields from power lines could spark a cancer epidemic
ARCHIVAL: (CBS EVENING NEWS, 5-21-90): DAN RATHER: New and troubling evidence
NARRATION: had the public and the power companies running scared.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NIGHTLY NEWS, 12-13-90): TOM BROKAW: Is there a cancer risk associated with electric power lines?
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 11-9-87): BETTINA GREGORY: Magnetic fields may cause cancer. Especially in children.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 11-9-97): REPORTER: This may be as significant as anything thats happened since the understanding that smoking causes cancer.
JOHN MOULDER (DIRECTOR OF RADIATION BIOLOGY, MEDICAL COLLEGE OF WISCONSIN): Once something like this becomes part of our collective memory, there is no way to remove it from that memory.
POWER OF FEAR
NARRATION: Suspicion that power lines posed some kind of invisible health threat had been brewing before scientists looked at the question seriously.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 1-6-78): BOB KUR: A new high voltage line over Minnesota farmland has people so angry, theyve even written a song. MAN (SINGING): Dont want no power lines. Dont want no power lines. FARMER: This line is dangerous to us, to our families and to our farm animals.
DAVID SAVITZ (EPIDEMIOLOGIST, BROWN UNIVERSITY): I think early on the story was, isnt it amazing to consider that something that we ignored, that seemed so innocuous, might be harmful?
NARRATION: David Savitz published one of the first rigorous field studies in 1987 measuring electromagnetic field levels in the homes of Denver children with cancer. The results were disturbing.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-9-87): BETTINA GREGORY: A recent study in Denver found children who live in homes with higher magnetic fields are twice as likely to develop cancer as those who do not.
DAVID SAVITZ: In the absence of a large body of research, each study is a breakthrough, is dramatic
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, NIGHTLINE, 3-9-90): TED KOPPEL: The potential danger from electromagnetic fields is making millions of human beings into test animals. That, from author Paul Brodeur.PAUL BRODEUR: Studies show that these fields are extremely hazardous to human health.
DAVID SAVITZ: A positive finding can result in an immediate reaction. Sort of the moment of panic.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 4-6-93): REPORTER: As electricity passes through power lines, it generates an electromagnetic field, or EMF
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 12-14-90): DAN RATHER: A danger close to home and hard to get away from.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 4-7-93): NED POTTER: Seven children here had cancer and some parents suspect the high voltage line near the elementary school.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, NIGHTLINE, 3-9-90): DAVID MARASH: Americas love affair with electricity may have already produced an unintended tragedy of enormous proportions.
NARRATION: More than two decades later, the fear persists in many places where transmission towers cast shadows on backyards.
ANNE WHITE (DAYCARE OPERATOR): It used to be the biggest concern that I had, was keeping them safe from the sun damage. Now I worry about exposing them to EMFs. Whenever we go outside.
NARRATION: Annes husband Dave Slaperud tracks the EMF readings around the house.
DAVE SLAPERUD: Its bouncing up, just around 10.
DAVE SLAPERUD (STANDING IN THE BACK YARD): Up to 27 back here. This is where the kids play.
NARRATION: But after decades of study, the man who helped put EMFs on the map believes the safety question has largely been answered.
DAVID SAVITZ: Over time, as the body of research grew, the importance of our study overall diminished. The line of logic was that these fields are very common. And that the logical prediction would be that this would be a major public health problem. And that was simply wrong.
NARRATION: So why does the idea that power lines pose a major public health problem persist today?
ARCHIVAL (FOX NEWS, 5-27-07): PROTESTOR: Stop the power lines, save our property! ANCHOR: Would you want power lines running though your neighborhood or hanging over your head?
NARRATION: Some of it stems from the difficulty in interpreting evidence thats suggestive, yet also faint. Savitz and a few later researches did find a small association between power lines and childhood leukemia, and this left some, like David Carpenter, convinced a serious hazard exists.
DAVID CARPENTER (DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT, UNIVERSITY AT ALBANY-SUNY): It doesnt mean that every child in high magnetic field exposure is going to get leukemia. But it means twice as many as the background rate.
NARRATION: Childhood leukemia may be a dread disease, but it remains extremely rare normally affecting about 1 in 20,000 children a year. Even if EMFs doubled the risk for highly-exposed children, that number would be no more than 2 in 20,000. And with numbers that small, its hard to know for sure if the studies are measuring any effect at all.
DAVID SAVITZ: The likely impact of electromagnetic fields, if I had to pick a single number that is the most likely, it would be zero. That is, its quite questionable whether these fields cause leukemia at all.
JOHN MOULDER: Epidemiology cannot answer the question, could there be a little risk. I think we can say without question that power lines, the fields from power lines are not a major public health threat.
NARRATION: Scientists in the 1990s conducted hundreds of laboratory experiments, exposing human and animal cells to EMFs, looking for any way the fields might harm living tissue.
JOHN MOULDER: In 20 years of looking, no one has found a way that power line fields can do anything at all to cells or animals. And unless it can do something, theres no way it can cause cancer.
NARRATION: And that confirmed what many researchers have been saying since the National Academy of Sciences reviewed 500 studies on EMFs and made news with its verdict.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, NIGHTLY NEWS, 10-31-96): TOM BROKAW: What they found was very reassuring.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, NIGHTLY NEWS, 10-31-96): REPORTER: The blue ribbon panel did not waffle in its conclusion. Electromagnetic radiation from power lines outside the home is not something we need to worry about.
NARRATION: Yet anxieties about power lines have found a seemingly permanent home in the popular imagination.
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DAVID ROPEIK (AUTHOR, HOW RISKY IS IT, REALLY?): This risk really hit the sweet spot of what was going to make people afraid. This was just waiting to be whacked out of the park, emotionally.
NARRATION: Ropeik says there is a reason the fear of power line EMFs has lodged itself so firmly in the public mind. Social scientists have described a set of factors that cause human beings to dread certain kinds of risks more than others. The list includes risks that people cant see or control, risks that could lead to suffering before death, and risks that might affect children. Sound familiar?
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 12-14-90): DEBORAH POTTER: Theyre invisible and just about everywhere.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 4-30-93): WOMAN: Do we play Russian roulette with peoples children?!
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, NIGHTLINE, 3-9-90): DAVE MARASH: Should you be taking steps to keep your kids away from electromagnetic fields?
DAVID ROPEIK: This had and has a long list of personality traits that make it really scary.
NARRATION: And whatever new, potentially reassuring information emerges, the memory of that invisible threat remains.
DAVE ROPEIK: You never really get un-scared about anything. Anything that rings that bell, shakes that web of neurons in your brain and that memory comes back. And that memory was formed with a little extra oomph because it was about survival.
DAVID SAVITZ: When youre focusing on that bottom line of what can I do to improve my health, it comes down to a series of rather boring things about, you know, wearing seat belts and not smoking, not being overweight. And nobody wants to hear about those because theyre so obvious and we already know those. Were always looking for the next frontier.