Myths and Realities: Do Power Lines Cause Cancer?

May 20, 2009

powerlines

Aditya Mattoo MD

Faculty Peer Reviewed

Prompted by personal experience, I thought I would explore the alleged causative role of power lines in hematologic malignancies for the next installment of Myths and Realities. In recent years, two close family friends living at separate locations but in homes adjacent to lots with electrical transformers were diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Naturally, the coincidence was not unnoticed, so I decided to put power lines on trial and look through the literature to see if a correlation exists or if it is all just media-hyped paranoia.

Coincidently, this past month is the 30th anniversary of the beginning of this saga. In March of 1979, Wertheimer et al published an article that suggested a higher incidence of hematologic malignancies in children who lived near high current power lines in the Denver area.(1) This initial study implied a possible carcinogenic role of the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) generated by power lines although the authors clearly state in the article that there is “no independent evidence or theoretical understanding which seems to support this possibility.”

That didn’t stop the mainstream media frenzy that ensued. The general public was put on alert to this potential silent killer, largely as a result of the works of Paul Brodeur. As a writer for The New Yorker magazine, he brought national attention to this debate in a series of articles and books (one sensationally titled “Currents of Death”) published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His “exposes” also alleged a government and industrial conspiracy to cover up the relationship between EMFs and cancer.

A quick physics refresher might be in order at this point. Harkening back to our premedical days, recall that the movement of a charged particle (i.e. a current) generates an electric and magnetic field. The electric field is the difference of the electrical potential between two points a circuit (i.e. voltage). The flow of the current generates a magnetic field. These two fields together are referred to as EMFs. The EM spectrum can be classified into non-ionizing waves (low frequency waves, radio wave, microwave, infrared, visible light, near ultraviolet waves) and ionizing waves (medium/far ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma ray) according to the ability of the EMF to break molecular bonds. Ionizing radiation has mutagenic potential as it can break the bonds of DNA. However, when discussing the EMFs generated by the typical 60-Hz residential electric current, we fall in the extremely low frequency (non-ionizing) area of the EM spectrum. These EMFs are on the order of 0.01 to 0.05 µTesla and have weaker EMFs than radio waves. To put this in perspective, an editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicine on this debate noted that the earth’s static magnetic field is on the order of 50 µT and the EMF generated by using an electrical razor is approximately 60 µT, both of which are 1000 times greater than the EMF generated by the current delivered to your home.(2)

Although the Wertheimer study spurred the scientific community to publish hundreds of subsequent studies attempting to draw a correlation between EMFs and a variety of cancer types in differing age groups, the majority of studies have focused on hematologic malignancies in children. I am pleased to report that the literature has failed to demonstrate any consistent and statistically significant evidence to suggest a relationship. Most studies have been plagued by limitations in design including small sample size, unblinded investigators and the use of wiring codes as surrogates for EMFs. Detractors of the original study criticize Wertheimer’s incorrect assumption that the wiring code of a home could be used as a surrogate for EMF exposure and that EMFs levels were not directly measured.(3)

I will briefly take a moment to mention two of the better designed studies. One of the largest studies to date, conducted by the Children’s Cancer Group, failed to demonstrate any statistically significant relationship of either directly measured EMFs or wiring codes in the homes of 638 children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia as compared to controls.(4) The second study was a meta-analysis that pooled the data of nine separate studies. It showed that of the 3203 children with leukemia exposed to less than 0.4 µT of directly measured EMFs, there was no significant relationship when compared to controls.(5) The one caveat of this meta-analysis is that less than one percent of the pooled study participants (44 children) were exposed to EMF levels greater than 0.4 µT and had a relative risk of 2 in the development of leukemia. Again, the small sample size has critics questioning the validity of this positive finding.

Overall, there is little evidence demonstrating that living near power lines increases the risk of cancer, particularly childhood leukemias. Media supported paranoia can be a powerful force as people to this date still believe an association may exist (myself included prior to researching this post). Also it is important to note that even though we are increasingly exposed to EMFs as technology infiltrates every aspect of our lives, the overall incidence of leukemia has been slowly declining for several decades. Therefore, as judge and jury I find the defendant, Power Lines, not guilty. Court is adjourned until our next installment of Myths and Realities.

Dr. Matoo is a third year resident in internal medicine at NYU Medical Center.

Peer Reviewed by Theresa Ryan MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, NYU Division of Medical Oncology

References:

1. Wertheimer N et al. Electrical wiring configurations and childhood cancer. American Journal of Epidemiology 109:273-284, 1979.
2. Campion EW. Power lines, cancer, and fear. New England Journal of Medicine 337:44-46, 1997.
3. Farley JW, 2003. Power lines and cancer. Nothing to Fear [online]. Quackwatch. Available from http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/emf.html
4. Linet MS, et al. Residential exposure to magnetic fields and acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children. The New England Journal of Medicine 1997; 337(1): 1-7.
5. Ahlbom A, Day N, Feychting M, et al. A pooled analysis of magnetic fields and childhood leukaemia. British Journal of Cancer 2000; 83(5): 692-698.

7 Responses to Myths and Realities: Do Power Lines Cause Cancer?

  1. Amy on January 18, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Thanks for your summary of findings! It was easy to understand and fairly comprehensive. I’m studying Landscape Architecture and we frequently take advantage of the clear cut corridors occupied by power lines to create trails and greenways. I was a little concerned about the implications of encouraging people to spend more time near power lines. Now I feel more confident that I’m not putting anyone in danger.

  2. [...] does not necessarily equate to the power lines CAUSING cancer… Its an urban myth…. Myths and Realities: Do Power Lines Cause Cancer? | Clinical Correlations NEJM — Power Lines, Cancer, and Fear http://annhyg.oxfordjournals.org/cgi…t/42/4/227.pdf NEJM [...]

  3. Melody on February 28, 2011 at 1:13 am

    Why don’t you do a study on power linemen who work on/with power lines daily. That would seem more logical.

  4. Greg on March 11, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    Notice that Dr. Mattoo subtly switches the discussion from “homes adjacent to lots with electrical transformers” to “discussing the EMFs generated by the typical 60-Hz residential electric current.” Given that household residential current typically is 120 volts but high power lines carry hundreds of thousands of volts – if not more – including related overall increases in total power carried, the expository transition is potentially deceptive and significant. While the good Doctor tells us that “EMFs generated by the typical 60-Hz residential electric current” are “on the order of 0.01 to 0.05 µTesla” he fails to tell us the EMF generated by a high power line which may be within, perhaps, 40 feet of a family’s home. I wish the Doctor had told us whether he received any compensation or other benefit related to his article and whether there is a high power line adjacent to his back yard.

  5. Armando Rodriguez on April 13, 2012 at 7:20 am

    Greg:

    You confuse voltage with current or more exactly your treat them indistinctly. You seem concern about the thousands of volts of the power lines as compared to the 120 volts of the household. Yet, voltage is responsible only for electric fields. An electric field alternating at 60 Hz is called cuasi-static, because it is an electrostatic field for all practical purposes. The human body may be considered a conductor for cuasi-static fields, since there can be no electrostatic field inside a conductor, no matter how near you are to a power line, the field inside your body will be always zero and zero cannot be the cause of any cancer. By the way, when combing your hair you may generate stronger electric fields than those between power lines.

    So we are left with the magnetic field as the only one that can penetrate your body, which is the one that Dr. Matoo was considering. You probably think that at 40 ft from a power line you get a lot more magnetic field strength and you are right; a single power line with 500 Amperes flowing through, will produce 7 Tesla at 40 ft, still… that’s little less than one fourth of the earth magnetic field at the equator.

    There’s nothing wrong with being ignorant, since no one can know it all, but you went beyond ignorance to being disrespectful with Dr. Matoo.

    Armando

  6. Joel on September 13, 2013 at 9:24 pm

    It appears that the research done for this article is incomplete. Granted, the original research is in Chinese, showing the correlation between EMF and it’s effects on DNA repair genes, and how leukemia and other cancers, thus exacerbating genetic predisposition, but still, this research is out there and readily available.

    For example: http://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/semiconductors/devices/powerline_radiation_and_childh

    I respectfully suggest that Dr. Mattoo consider this research:
    http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10428190802441347

  7. Andrew on July 27, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    I am afraid this article has ignored strong body of scientific research literature which show a significant link to health risk, one prominent example is :

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2247309/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*