Is living near power lines bad for our health?

The debate of whether there are adverse effects associated with electromagnetic fields from living close to high-voltage power lines has raged for years. While research indicates that large risks are not present, the possibility of a relatively small risk cannot be conclusively excluded.

Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are produced by electrical appliances, electrical wiring, and power lines, and everyone is exposed to them at some level. Numerous studies have investigated EMF exposure and health. Al­though earlier studies did suggest associations between exposure and a variety of health effects including brain cancer, breast cancer, cardio­vascular disease, and reproductive and developmental disorders, most of these associations have not been substantiated by more recent research. One notable exception to this is the association with childhood leukemia, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer regards as sufficiently well established to rate extremely low frequency magnetic fields as a “possible” human carcinogen.[1]

The first study to link childhood leukemia with residential EMF exposure was published in 1979[2] and since then, a number of studies have found weak associations to support this original finding. Studies investigating childhood leukemia as a health outcome of EMF exposure have used measured and calculated magnetic fields, as well as distance of homes to power lines, as an exposure measure. Studies using magnetic field strength as an exposure measure have found that exposures greater than the range of 0.3 to 0.4 µT lead to a doubling risk of leukemia, with very little risk below this level. This exposure range is approximately equal to a distance of 60 m within a high-voltage power line of 500 kV.

However, a more recent study showed an elevated risk of leukemia among children living in homes with distances much greater than 60 m from high voltage power lines.[3] This study involved close to 30000 matched case-control pairs of children living in the United Kingdom. It was found that children living in homes as far as 600 m from power lines had an elevated risk of leukemia. An increased risk of 69% for leukemia was found for children living within 200 m of power lines while an increased risk of 23% was found for children living within 200 to 600 m of the lines.[3] This study was notable in that it found some elevation of risk at much greater distances than previous studies.

Although distance of homes from power lines can be considered a crude measure of exposure, the results of this study do merit attention. A limited understanding exists of how exposure to EMF can affect health. The underlying biological mechanism is unknown, making it difficult to determine which measure of EMF is most appropriate when evaluating health outcomes. Use of residential proximity may be a reasonable surrogate for direct measurements of EMF, but may also reflect other factors that are related to proximity to high voltage lines.

If the association found in the UK study does reflect a causal relationship, what are the potential impacts in BC? Using current BC leukemia rates[4] and assuming similar proportions of the population live near high voltage lines, on a statistical basis, there may be one additional leukemia in BC every 2 years. To eliminate this risk, one would need to achieve a separation distance of 600 m between every high voltage power line and the nearest residence. While this could be done, it would require substantial changes to existing land use patterns and would require significant resources. While it can be argued that this action is consistent with some forms of the precautionary principle, based on best available evidence, one can achieve much greater risk reduction or health benefits if resources are directed to other larger, better established risks.


References

1. World Health Organization. Extremely low frequency fields environmental health criteria monograph no. 238. 2007. www.who.int/peh-emf/publications/elf_ehc/en/index.html (accessed 12 September 2008).
2. Wertheimer N, Leeper E. Electrical wiring configurations and childhood cancer. Am J Epidemiol 1979;109:273-284.
3. Draper G, Vincent T, Kroll ME, et al. Childhood cancer in relation to distance from high voltage power lines in England and Wales: A case-control study. BMJ 2005;330:1290.
4. BC Cancer Agency. Leukemia. 2008. www.bccancer.bc.ca/NR/rdonlyres/AC6262BC-634F-4227-BF14-163182197EDF/259... (accessed 24 September 2008).

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Dr Copes is the director of BCCDC’s Environmental Health Services Division. Ms Barn is an environmental health scientist at BCCDC.

Ray Copes, MD, FRCPC, Prabjit Barn, MSc,. Is living near power lines bad for our health?. BCMJ, Vol. 50, No. 9, November, 2008, Page(s) 494 - BCCDC.



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