A Question of Power

Do fields from high power lines cause childhood cancer? Years of research have revealed few solid facts. But Joe Jamail has charged the answer is yes, and HL&P knows it. He's headed to court to prove his case - or to dig into the utility's deep pockets.

The first thing most parents ask when they visit Kent Academy, a private preschool on the banks of Sugar Creek, is if their child can fall into the water. Not a chance, promises administrator Veronica Eaton, a gentle-voiced woman in her mid-20s. Immaculate, sky blue and airy, Kent Academy doesn't look to be a place where details slip by. The metal fence by Sugar Creek looms tall, and the gates latch higher than any child can jump. Someone has even fixed smooth slats, meant to protect small hands from splinters, around one of the five utility poles that march across Kent's compact playground.

But despite all these attentions, according to the parents of a former Kent Academy student named Daniel Feazle, a terrible danger does flourish at the school, and it does so undetected. That danger, the Feazles contend, flows straight from the power lines that arch above Kent Academy's playground.

What the Feazles have expressed concern about are electromagnetic fields (EMFs), something they claim contributed to their child contracting cancer. In 1987, Daniel Feazle was five years old and just starting Kent when doctors diagnosed him with acute lymphatic leukemia (ALL), a rare disease that affects perhaps one child in 100,000 annually. The Feazles lived a few blocks away from the school in a house that, like Kent Academy, had a power line in its yard; those power lines, they now say, are what led to their son's illness. Following Daniel's diagnosis, his parents pulled him out of Kent, sold their house and moved, presumably to what they considered a safer location.

Had that been it, it's unlikely anyone would be paying much attention to the lines stretching across Kent Academy's playground. After all, talk about the possible negative effects of EMFs are far from new; debate over the dangers or lack thereof from low level electromagnetic fields has been escalating for a decade and a half. But the Feazles didn't simply leave what they considered the source of their problems behind. They joined ten other Houston families with sick children in a massive lawsuit filed this December against Houston Lighting and Power, its parent company Houston Industries and the electric power industry's California-based research arm, Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). The suit charges the defendants with conspiracy, claiming that both the utility and EPRI hid, ignored and discredited data that electromagnetic fields from power lines could give children cancer.

The Houston case has been described as the largest EMF suit ever filed, in that it has the most plaintiffs and is the most wide-reaching. But what has drawn the attention of EMF foes across the country, and of utilities worried that if HL&P loses they could be next, is the lawyer who has agreed to argue for the Feazles and their associates: Joe Jamail, the man who squeezed $11 billion out of Texaco.

By taking the case on, the high-profile Jamail gives EMF concerns a credibility to people who might otherwise write them off to paranoia. And with his uncompromising assertions -- including corporate lying and proven cause and effect -- Jamail has made the parameters more defined than they've ever been before. His winning, power industry observers say, could mean not just billions of dollars spent on litigation, but maybe even the reknitting of the national electrical network.

"There's been a whole series of events trying to portray [EMFs] as a non-issue," says Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, which has monitored the EMF debate almost since it began. "Jamail's is the make-or-break case."

Scientists have long known that electromagnetic fields surround any conductor that carries electrical current. While the most common EMF sources are power lines, fields also surround appliances, computers, fluorescent lighting and unbalanced wiring in many older houses. The stronger the current that runs through any of these, the greater the field, which passes with equal ease through bodies, buildings and most other physical objects. But scientists have also long known that EMFs decline dramatically with distance, dropping from high readings to almost nothing in the space of a few feet.

Researchers use a unit called a milligauss to measure EMFs: most people are exposed to fields of 1.5 or less in daily life. Those who believe in a link between EMFs and illness usually consider two milligauss and greater a possible risk factor.

In 1979, a pair of Denver researchers conducted a study that found that children who lived in homes near high current distribution lines were twice as likely to get childhood cancer as those who didn't. Since then, more than 50 studies have been carried out to test those findings. The results, while provocative, have been inconclusive. Five studies have associated EMF to childhood cancer; 39 have shown apparent links between workplace exposure to EMFs and cancer in adults. One of the most influential studies took place in Sweden in 1993, and suggested a strong association between EMFs and childhood leukemia -- the disease prominent in Jamail's case. In the U.S., the federal government has taken EMFs seriously enough to launch a five-year, $65 million research project on the issue.

But a handful of problems badly muddy the research waters. First, the EMF studies have been epidemiological; they compare people's death and disease statistics with specific variables in their daily lives. Since humans are exposed to such varied influences, this kind of study is ill suited to tracing cause and effect. Also, although scientists have performed more than 12,000 lab experiments, they haven't found any physical mechanism through which EMFs might cause cancer. That's one reason why physicists are among the biggest skeptics when it comes to links between EMFs and disease. In fact, the American Physical Society, the world's largest group of physicists, declared in May that fears about EMFs had no basis, and stoutly criticized the money and attention being poured into the issue at the expense of more obvious public health threats.

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