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.

And while other Jamail clients seem to understand their suit's concepts much better, Bicki is not the only one who seems only a marginal player in her own case. "I'm not sure I'm 100 percent convinced [of an EMF/cancer link]," says a client of Jamail's in Friendswood who is suing her local utility in a separate case. "But I'm not the expert ... I don't even know if the suit has been filed yet." The woman, who asked not to be named, says she became involved in the case when her son contracted leukemia after the family had lived a year in a house bordering on transmission towers.

Overall, says Bicki, she felt a sad relief after Tyler explained what she believes is the source of William's cancer. "It was kind of a peaceful feeling," she muses about that first talk with Tyler, to find "that this is not your fault."

But to some specialists in childhood cancer or EMFs, even some who believe they're linked, the yearning for streamlined explanations is one of the most misleading forces in the whole debate. M.D. Anderson physician David Tubergen, who has spent 30 years specializing in ALL, among the illnesses most often associated with EMFs, is a man you'd think would have a burning interest in anything that might help explain the genesis of this harsh disease.

But Tubergen, who treats one of the children cited in the Jamail case, is detached about the possible links between EMFs and leukemia. "I think it does deserve to be pursued," he allows, "but I would not at this time recommend that someone move away from power lines, and would not recommend that they not buy a house near power lines. I'd also recommend that people with a one-year-old child not move into a house on a lake, because the risk of drowning is greater [than that of cancer]."

What interests Tubergen far more than EMFs is what it is that turns cells malignant. "If electromagnetic fields trigger a role at all in childhood leukemia," he says, "I think there would be a consensus among my learned colleagues that the role would be relatively minor." And this in a cancer that is itself rare, affecting maybe one in 100,000 each year.

If Tubergen is far less intrigued by EMFs than some of the parents he works with, it's because he's looking at the issue from a clinical, not a personal, perspective, he adds. "It gets to be very spectacular when these reports come out," Tubergen notes. "Every parent with a child with cancer feels one, a sense of guilt, and two, wants to know what they could have done to prevent it ... This is a tough field, and there are no easy answers."

The quest for easy answers also worries John Brewton, a very different breed of technician. Brewton is the owner of Healthy Homes Inc. in Dallas, a three-year-old firm that measures EMF fields. Two weeks ago, Brewton came to Houston to measure some of the sites mentioned in Jamail's complaint for the Press. A firm believer that research suggests that EMFs promote cancer, Brewton says he would "dearly love" to see Jamail win. But armed with three different milligauss meters (two small, discreet and black, one a futuristic clear cylinder with trembling multihued wires) Brewton also warns that power lines are the least common offenders in his hunts for magnetic fields. Household wiring, especially in old buildings, far more often causes the high readings he finds.

It's with a detective's curiosity that Brewton drives out toward Sugar Land one broiling afternoon, bearing with him a copy of Jamail's lawsuit and a briefcase packed with three gauss meters. Each meter may show him slightly different readings, readings that themselves could change radically depending on the time of day, the time of year and how much electricity people in the area he's measuring are using when he's there. This day Brewton's looking for Daniel Feazle's former house, a place where, according the lawsuit, the EMF fields "were many times stronger than the level proven to cause childhood cancers."

But Brewton, after pulling up before the salmon-colored house that once was home to the Feazles, finds otherwise. Yes, there's a power line in the back yard, a common wooden utility pole whose wires swoop from back yard to back yard along the street. And yes, there's certainly a magnetic field beneath it: 5.2 milligauss, according to the black walkie-talkie-like instrument that Brewton holds at hip level. The imposing Plexiglas model reads slightly higher: 6.66 milligauss.

But as Brewton walks toward the house the field drops off abruptly. Halfway between the garage and the house, Brewton reads the field at .617 milligauss. Because EMFs drop off so sharply with distance -- a field that reads 10 mg one foot away from a source drops to just more than 1 mg three feet away -- the reading inside the Feazles' old house would be even lower than the outside levels, unless the house were faultily wired, Brewton says.

Jamail's suit doesn't specify the measurements of "fields proven to cause childhood cancers." But in general, says Brewton, he tells people 2.5 mg is the upward safety limit. And at least today, a sultry afternoon when air conditioners are probably at full blast, the numbers showing up on Brewton's gauss meters don't appear to support Jamail's claims about EMF levels inside the Feazle's old house.

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