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 numbers are even more thought-provoking a few blocks away, at Kent Academy. School has let out just a few minutes earlier, and Veronica Eaton, who'd never heard of EMFs before a visitor described Jamail's lawsuit to her a week earlier, welcomes Brewton in to do a reading.

She looks interested but not especially alarmed by what she's heard. Though Jamail's suit talks about EMF fields inside Kent Academy, Eaton says that as far as she knows, no one has ever taken any such readings there. Since Kent moved to this location back in 1986, no parents have asked her about the power lines. The way Eaton sees it, the inspector from the Fort Bend Health Department who visits Kent routinely would have told her if there were anything in her school environment that endangered her students. And if, by any chance, it turns out that the power lines are risky, Eaton says, she's confident that HL&P will simply move them off her property.

It's hard for someone who's not familiar with the EMF debate to get worked up by numbers on a small black box, and Eaton soon wanders off to do administrative work. But she's given Brewton free run of the place, and, peering at his meters while standing beneath the power lines, he watches the dial jump to 8.66 milligauss.

"Not good at all, for children," Brewton says. He moves away from the utility pole, whose three transformers are boosting the site's EMFs particularly high. But the lowest reading on the playground is 2.5 milligauss. Here, at least, it looks like Jamail's claims that the power lines are behind Kent Academy's high EMF readings are true.

But when Brewton makes his way into a classroom where a few after-school preschoolers crayon quietly at round tables, he eyes the black gauss meter in surprise. Well into an area where the EMFs from outside should have fallen off, the small black box reads 15 mg, 16.8, as much as 70 mg against one wall.

The culprit, Brewton says, is bad wiring. Nestled at the end of a small strip mall, Kent Academy downloads electricity for the entire complex from the power lines along its playground. Meters for the whole mall rest against the wall where the gauss meter measurements leap up; the current for the buildings, Brewton explains, runs through wiring beneath this sunny playroom.

"That's pretty worrisome, from an electromagnetic point of view," he says. With some work, the wiring could be unearthed and reconfigured to lower the EMF level, but someone would have to pay for it. That's an electrician's problem, a landlord's problem, perhaps Veronica Eaton's problem. But although Jamail cites household wiring as an EMF source in some parts of his lawsuit, it's not so clearly HL&P's problem. What John Brewton warned about is true: while the average household measures around 1.5 mg or less, potentially risky electromagnetic field levels are everywhere. Power lines may be the least of our EMF worries.

If Joe Jamail ends up in court, and ends up beating HL&P, he could spill out a Pandora's box of implications about electromagnetic fields, who's responsible for regulating and controlling them and perhaps a storm of negligence suits largely paid for by consumer electric rates. On the other hand, if Jamail loses, utilities across the country will heave sighs of relief.

Maybe only one child in many thousands -- or even only one child in the entire history of Kent Academy -- will ever be affected by high power lines or unbalanced grounding in a house. But if you're Joyce Bicki, waiting in a dark apartment with a tiny boy who's being eaten up alive, that one may seem one too many.

The question of EMFs cuts deep. Sometime, maybe with the birth of antibiotics, we briefly lost the knowledge that the body is a battleground for unseen forces. That it may not be our right to always win. And that we may not even want to know what it is that's out there threatening us. That's not to say there's nothing people can do about EMFs: even when you don't know quite what you're fighting -- or if you're truly in a fight -- you can assess your surroundings and take prudent precautions.

Meanwhile, public response to the EMF question grows more and more polarized. Still holding the middle ground are many longtime EMF activists, some previously skeptical scientists, and lay people who think that the stacks of tantalizing but inconclusive evidence at least suggest that EMFs deserve serious study. At the same time, reacting to the debate now with extravagant claims -- whether it be the American Physical Society's dismissal of all concerns, or a lawyer's insistence that EMFs have already been tried and found guilty -- may only make intelligent health choices harder. Worse, it may delay our task as a culture of honestly analyzing the deals we strike with our environment. Maybe Veronica Eaton has got the questions right. "Are these readings worse than average?" she asks Brewton after he tells her what his gauss meters showed. "Not for a commercial building," he says.

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