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.

To complicate things, most EMF research funds have historically come from utility companies -- a fact that critics say may call into question any findings that EMFs are harmless. Critics of the $65 million federal program, for instance, are already saying it lacks credibility because utilities have funded half of it with matching grants.

Cutting sharply into the usually qualified, hedgy discourse of science are the allegations in Joe Jamail's case. In the petition's 14-point list of accusations, Jamail charges that EMFs are proven cancer risks, and that HL&P conspired with EPRI to falsify, conceal and manipulate facts which prove just that. Even experts who are sympathetic to Jamail's case voice surprise at some of these claims, even given the hyperbole endemic to court filings. Among Jamail's claims are that the magnetic fields to which his clients were exposed "were many times stronger than the levels proven to cause childhood cancer" (italics ours) and that "Every death and cancer ... could easily have been prevented by the defendants ... [HL&P] have long had the knowledge and technology available to completely insulate the public from the dangers of magnetic field exposures. They have knowingly chosen to conduct their operations, however, in a reckless and unsafe manner for the purpose of avoiding the extra expenses associated with safely conducting their operations."

And while the descriptions of the 11 families' cases focus on HL&P power lines, Jamail also argues that the utility is responsible for other ways in which electricity might affect his clients. "Electric power is a product," he charges. "The product and means of distributing this product are defective." And that product, Jamail says, not only damaged his clients' health, it affected their property values. He's suing HL&P over both.

The clients he's representing range from a young mother with no more than a high school education to an engineer who claims he's known of the risks of EMFs for years. All but the young mother, Joyce Bicki, declined to be interviewed, but the families' experiences do have a haunting repetitiveness.

One family, the Hickeys, lived in a Missouri City home that backed onto an HL&P easement containing eight sets of high power transmission lines. In November 1994, after the Hickeys' son was diagnosed with leukemia, a parent named Carl Rose came to talk with Patrick Hickey at his office. Rose worked in an office on the same floor as Hickey, and Rose's son had leukemia, too. When Hickey said he had suspected for a year that the power lines in the back yard were linked to his child's illness, Rose gave him the phone number of attorney John Tyler.

Janet Evans, the attorney with Jamail's firm who's acting as a spokesman for the case, says she believes that such informal contacts -- sometimes made in hospital waiting rooms -- between parents of sick children is how the plaintiffs on the case found each other. Then, once the 11 families were assembled and had contacted Tyler, Evans says, Tyler invited Jamail to join the case.

Three other children in the case lived within two blocks of each other in Missouri City. One child, David Iniquez, slept in a bedroom adjacent to his apartment complex's electrical meters and located only a few feet away from power lines, Jamail says. Iniquez was diagnosed with leukemia when he was two, and died when he was five and a half. Four doors away, Gregory Tyler was diagnosed with leukemia when he was five; a buried power cable follows the Tylers' back fence, and a high power transmission line passes directly over nearby Quail Run Park, Jamail says. A block to the east, a girl named Valerie Villareal, also a plaintiff, was diagnosed with soft tissue cancer.

Like a litany, Jamail's petition repeats what these families have in common: most lived around Sugar Land in Fort Bend County, all had young children with cancer, and all claim that it was caused by, as Jamail puts it, "the magnetic fields, secretly and silently invading [their] home."

To Houston Lighting and Power, those are fighting words. In January, HL&P chairman Don Jordan told a group of Houston Industries' management personnel that the impending Jamail lawsuit was one of the biggest challenges the utility would face this year. Jamail's name added not a little to HL&P's resolve to hunker down -- "Probably the most powerful lawyer in Houston has taken it upon himself to file" the suit, was how Jordan described it to his colleagues.

Acknowledging your rival is quite a different thing from admitting fault, of course. While the utility will comment only sparingly on the litigation, HL&P attorney Irvin Terrell says Jamail's charges are baseless and will be proven so in court.

"Our company position on EMF in general is that there simply is not a scientific consensus," HL&P spokesman Graham Painter adds. "We're not trying to say there's not a problem. When the scientific consensus gels, when those people reach a consensus and [regulatory bodies] give us guidance, we'll respond to it."

John Guillory, the specialist that HL&P, upon request, dispatches free of charge to check the EMF levels at your home or workplace, takes the utility's non-commitment credo even further. "We don't know," Guillory says flatly almost as soon as he arrives. Guillory shows up with a neat packet of EMF-related newspaper reprints complete with prepared questions and answers. He seems substantial and sincere, and doesn't offer his opinion on EMFs until directly asked. When he is, Guillory says he personally doesn't fret about them. But, he adds, "this is what I tell anyone who's buying a house. If you have a choice of buying a house near power lines and you're concerned, I'd say get as much distance as you can."

But not Guillory's amiability, HL&P's information packet, nor its stated wish for outside guidance fully answers questions about the utility's stand on EMFs. For instance, HL&P chooses not to endorse what some call "prudent avoidance," a sort of safe-sex guide for interactions with electricity that a number of other utilities are starting to use. The electric company in Paonia, Colorado, for instance, plans and designs its power lines using "prudent avoidance" principles, even though they haven't been formally adopted by the utility's board. For the homeowner, prudent avoidance means such steps as moving beds away from high EMF sites, getting rid of your electric blanket and bedside alarm clock and standing as far as possible away from an operating microwave.

When asked why HL&P doesn't offer similar advice, Painter explains that "we want to wait until there's some kind of consensus." According to Mark Pinsky, author of The EMF Book, one of the more complete and balanced looks at the EMF debate, this kind of willful passiveness is common among utilities. "No one wants to be the first to let liability bite down," says Pinsky. Of course, there may be good legal reason to avoid being proactive: Washington, D.C.-based attorney Tom Watson has been said to advise utilities that by initiating any form of EMF abatement, they risk appearing to admit EMFs are dangerous.

But the electric industry, bonded by the California-based EPRI, also actively tried to distort the EMF issue in the not-so-far past, Pinsky says. "Why did the industry fight so hard not to allow [federal EMF safety guidelines]?" he asks rhetorically. In 1992, he says, "there was an incident around a 1989 [EMF report] that was very embarrassing for the utilities. A bunch of scientists testifying for the utilities testified about the document before the EPA science advisory board. They trashed it." But when questioned more closely, Pinsky says, it turned out the utilities' experts hadn't even read the report they were so firmly discounting.

Historically, those arguing against EMFs in court haven't managed to go very far. As Pinsky notes, "These are uphill battles to say the least," adding that "the research is ambiguous, certainly. The odds of winning are tough." The odds are so tough that there hasn't been a single EMF case considered an all-out victory for the plaintiffs. So why does Jamail think he can buck that trend? It's hard to tell; with the exception of a few general remarks, nobody in Jamail's firm is willing to talk. But a Vincent & Elkins attorney named H. Dixon Montague has some ideas.

Montague was the plaintiff's attorney in a massive EMF case in Klein ten years ago, a case that came as close to victory as EMF cases have managed. The dispute pitted the Klein Independent School District against HL&P, which had condemned land near a Klein junior high school and built a power line and tower on the property.

Convinced by Montague that the line's magnetic field could at least possibly promote cancer, a jury awarded the defendants $25 million in damages. In the Klein case, there were no ill children at issue; what convinced the jury, Montague says, was simply the scientific evidence he amassed. But even though EMF activists often refer to the Klein case as a victory, it didn't end up that way; the verdict was overturned on appeal, which meant HL&P never had to pony up the $25 million. Still, the utility did relocate its power lines at a cost of $8 million.

Loss on appeal or not, the fact that HL&P moved its lines makes the Klein case a meaningful precedent for Jamail's effort, Montague says. And if believing that EMFs had the potential to promote cancer swayed a Houston area jury, what will happen when a similar jury sees children who are actually stricken? At the same time, though, Jamail has set himself up to crack a much tougher nut -- while the Klein case simply floated the chance of cancer, Jamail's case insists that EMFs provably cause the disease. To show that will take money; the less-problematic Klein suit ended up costing KISD $1 million.

And that, says Montague, is why it's taken so long for another EMF case to hit Texas courts. "The electric industry in the U.S. is a very, very, very powerful industry," Montague says. "To take someone to task [in it] you have to have a substantial amount of willpower and money." Montague says that ever since the Klein case he's been inundated with requests for help on other EMF suits, but even the most promising clients fall silent when he starts talking fees. The only way he could win the first round of the Klein case was because the school district was willing to spring for research and witnesses to match those presented by the power company. In the absence of a large institution to take on HL&P this time, Montague observes, the one lawyer best suited for the showdown is Jamail. Of course, Jamail doesn't really need to win; a plump settlement could nicely minimize publicity for HL&P and make Jamail's efforts well worth his, and his clients', troubles. Even if it left the EMF issue hanging.

"All children go to heaven," reads the legend on Joyce Bicki's wall clock, the only decoration in the barely furnished apartment she has occupied since January. Bicki, 27, is the plaintiff for whom the Jamail case is named, and the only plaintiff who consented to talk about her experiences.

In tones that range from terse to sheepish, the other families cited in the court papers explain that their attorneys have prohibited them from speaking publicly. But Bicki, a single mother and high school dropout whose full-time job is watching her three-year-old son William dying on a fold-out couch, never asked permission. In the dim apartment where she lives with William and his five-year-old brother Jesse, Bicki is a defiant, solitary figure who says she has no contact with any of the other families in her case.

A slight woman with long, brown hair, Bicki has been worrying about William almost his whole life. When he was born in September 1991, Bicki was living with William's father in an Humble trailer park. About six feet overhead directly outside the door perched an electrical transformer and a power line; a set of electric meters stood nearby. She was accustomed to power surges and sudden outages, but she still remembers well the day during her pregnancy that the transformer suddenly exploded, spewing a fizzy green liquid that burned away the grass. HL&P quickly came to clear the mess away, and in any case Bicki soon had other worries. From the age of five months, William was having problems: he didn't like to eat and refused to use his hands.

"He'd use his head or feet instead," Bicki remembers. Doctors labeled him arthritic and later epileptic -- until February 1994, when Bicki rushed William to the hospital with a soaring fever. Ultrasound tests showed his small body speckled with tumors: William had neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system. At best, survival chances with this illness are about 20 percent, but William's case is so severe that Bicki says she has no hope that he'll recover. Today, as a soap opera mutters on the television by his pillow, the white, sticklike boy sleeps all day plugged into a morphine drip. His slippered feet point outward and a pack of Twinkies sits near his arm. He can't eat them, but likes to have them near as a sort of teddy bear.

It wasn't until last year's floods that Bicki began to think William's disease might be linked to anything other than her own bad luck. Bicki had already moved away from William's father in April, soon after he had told her that he wished he had a gun to put William out of his misery. The failed relationship was just the latest in a string of betrayals that seemed to define Bicki's life -- starting, she says, with sexual abuse by family members, continuing with her marriage at 13 to a man she says beat her and into her liaison with William's father.

So when the floods hit the trailer park where William's father -- and all of Bicki's possessions -- still remained, Joyce Bicki was staying at Texas Children's Hospital with her son. The water destroyed everything that Bicki owned, and it was while she was looking dully at insurance photos in the hospital's infusion room that another waiting parent, Melanie Fewell, asked to take a look.

"When Melanie came upon the transformer and the power lines [in the photographs], she said, 'I'm going to give you the number of a lawyer,'" Bicki recalls. Fewell told Bicki that she believed a huge set of transmission lines near her home in Fort Bend County were linked to her own small son's leukemia.

"I just kind of cocked my head and looked at her," says Bicki. But she called the number, which turned out to be the offices of attorney John Tyler. Tyler, carrying a video camera, met Bicki at the hospital a few days later. William's disease had abruptly worsened; he would lose ten pounds in the next three days.

Tyler filmed that agonizing hospital visit, and in subsequent days sent an associate to continue filming, explain the case and interview Bicki further. The associate quizzed Bicki closely and later inspected the barren plot where her trailer had once stood. The lawyer tried to explain the principles of EMFs, Bicki says, but she was too consumed with William to listen.

"When he talked to me, it just went over my head," she says. "My course was cancer, not electricity." The attorney's assurances, and a one-page list of studies that showed an EMF link to cancer, were what convinced Bicki to join the suit. She signed on, with the understanding that she would have no expenses and that her attorneys would earn a portion of any award.

Today, the EMF issue inspires a variety of emotions in her, Bicki says, lighting a cigarette. One feeling by now is familiar: betrayal. She wants HL&P to admit that they knew their power lines were hurting children. She also believes HL&P should site its power lines underground, fiercely -- though wrongly -- insisting that "it's harder for [EMF] to go through the ground than through the air." Bicki clearly has other things to think about than physics and electricity, but there's something unsettling about her remoteness from her own lawsuit. A woman whose main goal in life has been surviving, alone and armed only with a high school equivalency degree, may be just the kind of person most vulnerable to chaotic, incomplete facts about health issues.

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.

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.

"Is there anything I can do about them besides move my school?"
"Probably not," he answers. Eaton purses her lips seriously, and then shrugs.

Author Mark Pinsky, too, says that in the course of writing his book, he's grown to see EMFs not as a medical debate so much as a social one. "There is no ultimate right or wrong now on this issue," he says. "The issue is, we don't know. I look at it as a big social issue, and we do need to handle it better."

"Electricity is not causing one out of three cases of cancer -- that is not the scope of the problem," Pinsky adds. "It has gotten blown out of proportion by both sides: people refuse to talk straight about this stuff. People so much want to believe what they want to believe.

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