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Living Close to Power Lines

Power Lines Emit Electromagnetic RadiationPower lines carry high-voltage electric current from one place to another. When current flows through a wire, two fields are created around it: an electric field and a magnetic field. These are the two components of the electromagnetic field.

The magnetic portion is the more dangerous because of its ability to penetrate the human body. The strength and extent of this magnetic field depends on three things: how much current is flowing, the voltage, and the configuration of the wires (i.e. how far apart the wires are from each other, and similar factors).

Since power lines may carry huge amounts of current, often at high voltages, substantial electromagnetic fields (EMF) are created. In the case of high-voltage transmission lines, the EMF can extend to about 300 meters.

Power Line EMF is strongest directly underneath the power lines, and gradually fades away with increasing distance.

Health Effects of Living Near Power Lines – Is EMF Really Harmful?

There has been concern over power line radiation and its effect on human health for at least 40 years. Living close to power lines has been shown to increase the risk of leukemia and other cancers since 1979, when convincing evidence was first published by Wertheimer and Leeper  in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Power Line EMF is HarmfulSince then, dozens of published papers have found links between living near power lines (and other electrical wiring configurations) and a range of health woes, including

  • brain cancer
  • childhood and adult leukemia
  • Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS)
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • breast cancer in women and men,
  • miscarriage, birth defects and reproductive problems,
  • decreased libido
  • fatigue
  • depression and suicide
  • blood diseases
  • hormonal imbalances
  • heart disease
  • neuro-degenerative diseases
  • sleeping disorders

and many others.

How Strong is the Evidence For Power Line Health Effects?

To appreciate the sheer weight of this evidence, see the excellent list of published research papers compiled by Powerwatch UK which identifies over 300 papers relating to EMF from power lines and electricity sub-stations.

Of these, more than 200 were able to find a link between this type of radiation and (mostly) harmful biological effects. It is extremely unlikely that all these studies were mistaken in their conclusions.

But in some cases, subsequent studies which tried to replicate the original results have failed to confirm the effect. So the evidence cannot be considered to be 100% conclusive for any of the diseases mentioned.

Should you take it seriously?

What Does the Government Say about Power Line Radiation?

Environmental agencies, health organisations and power-industry spokesmen generally stress the weaknesses of the evidence, inconsistencies in the data, and lack of conclusive proof.

Living Under Power LinesGovernment organisations (which fund many of the studies) may not wish to promote the view that power line EMF can cause disease. People would ask “why have you allowed this health hazard?” The same applies to the power distribution industry.

Research studies can be structured so as to demonstrate whatever conclusions their sponsors would like to promote.

Big money, from government and industry, could be backing the (minority of) research which fails to find health effects from power line radiation. These large and powerful organisations greatly influence public (and even scientific) opinion.

Therefore the evidence for EMF health effects will likely remain inconclusive, and may never be sufficient to prove unequivocally that long-term exposure to low-level, low-frequency EMF actually causes disease.

What do Scientists Believe about EMF Health Risks?

Power line EMF is classified as Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) radiation. The lower the frequency, the longer the wavelength.

Back in the 1970’s many scientists believed that ELF electromagnetic radiation could not possibly have any biological effects, damaging or otherwise, because it was thought that the long wavelength would prevent its interaction with a relatively small body such as a human being. (The wavelength of a 60 Hz power wave is 5000 km.)

But as the economist Keynes said “When the facts change, I change my mind”.

Do Scientists Understand EMF?Well, the facts (or at least our understanding of them) have changed.

And yet we may not fully understand exactly how and why low-frequency EM radiation affects human bodies and health. All we know is that it does.

Fortunately, scientists are just as good as economists at changing their mind! Concerning power line EMF and health issues, most of them already have, judging by the Bio-Initiative Report of 2012.

This report, compiled by a group of internationally respected scientists specialising in this field, urges

“Health agencies and regulatory agencies that set public safety standards for ELF-EMF and RFR should act now to adopt new, biologically-relevant safety limits that key to the lowest scientific benchmarks for harm coming from the recent studies, plus a lower safety margin.

Existing public safety limits are too high by several orders of magnitude…” (Emphasis mine)

And long ago in 2002, the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) upped its classification of power line radiation to “possibly carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans.”

Should You Worry About Radiation from Power Lines?

The strongest evidence we have so far relates to childhood leukemia, where it appears that exposure to magnetic fields higher than 3 milligauss increases the risk of acquiring it. Several studies confirm this.

The risk of childhood leukemia in children not exposed to unusual amounts of low-frequency EMF is fortunately very low – between 3 and 5 cases per 100,000 children – but it increases by approximately 100% in homes where the average low-frequency EMF level is higher than 4 milligauss.

Power lines are only one source of low-frequency EMF found in the home and workplace. There are many others. So it is quite possible for low frequency EMF to exceed 4 milligauss in a person’s bedroom at night (even though most of the electrical circuits in the house are not in use) especially if the constant background EMF from a nearby power line is contributing, say, 2 milligauss.

Living Near Power LinesIn that situation a person could easily be exposed to low-frequency EMF – at a level sufficient to cause leukemia in some children.

But it would be a mistake to focus only on childhood leukemia, or any other health outcome.

The real issue is the long-term cellular damage that apparently affects every person who is exposed to low-frequency EMF, for as long as they remain exposed.

Fortunately, most people do not succumb to any major illness as a result of their exposure to this kind of EMF. Their biological repair mechanisms are able to deal with the damage.

But a repair process does have to take place, and it does use up energy and resources – which are therefore no longer available to the body when dealing with other stresses. And that is enough to cause serious disease in some of the more vulnerable members of the community, including the unborn, pregnant mothers, children, sick people, and the aged.

So long-term exposure to high levels of power line and sub-station EMF is actually not good for anyone – and is potentially harmful to everyone.

Duration of EMF Exposure – How Long is Too Long?

Most studies show that the association between health effects, such as cancer, and high EMF occurs over many years. But you would not want to be too relaxed about this.

Leukemia, cancer and heart disease are not conditions which suddenly arise out of nowhere. There is a long process of gradually deteriorating conditions within the body, which finally culminates in disease.

Power Line Health Damage Takes YearsElectromagnetic radiation starts doing damage from the first exposure. For a long while there may be no noticeable symptoms, but that does not mean that nothing is happening. As the exposure continues, damage could be accumulating.

If the exposure is stopped early enough, the body can recover completely and repair, or adapt to the damage that has occurred.

No one can tell exactly how long it will take for power line radiation to cause a serious disease in any individual. For most people it may take decades and for others it will not occur in a lifetime.

But a small percentage of people who live close to power lines will become sick within 3 to 5 years. Children are most vulnerable, particularly to leukemia. See our page Who is at risk? for more information on this.

Power Line Radiation – How Close is Too Close?

Keeping a Safe Distance from Power Lines?Both high-voltage transmission lines and also neighbourhood power lines constitute a radiation hazard. The size of the power line is not the issue. The strength of the electromagnetic field (especially the magnetic component) where you live is what is important.

The configuration of power transmission lines greatly affects the EMF. As with house wiring, how it’s designed makes all the difference.

It is common for high-voltage, high-current-carrying power transmission lines to generate a magnetic field whose strength is well above normal household ambient levels, at distances up to 200 metres, although most suburban power lines would generate a much smaller EMF.

But it is also common for a neighbourhood power line (suspended on street poles) to create an unhealthy EMF at a distance of 15 metres, affecting a row of houses all along the street.

In each case, much depends on the configuration of the wires and how much current they carry.

We All Live Next to Power Lines

Power Lines On Your Street?Even if you can see no power lines in your area, there may be underground cables much closer than you imagine. The power must get to your house somehow!

Normally underground cables produce little electromagnetic radiation, not because they are buried (the magnetic energy penetrates the soil) but because the electromagnetic forces are opposed by current flowing in the opposite direction in adjacent wires.

EMF is highest at times when current flow is highest (usually during the day in industrial and commercial areas, and during the early-morning and early evening for residential areas).

For an indication of power line EMF strength and distance, see our Sample Power Line Measurements, but remember that these are typical measurements. The extent of the EMF varies with different power lines.

Protection from Power Line Radiation

Your best protection from power line health risks is knowledge, and that may mean taking measurements.

If you have no way of measuring power line radiation levels, it may help to know that the strongest high voltage transmission lines (400kV) typically produce less than 0.5 milligauss EMF at 200 metres. The strongest street pole power lines (33 kV) generally produce less than 0.5 milligauss at 25 metres. Many street pole power lines are of a lower voltage than this, and their EMF would extend far less.

Power lines vary, so if your house is less than 200 metres from major power lines, or within 25 metres of street-pole power lines, you may want to use a Low Frequency Gaussmeter suitable for power line radiation detection:

  • Measure the strength of the magnetic field in the areas where your family spend most of their time, especially bedrooms (place the meter on the pillow), kitchens and living areas.
  • Do this with your power switched off at the mains, then again with it turned on. That way you can determine how much of the EMF is coming from power line (or sub-station) radiation and how much from your own house-wiring and appliances.
  • Don’t forget to measure the field strength outdoors, where you sit, and where children play.
  • Take measurements at the same locations at various times of the day.

If you have access to a low-frequency EMF meter, and your meter shows less than 0.5 milligauss there is no cause for concern. See our EMF-Guidelines for risk assessment at various EMF levels.

If your EMF values (from power line radiation alone) are above 1.0 milligauss you may be at risk from health effects in the long term.

Screening Power Line Radiation

Power Lines Not the Only Source of EMF in Your Home

There is no way to screen low-frequency magnetic fields (although the electric field is easily screened by window glass or almost any material). Unfortunately it is the magnetic component which penetrates the body and causes health damage.

Remember that power lines are not the only source of EMF in your home, and may not even be the main source. A sound strategy is to minimise your EMF exposure from all other sources.

Most people who are concerned about nearby power lines or sub-stations are being exposed to high levels of EMF from equipment within their home. This often far exceeds the power line radiation.

An EMF survey of your home can help you evaluate your risk from all forms of low-frequency and radio-frequency (microwave) radiation.

You can also help your body to repair the damage caused by living near power lines by improving your diet and lifestyle. Eat fewer processed foods, less refined sugar, and more fresh fruit and vegetables. Get a good night’s sleep – that’s when repair takes place, and exercise regularly.

But you knew all that stuff already, didn’t you?

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