Speed Reads

Fear of Power

Retro Report looks at America's persistent panic over power lines and cancer

In the late 1980s, America was rocked by a report that the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from high-voltage power lines cause cancer, especially in children. Nearly three decades of research has shown that there might be a small correlation between power lines and childhood leukemia, but the cancer is so rare, and EMFs so pervasive, that even the author of an explosive 1987 study, David Savitz, tells Retro Report that "it's quite questionable whether these fields cause leukemia at all."

A panel of the National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1996 that there was no persuasive link between power line EMFs and cancer. But even though the "current state of the science says power lines cannot be a major public health threat," radiation biologist John E. Moulder at the Medical College of Wisconsin tells Retro Report, "we cannot prove that the risk is zero."

In any case, a palpable fear of high-voltage power lines persists, and even predates 1987, Retro Report notes in its mini-documentary on the science and the panic of power line EMFs. "Once a bell of fear is rung, it seems exceedingly difficult to unring it," says The New York Times' Clyde Haberman in his accompanying article. And that's especially true for potential health hazards we cannot see or control, those that cause pain before death, and those that affect children. Watch the Retro Report video below: