Southern New Castle County community asks, 'How safe is this?'
The News Journal/WILLIAM BRETZGER
George Kilbride of Wheatland questions the safety of power lines Delmarva Power may put near his development at a community meeting Thursday.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences defines electric and magnetic fields (EMF) as invisible lines of force that surround any electrical device, including power lines, wiring, and electrical equipment. Magnetic fields are measured in gauss (G) or milligauss (mG).
The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection's guideline for the public's exposure to magnetic fields is 833 mG.
According to Delmarva Power's EMF models, magnetic field exposure on the south side of Wheatland could increase from 0.7 mG to 3.9 mG with the new lines. The west side of the subdivision could go from 21 mG to 25 mG. The projections are calculations based on a peak 2008 summer load.
By ALISON KEPNER The News Journal
MIDDLETOWN -- George Kilbride has a 6-year-old grandson, so if power lines planned near his Wheatland home could put the boy at risk of developing childhood leukemia, he wants to know.
"We asked for someone to come out here and make sure our kids aren't going to get sick," he told Delmarva Power officials at a neighborhood meeting Thursday. "All we are asking is: 'How safe is this?' "
Fears, anxiety and emotions have escalated in southern New Castle County since residents in the Wheatland and Villages at Fairview Farm neighborhoods learned about Delmarva's plans to run 138,000-volt lines behind their homes.
The proposed lines are part of an 8-mile transmission link needed to provide electricity to the growing area south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.
The lines would be on poles about 300 feet apart on a 60-foot right of way through the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Wildlife Area, which is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Many residents have done their own research, finding dozens of articles and studies claiming exposure to electric and magnetic fields (EMF) from the power lines could increase the risk of cancer, seizures and other health problems.
They also found papers disputing those claims and concluding that despite two decades of research, no study has found a credible link.
No definitive link has been found in years of research, but the scientific community is divided about whether more research is needed.
Kilbridge and some residents of the two subdivisions want answers from power officials. Others want the lines moved, whether or not health threats have been confirmed.
"I don't want to have my little sister put at an extra risk," said Meagan Hanifee, 19, whose Wheatland home is near two existing lines.
Mother Stacey Hanifee said they already have a history of cancer in the family.
"Why increase the risk of potential harm by having these things in my yard?" she asked. "I'm deathly afraid."
Most government agencies, medical societies and health experts don't think the studies that claim an EMF-cancer link definitively proved anything.
According to the American Cancer Society, studies of electric utility workers showed a minimal increase in the risk of brain tumors and leukemia. But the increase may have been due to chance. Studies have not been conclusive, the society said.
An eight-year, $4.5 million study by the National Cancer Institute found no association between electric power lines and childhood leukemia. The study was published in July 1997 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In an editorial accompanying the study, Dr. Edward Campion called for an end to wasteful spending on EMF research. He wrote, "The many inconclusive and inconsistent studies have generated worry and fear and have given peace to no one."
Yet, some experts advocate for more research. The studies suggest something might be there, they argue.
Dr. David Carpenter is director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany.
"I think they are pretty conclusive to childhood cancer," he said. "Nobody has been able to determine the mechanism by which these very low fields cause cancer."
From a public health standpoint, "I am more concerned about the evidence that there is a relationship between exposure and cancer than necessarily understanding totally what the mechanism may be," Carpenter said.
Others believe more research will conclude what previous studies found: there is no link.
"The problem that I would have is that it is very hard to prove a universal negative," said John W. Farley, a physics professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "What you can prove is that the preponderance of studies have not found a real effect."
Farley, author of the paper "Power Lines and Cancer: Nothing to Fear," believes the health scare is perpetuated by researchers who want to keep their jobs.
'We need more information'
So if there is no real risk, why has the debate continued for more than 20 years?
"People don't believe the experts," Farley said, citing the tobacco industry representatives who testified for years about the safety of smoking.
"People have been burned enough by experts who have a stake in it," said Farley, who said he has never been employed by the electric power industry or by its research organization, EPRI.
But those who believe there is a possible EMF-cancer link think caution is warranted.
"I am not an advocate of generating panic," Carpenter said, but "it's stupid for people to be oblivious to issues like these where there almost certainly is increased risk.
"We need more information," he said.
Delmarva officials are considering altering the route slightly to move the poles farther away from the neighborhoods. Company managers hope to make a decision by the end of the month.
Contact Alison Kepner at 324-2965 or firstname.lastname@example.org