Shock Journalism

The junk reporting behind the power line-cancer connection

Wind shear is one of the major banes of air travel, a killer held responsible for causing 18 crashes and 575 deaths since 1970. Aviation authorities have recently found a way to combat this menace through Terminal Doppler Weather Radar, which can provide precious minutes of advanced warning. This radar could have prevented the deaths of 37 passengers in Charlotte, North Carolina, in July. It will be installed now at Charlotte and some 150 other sites around the country.

But two of the nation's largest airports, JFK and LaGuardia on Long Island, won't be enjoying its life-saving benefits any time soon. Politicians and activists have stopped its installation there, since Long Island residents--wrongly convinced that they are already suffering an epidemic of breast cancer--have been terrified into believing that electromagnetic fields (EMF) from the radar would afflict the area with even more cancer.

This terror--indeed, most of the nation's terror of EMF in general--can be readily traced to one person. If and when a plane crashes into Long Island because of wind shear, you should know who is responsible. Meet Paul Brodeur.

Brodeur is a reporter who has made his career by digging up massive conspiracies. He wrote a book on asbestos, Outrageous Misconduct, that contributed greatly to spreading the national asbestos scare. But he has devoted the latest years of his life to trying to prove that EMF from radar stations and especially power lines are "the most pervasive--and covered up--public health hazard Americans face." Like A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddie Krueger, Paul Brodeur keeps coming back, most recently in his 1993 book The Great Power-Line Cover-Up.

Clearly, many think highly of Brodeur. His articles have won many awards, including the Sidney Hillman Foundation Award, Columbia University's National Magazine Award, an American Association for the Advancement of Science/Westinghouse Sci-ence Writing Award, and an American Bar Association Award. His last installment on EMF in The New Yorker, "Calamity on Meadow Street," was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and the influential, albeit politically correct, Publisher's Weekly could barely contain its excitement over The Great Power-Line Cover-Up, calling it an "important, riveting expose" which "should be on Al Gore's desk as he tackles environmental health problems, and on Hillary Rodham Clinton's bookshelf as she reorders national health priorities." It probably was.

But it's The New Yorker and its stodgy reputation that gives Brodeur his true credibility and allows him to rise above the tabloid level. In a periodical that humbly calls itself "the best magazine in the world," Brodeur has published several huge articles on EMF that formed the basis not only for The Great Power-Line Cover-Up but also for his 1989 book, Currents of Death.

Brodeur might do as well as he does simply because fear sells. When my book Science Under Siege was published last year, the producers of Larry King Live, fresh from having launched the cellular phone/brain cancer scare, said they thought it might be good to highlight the anti-hysteria side of things by building a show around a chapter in my book on EMF. They asked Brodeur if he would appear on such a show, but Brodeur refused to appear with me. King's producers bumped me, added Brodeur and two other proponents of Brodeur's thesis, and put them all against a single physicist with little or no television debating background.

Brodeur seems to share certain traits with horror author Stephen King, who says that when he feels he's having trouble scaring the reader he just disgusts them with gore. Thus, in the case of one tumor which Brodeur attributes to power line exposure, he treats us to the niceties of brain surgery. "He removed my forehead bone in two pieces," he quotes the victim, "and took out a meningioma--a generally nonmalignant but often fatal tumor--which was the size of a small grapefruit and had got entangled in my optic nerves and stretched them out as fine as ribbon. In order to take out the tumor, he had to sculpt out a small piece of my brain." Brodeur's description goes on and on, literally ad nauseam.

Those who warn of the dangers of EMF exposure want to essentially eliminate that exposure, either through burying all lines in residential areas or by buying up all exposed houses. H. Keith Florig of Resources for the Future estimates that power companies are already spending $1 billion a year to reduce EMF exposure, but that is a tiny figure compared to what they will have to spend if the recommendations of anti-EMF activists become law.

Testifying before Congress last year, Florig calculated that were we to bury all the power lines that expose people to levels of EMF that worry activists, it would cost about $200 billion. That would show up as a nearly $4,000 one-time surcharge on the electric bill of a family of four. Buying out houses near those power lines as an alternative to burying the lines would cost merely $90 billion.

All this might be justified if we were facing one of the greatest health threats known. But the evidence, such as it is, appears to be largely based on fear, conspiracy-mongering, ignoring contrary evidence, and statistical gerrymandering.

A Conspiracy So Immense

The anti-EMF thesis is built around studies showing its biological effects on simple organisms and small animals, along with some studies done on humans. Many researchers think these effects mean nothing. "The solid weight of biological research" argues that electric and magnetic fields should not be able to cause cancer, said British epidemiologist Richard Doll in a New York Times interview. Doll, the man given credit for providing epidemiological proof that cigarette smoking causes cancer, said that "for the sort of fields we're talking about, we know they don't damage DNA. The idea that they should cause cancer is bizarre."

Still, as Brodeur repeatedly states in Currents of Death, there are "32 published studies demonstrating ELF [extremely low frequency, another term for EMF] effects." What Brodeur doesn't say is that hundreds of studies have been performed in which EMF shows no biological effects. Further, "biological effects" aren't necessarily harmful. As the authors of a report on EMF for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment noted, "A biological effect is not necessarily a significant health consequence."

However, even a distant possibility of biological effects from EMF makes it hard to dismiss out of hand the possibility that they could cause harmful ones. Thus, numerous epidemiologists have sought out evidence of EMF's harm or lack thereof in real-world situations. The major studies have looked at power-line exposure, since threats from radar microwave emissions are taken much less seriously even among those who fear EMF.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties