Is ‘electrosmog’ harming our health?
Jan. 18, 2010
In 1990, the city of La Quinta, CA, proudly opened the doors of its sparkling new middle school. Gayle Cohen, then a sixth-grade teacher, recalls the sense of excitement everyone felt: "We had been in temporary facilities for 2 years, and the change was exhilarating."
But the glow soon dimmed.
One teacher developed vague symptoms — weakness, dizziness — and didn't return after the Christmas break. A couple of years later, another developed cancer and died; the teacher who took over his classroom was later diagnosed with throat cancer. More instructors continued to fall ill, and then, in 2003, on her 50th birthday, Cohen received her own bad news: breast cancer.
"That's when I sat down with another teacher, and we remarked on all the cancers we'd seen," she says. "We immediately thought of a dozen colleagues who had either gotten sick or passed away."
By 2005, 16 staffers among the 137 who'd worked at the new school had been diagnosed with 18 cancers, a ratio nearly 3 times the expected number. Nor were the children spared: About a dozen cancers have been detected so far among former students. A couple of them have died.
Prior to undergoing her first chemotherapy treatment, Cohen approached the school principal, who eventually went to district officials for an investigation. A local newspaper article about the possible disease cluster caught the attention of Sam Milham, MD, a widely traveled epidemiologist who has investigated hundreds of environmental and occupational illnesses and published dozens of peer-reviewed papers on his findings. For the past 30 years, he has trained much of his focus on the potential hazards of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) — the radiation that surrounds all electrical appliances and devices, power lines, and home wiring and is emitted by communications devices, including cell phones and radio, TV, and WiFi transmitters.
His work has led him, along with an increasingly alarmed army of international scientists, to a controversial conclusion: The "electrosmog" that first began developing with the rollout of the electrical grid a century ago and now envelops every inhabitant of Earth is responsible for many of the diseases that impair — or kill — us.
Milham was especially interested in measuring the ambient levels of a particular kind of EMF, a relatively new suspected carcinogen known as high-frequency voltage transients, or "dirty electricity." Transients are largely by-products of modern energy-efficient electronics and appliances — from computers, refrigerators, and plasma TVs to compact fluorescent lightbulbs and dimmer switches — which tamp down the electricity they use. This manipulation of current creates a wildly fluctuating and potentially dangerous electromagnetic field that not only radiates into the immediate environment but also can back up along home or office wiring all the way to the utility, infecting every energy customer in between.
With Cohen's help, Milham entered the school after hours one day to take readings. Astonishingly, in some classrooms he found the surges of transient pollution exceeded his meter's ability to gauge them. His preliminary findings prompted the teachers to file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which in turn ordered a full investigation by the California Department of Health Care Services.
The final analysis, reported by Milham and his colleague, L. Lloyd Morgan, in 2008 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine: Cumulative exposure to transients in the school increased the likelihood a teacher would develop cancer by 64%. A single year of working in the building raised risk by 21%. The teachers' chances of developing melanoma, thyroid cancer, and uterine cancer were particularly high, as great as 13 times the average. Although not included in the tabulations, the risks for young students were probably even greater.
"In the decades-long debate about whether EMFs are harmful," says Milham, "it looks like transients could be the smoking gun."
The case against EMFs
Cancer and electricity
Could a disease whose cause has long eluded scientists be linked to perhaps the greatest practical discovery of the modern era? For 50 years, researchers who have tried to tie one to the other have been routinely dismissed by a variety of skeptics, from congressional investigators to powerful interest groups — most prominently electric utilities, cell phone manufacturers, and WiFi providers, which have repeatedly cited their own data showing the linkage to be "weak and inconsistent."