A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

EMF Decision Time in California: Follow the Health Data or Follow the Money?

August 18, 2004

California will soon decide what's next for EMFs.

As power line skirmishes continue to smolder across the country and around the world, California regulators may be the first to take stock of all the new health data that have been generated over the last decade.

In mid-August, the five members of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will choose between mitigating the EMF risks laid out by the state department of health or following the path of denial favored by electric utilities.

After eight years of work at a cost of more than $7 million, the leaders of the California EMF Program, run by the Department of Health Services (DHS), evaluated all the available studies and, in a ground-breaking report issued in June 2002, concluded that power line EMFs likely play a role in the development of childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, ALS and miscarriages.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) counters that the report adds little more than speculation to the shaky science of EMFs. The utility is asking the CPUC to leave the dormant EMF issue alone.

Charlotte TerKeurst, the CPUC Administrative Law Judge who has been reviewing PG&E's request to build a controversial new power line, the 27-mile 230 kV Jefferson-Martin line, isn't following the industry game plan. She believes that the time is now ripe to take a fresh look at EMF health risks—in effect, rejecting the need for absolute certainty of harm before moving forward.

In a proposed decision on the Jefferson-Martin line, issued on June 8, TerKeurst writes:

"While there is no definitive proof at this point, we must proceed with the knowledge that EMF exposure may increase the risk of certain health effects" (p.89).

She goes on,

"[I]t is entirely appropriate and prudent for us to consider the EMF levels that would be created by the various possible routings and configurations of the project."

TerKeurst has also prepared an order that would force the CPUC to "reconsider" its generic EMF policies for all power lines in the state.

Soon afterwards, the president of the CPUC, Michael Peevey offered his own, very different opinion. In an "alternate decision" dated June 22, he states that the real problem is the public's perception—he really means the public's misperception—of EMF health risks, not the risks themselves. Peevey rewrote TerKeurst's key conclusion to read:

"While there is no definitive proof at this point, we must proceed with the knowledge that there is public concern that EMF exposure may increase the risk of certain health effects" (p.78).

His pro-industry outlook should surprise no one. Peevey was a senior executive at Southern California Edison (SCE) for 20 years, the last three (1990-93) as its president. SCE has a long record of aggressively trying to bury the EMF issue.

What is surprising is the role played by Pat Buffler, the former dean of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, who is serving as PG&E's EMF expert witness. Buffler dismisses the health claims cited in the DHS EMF report.

Here, for instance, is what they say about the EMF–childhood leukemia risk in a filing with the CPUC on the Jefferson-Martin line:

"Dr. Buffler is not aware of any epidemiologic studies that show exposure to 60 Hz magnetic fields of '3-4 milligauss of more' are causally associated with an increased risk of childhood leukemia or any malignancy in adults or children" (p.111).

This totally misleading statement turns on the word "causally" —the hired gun's favorite get-out-of-jail-free card. We all know that epidemiology can never show causal links. Buffler, like others who are paid to support otherwise untenable positions, uses the impossible burden of proving causality to dismiss unwelcome associations.

As everyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the EMF health literature knows, the epidemiology on childhood leukemia was the basis for the unanimous decision by a panel assembled by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to classify EMFs as a "possible human carcinogen" in 2001. The IARC decision was based on two independent, highly regarded meta-analyses that strongly support the EMF–leukemia link. As one otherwise skeptical member of the IARC committee, Maria Stuchly of Canada's University of Victoria, told us at the time, "The epidemiological data are there and it is hard to dismiss them" (see MWN, J/A01, p.1).

Apparently, it gets a lot easier to dismiss the data when one's palms are weighed down with silver.

One additional fact makes Buffler's distortion even harder to condone. Buffler herself is a coauthor of two meta-analyses that found small but statistically significant associations between occupational EMF exposures and leukemia and brain tumors.

(That Buffler found a link between brain tumors and EMF exposure at work did not prevent her from testifying against a widow of a telephone lineman who, according to the compensation claim, died of a brain tumor (see MWN, M/A95 pp.4-5, and M/A97 p.2). Here again, Buffler was defending the interests of PG&E.)

In the past, Buffler has declined to reveal how much she is paid for her EMF consulting work. But we do have a clue. In May 2002, Buffler filed a $9,750 claim in bankruptcy court against PG&E. While there is no explanation for what Buffler did for the money, it's unlikely to be related to the Jefferson-Martin power line. PG&E sought permission for the line in September 2002, four months after Buffler demanded her money.

It's not a stretch to assume that, over the years, Buffler has received a steady flow of sizable paychecks from PG&E.

The CPUC was slated to decide whether to reopen the generic EMF issue and whether to force more EMF mitigation along the Jefferson-Martin power line at its July 8 meeting. But at the last minute, activists, like Katie Carlin of the 280 Corridor Concerned Citizens group, lobbied hard for a delay because they did not believe they could muster a three-vote majority from the five CPUC commissioners.

The EMF issue may now be decided at the CPUC's next meeting on August 19.

It's not clear whether any of the five commissioners have read even the executive summary of the health department's EMF report. Let's hope they don't rely on PG&E and Buffler to tell them the whole story.