The jury is still out on whether electromagnetic fields pose a health risk to humans, but rapidly escalating public concern likely will make the question one of the biggest environmental issues for public utilities in the decade ahead.
Studies suggesting a link between potential health problems, such as cancer, and electric and magnetic fields are fueling a debate that public power officials cannot ignore. In addressing this sensitive topic, officials face possible financial fallout from delays or alterations on major power lines and other utility facilities.
"It's going to slow down the building of transmission lines and make them more costly," cautioned John Moore, director of the electric utility department for Austin, Tex.
Electromagnetic fields -- commonly known as EMFs -- are the invisible lines of force that occur wherever electricity is conducted. The fields emanate from many common sources, ranging from utility power lines and home wiring to electrical appliances, such as hair dryers and electric blankets.
"It's a big issue in terms of consumer credibility, because it's a much more personal issue for consumers than acid rain ever was," said Madalyn Cafruny, public information director for the American Public Power Association. While there is no definite proof that electromagnetic fields from utility transmission lines are a health hazard, several recent studies suggest a possible link between measures of exposure to the fields and childhood leukemia and cancer among workers in electrical occupations.
"Obviously, we don't have any scientific answers at this point, we just have questions," said Barbara Klein, public information manager for the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit research arm of the electric utility industry. "It's not easy to understand, and scientists don't have unanimity" on the potential health hazards.
Many scientists believe the risk from electromagnetic fields is quite small, but that fact alone will not allay public concern, they acknowledge. Public reaction to these concerns has been fierce in some areas, and lawsuits are popping up across the country, alleging that utilities are responsible for health damage to residents or employees because of the fields.
Pressure from a citizens' group in Austin prompted the city to scrap plans for a new 345-kolovolt transmission line in the late 1980s. And last year in Whatcom County, Wash., voters decided by a two-to-one margin to restrict construction of new transmission lines above 115 kilovolts. They also limited construction to certain industrial zones or to places where higher-voltage lines already are allowed.
"We've had lots of problems in Washington State" due to worries about electromagnetic fields, noted Jude Noland, media relations supervisor for Puget Sound Power & Light Co., a private utility targeted by Whatcom County voters for attempting to build two new transmission lines to link the company's grid with a Canadian utility.
"There's a great deal of hype and concern that may or may not be justified" about electromagnetic fields, said Gary Krellenstein, a research analyst for Lehman Brothers. Nevertheless, "it's a very big concern" and an issue that cannot be ignored by municipal bond market participants, he added.
Mr. Krellenstein worries that uncertainty about the risks and growing media coverage might "cause major impediments to utilities" at a time when "new transmission lines are needed in this country."
Public fears could "cause the [not-in-my-backyard] syndrome for power lines," thereby raising costs and other difficulties, Mr. Krellenstein said. He also harbors a main concern that "regulators will get way ahead of research" and impose laws leading to irrational expenses.
Alan Spen, a senior vice president of Fitch Investors Service Inc., said the EMF controversy "needs to be focused on," even if it does not have immediate credit implications.
Public reaction is "a real risk," Mr. Spen said, if one accepts that efficient transmission development to foster power exchanges will be as important to the utility industry in the 1990s as generation construction was from the 1970s to 1980s.
"The fear factor" over electromagnetic fields is not unlike concerns that erupted in recent years over garbage-burning plants, Mr. Spen said, and the results could be similar by causing project delays or higher costs to reroute or otherwise shield new transmission lines.
Cyrus Noe, editor and publisher of Clearing up, a weekly report on Western utility developments, summed up the problem for power officials in a column last October.
"Unfortunately, the public needs positive action from its electric utilities before the jury comes in" on how serious a health problem is posed by EMF exposure, Mr. Noe wrote. "All EMF organization efforts must make it clear that throwing money at the problem right now is not the answer. There are many better ways to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the name of improving the health of children than a radical anti-EMF program."
The American Public Power Association and other utility groups recognize the dilemma. Three months ago, for example, the association's Legislative and Resolutions Committee adopted a resolution observing that increased concern about EMF "has created pressure on state legislatures, governmental agencies, utility commissions and Congress to act to reduce perceived risks."
The resolution -- which will be voted on by the association's members at their annual meeting -- calls for a broader and accelerated EMF research effort on possible health effects.
"This expanded and sustained research effort should be funded equally by federal and voluntary non-federal contributions, with all funds being administered by a highly respected independent research institution that has a proven ability to conduct health-related research," the resolution said.
The results of all research into EMF "will provide a stronger scientific basis for informed decision-making by public officials ... and will permit the development of a responsible public policy that recognizes and balances the benefits of electricity and the risks, if any, of electric and magnetic fields," the resolution continued.
U.S. Rep. George Brown, D-Calif., earlier this year told an APPA task force on electromagnetic fields that "policymakers like myself are put in the tough position of trying to tackle this issue based on scientific evidence when the scientific data is far from conclusive."
Mr. Brown said it would be wrong to ignore potential EMF risks, however, noting by analogy that the asbestos industry pushed itself into bankrupcty when it paid little attention to early studies linking asbestos with cancer.
In an example of the type of litigation that is arising over EMFs, a California couple in late May sued San Diego Gas & Electric Co., charging that the utility's power lines and transformer equipment near the couple's home caused their daughter to develop kidney cancer while in her mother's womb.
Congress is unlikely to take drastic action on EMFs, Mr. Brown said, but public pressure may prompt local officials to take certain steps, such as ordering utility lines to be buried.
Several states already have imposed regulations that limit field strengths on transmission line rights-of-way.
Meanwhile, many utilities have developed education programs designed to inform consumers and their employees about the EMF issue.
Since it could take years for expanded research to provide answers about possible EMF health risks, utilities also are exploring their current choices, which range from doing nothing to launching an expensive and aggressive program of limiting field exposures. Many utilities are embracing a middle ground referred to with the buzzwords, "prudent avoidance."
Professor M. Granger Morgan, head of the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, conceived the strategy of prudent avoidance after concluding that available scientific knowledge fails to provide a basis for setting safety standards.
But for individuals or regulators who feel there is a possibility of risk, "they can try to exercise some prudence by keeping people out of fields when this can be done with modest amounts of money and trouble," Mr. Morgan wrote in a widely circulated brochure about electric and magnetic fields.
"However, in circumstances where the cost and problems associated with doing anything would be large, these people would argue that the prudent thing to do is wait until better information is available," Mr. Morgan said.
Mr. Morgan essentially suggests taking steps to control risks at a modest cost.
Austin officials took such an approach after being forced to scrap their 345-kilovolt line, Mr. Moore said. They turned to a smaller voltage line and practiced prudent avoidance with a route that "tends to stay away from people with these lines."
That approach can raise environmental issues if it means running power lines through sensitive wetlands or woodlands, Mr. Moore said, but the public seems to prefer that tradeoff over placing the lines near homes, schools, or churches.
Alternatives suggested by prudent avoidance can also mean delays and higher costs. "It'll have some impact," Mr. Moore said, but he predicted it will not be so prohibitive as to affect the reliability of utility systems.
Austin and other municipal utilities -- such as Seattle City Light and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power -- also are in the forefront of encouraging public involvement in EMF issues. Seattle City Light, for example, will measure fields strengths in customers' residences, and meets with community groups to discuss potential concerns that distribution line upgrades.
Some utility officials have called the EMF controversy a classic public affairs issue, especially because emotions and perceptions over possible risks may be running much higher than justified by what the facts indicate at this point.
Many utility officials believe they were treated unfairly in a series of articles in 1989 and 1990 about electromagnetic fields in The New Yorker by Paul Brodeur, who writes about environmental health hazards. Mr. Brodeur, who also wrote a book titled "Currents of Death: Power Lines, Computer Terminals and the Attempt to Cover Up Their Threat to Your Health," helped elevate concern about electromagnetic fields, but some utility officials said he neglected to note that certain studies revealed no risks.
Earlier this year, long-awaited preliminary results of a four-year University of Southern California study on health effects of electric and magnetic fields showed that children in Los Angeles who have leukemia are more likely to live near major electric wires, but the study still did not uncover a link between the specific strength of the fields and the disease.
In fact, it suggested more support for a relationship between childrens' electric appliance use and leukemia risk than the connection with power lines.
"These studies do not show cause and effect," even though they may show a correlation between higher cancer incidence and nearby power lines, Mr. Krellenstein of Lehman Brothers noted.
But making it clear to the public that no scientific connection between electromagnetic fields and health risks has yet been found can be difficult, utility officials noted.