Power to the people


I’m glad the town didn’t shell out the $20,000 it cost for the expert consultant to tell us that power lines don’t cause cancer. To their credit, the selectmen stuck National Grid with the bill for Dr. Robert Kavet’s report.

At a well-attended public hearing last November, many residents raised the old specter of electromagnetic fields from transmission lines causing leukemia and other cancers. The hearing was on National Grid’s proposal to run 3.5 miles of underground transmission line through Wakefield as part of a larger Woburn-to-Wakefield project.

So, the town got National Grid to fork over 20 grand for an independent expert consultant to analyze on behalf of the town the health and safety impacts of the transmission line.

Some may think that $20,000 is a small price to put people’s minds at ease. Maybe so, especially if somebody else is paying.

But in the course of a five-minute Google search, I was able to find every bit of information in Dr. Kavet’s report – all of it from credible and reliable sources like the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute.

Next time, call me. I’ll only charge $10,000.

This is in no way meant to diminish Dr. Kavet’s report. He was just doing what he was being paid (very well) to do. And who can blame him? If somebody offered to pay me $20,000 to tell them that the earth is round, I’d be more than happy to take the dough.

In seeking someone to conduct the analysis, the town reached out to six or seven scientists with expertise in electromagnetic fields from power lines. Only Dr. Kavet responded with a proposal. It was assumed that the tight time frame discouraged the others from responding. But I’m beginning to wonder if their reaction went more like, “Are these people seriously still worried about this?”

If you read through Dr. Kavet’s 37-page (not including appendices) report, you’ll note that it doesn’t include any new scientific research. There was no need for him to reinvent the wheel. Most of the research had already been done over the last 30 or 40 years – much of it by none other than Dr. Kavet himself and his fellow scientists.

Speaking of scientists, how many times have we heard the claim that “97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is man-made?” Well, I’d be willing to bet that more than 99 percent of scientists would agree that magnetic fields from power lines don’t cause cancer. But many of the same people who accept the “scientific consensus” on global warming are science deniers when it comes to the equally mainstream scientific opinion that magnetic fields do not cause cancer.

Whether it’s vaccines causing autism or power lines causing childhood leukemia, I’m reluctant to dismiss any parent’s concerns when it comes to the health and well-being of their children. But this whole thing was way overblown.

A 2014 article in Forbes magazine nicely sums up the rational response to the “power lines-cause-cancer” hysteria.

“This debate sounds very familiar. Many false hypotheses, such as the notion that vaccines cause autism, or that acupuncture can reduce pain, show the same pattern: a few small studies produce weak positive evidence, but then larger, better studies fail to back them up. Proponents always call for more studies, but if the effect is real, it doesn’t disappear when you do a bigger study. If anything, the effect should appear stronger.”

According to Dr. Kavet’s report, 95 percent of homes in the United States have EMF exposure levels of less than 4 milligauss (mG) – the units used to measure the strength of magnetic fields. Kavet determined that 32 homes that he looked at on the proposed Salem Street route of the transmission line would be exposed to less than 3 mG. Even if you were to stand directly above the underground transmission line, your exposure would not exceed 56 mG, according to Dr. Kavet’s report.

Meanwhile, as you read this column, you are being exposed to the earth’s magnetic field of 250 – 650 mG (depending on where you are on the planet).

The same conceit that leads people to believe that man has more to do with climate change than a host of natural forces, including the sun, has many of the same people convinced that a weak magnetic field from a man-made power line is capable of causing disease, even though the earth’s own magnetic field is hundreds of times stronger.

We’ve now spent the better part of three months debating settled science.

Energy regulators say that we need this transmission line to meet the region’s power needs. Given the explosion of electronic gadgets in recent years, I tend to believe it. And if saving the planet means we all are going to be driving electric cars in the near future, we’re going to need a way to get all that electricity here somehow.

And just this week, the state Energy Facilities Siting Board gave the project its blessing.

Let them build the power line. Two weeks after its in the ground, no one will even remember it’s there.

[This column originally appeared in the February 15, 2018 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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