And The Dangers Pylon

And The Dangers Pylon – Brief Article

Chris Busby


TWO RECENT STUDIES on the potential health effects of overhead pylons reached two very different conclusions. Thanks to the efforts of Sir Richard Doll and the ‘cancer industry’, the public received just one of the messages: ‘power lines are safe’. This is far from the whole truth.

WE LEARNED RECENTLY from a Cancer Research Campaign press release in January this year that there would be no need for that organisation by the year 2050, since by then ‘cancer would be a treatable disease, like diabetes is now’. Predictably, the question of the origin of the disease was not even discussed.

In the case of childhood cancer, however, this crucial issue has recently been addressed. The United Kingdom Co-ordinating Committee on Cancer Research (UKCCCR) has organised the United Kingdom Childhood Cancer Study (UKCCCS). Since 1992, it has collected information on all children with cancer (and suitable control children without cancer) throughout the UK. The operation, costing at least [pounds]11 million has been funded jointly by (they say) ‘the UK’s leading cancer charities, government and industry’. ‘Government’ here includes the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) while the term ‘Industry’ includes British Nuclear Fuels, Scottish Nuclear, and the electricity companies.

The study investigates five possible causes of childhood cancer, of which the first two are ionising radiation and power-frequency electromagnetic fields. The first results, which emerged at the end of last year, related to the latter. A report in The Lancet was entitled ‘Exposure to power-frequency magnetic fields and the risk of childhood cancer’ [1]. But an hysterical UKCCCR press release concluded — MAJOR STUDY FINDS NO LINK BETWEEN OVERHEAD POWER CABLES AND CHILDHOOD CANCER.

The conclusions sold to the media this way were simply wrong. The Lancet’s article was solely about children exposed to magnetic fields in the home, Although it suffered from many methodological problems, the only result which threw any light upon the effect of overhead high-voltage power cables was an admission, tucked away in an incomplete table, that 31 cases and 17 controls lived near such power lines. If representative, this suggested that children suffered an approximate doubling of cancer risk near power lines. Many senior researchers, including those who had been involved in the study, were furious, pointing out that the press release was inaccurate. The lead author, Dr Nick Day, admitted at the press conference that someone had added the misleading heading to the previously agreed body text.

The reason for the panic and spin-doctoring lay in another research paper in the International Journal of Radiation Biology, published in the same week. In ‘Increased exposure to pollutant aerosols under high-voltage power lines’ [2] Professor Denis Henshaw from Bristol University reported that he had measured significantly increased concentrations of radioactive dust in the vicinity of high-voltage power lines. Henshaw’s team placed polycarbonate plastic alpha-particle detectors within 250m of 132-kilovolt-and-above overhead power lines and found that the ionising radiation dose to people was significantly increased. Here, at last, was a plausible mechanism for the well-attested and widely confirmed association between power lines and childhood cancer, first reported in 1979.

It is not only alpha-particle-emitting dust that is concentrated. Some years ago, Anthony Hopwood, an independent researcher, reported elevated Geiger counter readings underneath high voltage power lines. The NRPB dismissed Hopwood’s result. But all the dust in the UK is radioactive and contains beta and gamma-emitting man-made isotopes like caesium-137 and strontium-90. And as well as the natural alpha-emitting Radon isotopes, found in the dust by Henshaw, there is also plutonium, blown across the country from the Irish Sea. Levels of radioactivity in dust near Reading, Newbury and Basingstoke are found to be hundreds of times higher than threshold levels which are defined in the Radioactive Substances Act 1993 as nuclear waste. This is a plausible explanation for the leukaemia and other cancers near the power lines, and indeed elsewhere. And this is why the UKCCCR and the electricity industry had to move swiftly to destroy Henshaw’s credibility.

Despite being challenged at their press conference, the UKCCCR line was swallowed whole. Power lines were reported safe by the media. Fergus Walsh, BBC Health Correspondent, dutifully relayed this falsehood on the national TV news, quoting Sir Richard Doll, chairman of the UKCCCR enquiry. When I phoned Walsh after the programme and explained that the study had not even considered high-voltage power-line electric fields he did not seem to understand that there was a difference between electric and magnetic fields. And when eventually he realised the nature of the complaint, his defence fell back on the eminence of the good Sir Richard.

In essence, this is a simple affair. A doubtful epidemiological study apparently found no link between childhood cancer and magnetic fields in the home. Another quite precise set of measurements found that high-voltage power lines concentrated radioactive dust and other cancer-causing substances. Someone moved rapidly to control the news, and to declare the power lines safe.

Who stood to gain? Both the nuclear industry and the electricity industry have something to hide. But perhaps this will prove to be a deception too far. This is not the usual sleight of hand, but rather a gross and silly alteration of the conclusions of a research report. The authors should not be difficult to find. And when they are, the ’eminent’ Sir Richard Doll, the man who insists against all available evidence that power lines are ‘safe’, cannot be standing too far away.

Dr Chris Busby is Scientific Director of the independent research group Green Audit and is adviser to the Low Level Radiation Campaign.

Further Reading

(1.) UKCCCR Investigators (1999), The Lancet 354, 9194.

(2.) Fews, AP, Henshaw, DL, Keitch PA, Close, JJ and Wilding, RJ (1999), Int J Rad Bio 75 (12) 1505-1521.

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