The idea that living near high-voltage power lines is bad for your health has been around for many years. Illnesses attributed to power lines include childhood leukemias, other cancers, abnormal heart rhythms, miscarriages, low birth weight, birth defects, and other illnesses that might lead to premature death. Despite the conclusions of many studies that find no detectable risk, many people remain unconvinced about the safety of power lines. So, is the notion that power lines are hazardous a myth, fact or, as with many controversies, is there merit to both sides of the argument?

Why Is There Concern About Power Lines?

High-voltage power lines create electromagnetic fields around them and expose anything nearby to electromagnetic radiation. This is not unique to power lines — microwave ovens, radio and televisions transmitters, and cellular phone transmitters do the same thing, though the amounts of radiation emitted vary. From any source, the amount of radiation falls dramatically as the distance from that source increases (there's a complicated formula involving the square of the distance that describes this). As a result, even power lines that are easily visible from one's home (or from one's appliances or cell phone) lead to radiation exposure that experts consider harmless — that's why there are not more rules and regulations about living near power lines.

When laboratory animals have been exposed to radiation of this sort, some researchers (but not others) have been able to demonstrate health problems, including new cancers or accelerated growth of existing cancer. The question is whether any of the potential effects on animals applies to humans, recognizing that we are generally exposed to much lower amounts of radiation in our everyday lives when compared to the animals' experimental conditions. On the other hand, certain occupations, including power-line maintenance workers, may have higher exposures.

Scattered, anecdotal reports of a higher-than-expected number (called clusters) of leukemia or other cancers in a neighborhood near high-voltage power lines have been proof enough for some people that there must be a connection. As a result, despite the low amounts of radiation involved and the lack of convincing evidence that power lines are hazardous to humans, the issue continues to raise concern.

Over the last 20 years, multiple studies have been published reviewing the effect of high-power voltage lines on human health. Among the most recent was a study from England of more than 83,000 workers in the electricity industry. Researchers found no increase in brain cancer or overall death rate when compared to those who did not work around electromagnetic fields. Reports from major research centers in at least nine countries have come to similar conclusions:

  • There is no compelling evidence of any health hazard from power lines.

  • If power lines have any effect on human health, it is small.

  • Research should continue to look for even a small effect on health.

These results are reassuring, although they cannot completely declare power lines risk-free. In fact, in another recent study (published in June 2005), children living within 600 meters of a power line had higher rates of leukemia than those living farther away; however, based on limitations of this type of research (including the fact that electromagnetic fields were not actually measured in the homes of these children), the authors of this study were not convinced that power lines truly caused a higher than expected rate of childhood leukemia.