When Commonwealth Edison installed a transmission tower along the old railroad yards just southeast of Garfield Boulevard (55th Street) and the Dan Ryan, it wasn’t cause for alarm. That was in March, long before people in the neighborhood knew much about electric and magnetic fields or the damage they might cause inside the body.

Now there are at least five 100-foot towers along the railroad line between Garfield and 61st Street, one less than 50 feet from someone’s backyard. And neighbors, having studied the issue and learned about potential health risks, want Edison to take the towers down.

Edison officials say that the transmission lines offer no health dangers and that nearby residents have nothing to fear. If anything, they say, the new power lines are good news, helping ease the flow of electricity throughout the city.

“Once you study the issue I think you will realize that the lines are not dangerous,” says Earl Moore, Edison’s public affairs director. “As we provide additional service to the downtown area, we make the whole system more reliable.”

But south-side residents who live along the lines are not convinced. “No one wants to live next to an electrical line,” says Sandra Johnson, who lives around the corner from one of the newly erected towers. “We joke that if the lights go down we’ll be OK because we’ll just glow in the dark. We laugh, but it’s really not so funny.”

Commonwealth Edison was drawn to this obscure, predominantly black, working-class section of Washington Park by the railroad line that runs past the neighborhood on its way to the Loop. Edison prefers to install transmission lines along railroad property because it’s cheaper and easier to obtain a right-of-way. This particular transmission line will send more electricity to the Loop from a generating station in south-suburban Burnham.

“This is not something we did without notice,” says Moore. “There were town hearings. There were articles in the newspapers–the Sun-Times and the Tribune and the Defender. This was known.”

To prove his point, Moore cites several articles from the early 1990s that show that Edison agreed to bury the transmission lines north from Garfield to the Loop after protests from CHA residents and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Nevertheless, Washington Park residents say they didn’t know the line was coming until they saw the towers. “If they took the towers down because IIT and the people in the CHA objected, why should we put up with them?” asks Johnson, who is also the treasurer of a local community organization called Neighborhoods Working Together. “When we saw the first tower, Rita [Whitfield], one of my neighbors, called Edison and found out they planned to run them all the way to 61st. [That was the] first we knew about that. Some of them run right behind the houses. Emma Strong, who lives on Perry, has one in her backyard. When she sits on her porch she’s looking at the bottom of the tower. It’s not pretty.”

The real fear isn’t the towers themselves, of course; it’s what will flow through the lines to be run between the towers. In particular, the residents are worried about the side effects of electric and magnetic fields (EMFs).

“Electric and magnetic fields are regions or areas of invisible forces that exist wherever and whenever electricity is in use,” reads a fact sheet on the subject issued by the Illinois Department of Public Health. “Electric fields are a result of voltage (the electric pressure that pushes current through a circuit), and magnetic fields are a result of current (the flow of electricity). Both fields rapidly decrease in intensity as the distance from their source increases.”

In other words, the closer you live to the lines, the more likely you are to feel their effects.

“An easy way to describe an electric field is as an invisible emission,” says Philip Lazar, president of Better Electric Safety Today, a network of 11 groups in the Chicago area that oppose the construction of new transmission lines. “Magnetic fields are something else. It’s not really a particle that travels out from a source. The best way I’ve ever heard it described is like a magnetic pull that lines up molecules in one particular direction.”

It’s possible that exposure to EMFs can increase the likelihood of cancer, says Lois Anne Rosen, executive director of the Labor Coalition on Public Utilities, an advocacy group that has been critical of Commonwealth Edison. “The most recent evidence was gathered in Sweden, where they discovered that children living along transmission lines had childhood leukemia rates four times the national average. They also did a study on men who worked along these lines and found that they got adult leukemia at three times the average. The evidence was so compelling that [Sweden] has an official position that electric and magnetic radiation is dangerous.”

The Illinois Department of Public Health’s fact sheet, published before the Swedish study, is less conclusive. “Is exposure to EMF harmful? No one knows for sure,” the fact sheet reads. “Although it is possible to measure the fields and compute the currents produced, scientists do not know which, if any, of these quantities might affect health. . . . They have learned through their research that EMFs can produce a variety of biological effects, such as changes in the levels of specific chemicals in the body and certain changes in nervous system function. Whether any of the biological effects can lead to health risks is not known. Much research is still needed.”

Edison officials say the lines are not a health risk. “The tower design is set up so it mitigates all EMF dangers to anyone on the ground, even to people whose homes are relatively close to it,” says Moore. “We have done tests and found that for homes that are close to a transmission right-of-way the EMF level was lower than what you will find in your house around your appliances.”

Washington Park residents are not convinced. “I’ve read a lot about this, and the best they can say is that the effects are not known,” says Johnson. “That’s not good enough. Edison tells us, ‘Well, if you have any kind of TV or computer it gives off these rays.’ The thing is, you can turn off your TV or your computer. But these things are constantly flowing, constantly creeping along those lines, seeping through bricks and mortar. You can’t tell me it doesn’t build up in your system.”

One thing is certain: the residents of Washington Park are not alone. “People all over the Chicago area are fighting these lines,” says Lazar. “Residents out in western Kane County fought like hell for a year and a half, buying newspaper ads, lobbying the county government. They finally got Edison to back down. In De Kalb other residents forced Edison to back down. You have a group in Lake County that’s active. The only way to beat Edison is to fight like hell.”

Last month Moore met with the Washington Park group to assure them there was no reason to fight. “They were concerned that the lines going through their community are there purely to serve the downtown, and that’s not true,” says Moore. “I also told them that it’s not economically feasible to put the whole line underground.”

On that last point, Lazar vehemently disagrees. “If you consider all the costs it would probably be less expensive to bury the lines,” he says. “Think of all the outages we have had due to storms. Edison says these are acts of God. But you could protect against that by going underground. If you add in the health risks from the transmission wires, it’s a foregone conclusion that society really ought to have a buried system.”

Lazar contends that Edison wouldn’t even need to build new lines if they practiced conservation. “Through arm twisting, the new buildings in the Loop are constructed to maximize their use of electricity instead of gas,” he says. “Edison’s trying to increase its rate base by whatever means it can. That only increases the magnetic fields people must live in.”

Once again, Moore disagrees. “We’re a society of convenience, and people want all the convenience they can get,” he says. “One TV set isn’t good enough; people have to have two. Everyone is making their coffee with a Mr. Coffee. You’ve got to have that window air conditioner. To make sure we have enough electricity to supply the community, we have to have these new lines.”

If so, Washington Park residents don’t want them running through their yards. “Edison tells us that there’s no proof of health problems,” says Johnson–and of course any such problems most likely wouldn’t crop up for years. “We can’t afford to wait for that.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.