Marty Horan looked out his kitchen window last summer and saw construction workers ripping up the abandoned railroad tracks that ran behind his home in suburban Lincolnwood. People on Kenneth Avenue wondered what would take the place of the Chicago & North Western trains that once cut through the tall grass and weeds on the utility right-of-way. Except for a slight hum from electric power lines, this stretch of land had been relatively quiet.

The Chicago Area Transportation Study once proposed that the RTA use the tracks to connect the O’Hare rapid-transit line with the Skokie Swift. But Horan had heard that plan before, and many others. Some neighbors said the village had purchased the land and was planning to build a bicycle path or a park.

“There were a lot of wonderful rumors,” says Ellie Zoub, one of Horan’s neighbors. “People talked about all these new recreational activities. It seemed like something good would happen.”

Horan was skeptical. “Immediately after the tracks were removed, earth-moving machines started digging huge bunkers. My wife Anita and I take walks, and we asked the workmen what they were doing. They said they were subcontractors for Commonwealth Edison, and they were digging trenches for some repair work. When I asked them what they were fixing, they stopped talking to me. They wouldn’t commit themselves.”

Horan’s questions were answered by a community newspaper. According to a story in the July 15 Nadig Reporter, a group of Sauganash residents asked their alderman, Anthony Laurino (39th Ward), to find out whether power lines were going to be installed on the Chicago portion of the right-of-way. Laurino held a public meeting with Com Ed last July. A Com Ed representative said the utility had purchased the Chicago & North Western right-of-way, but it had no plans to place high-tension wires south of Devon. However, he couldn’t rule out installing transmission lines in the suburbs north of Devon.

There were already high-tension power lines on the Lincolnwood segment of the right-of-way. The transmission lines behind Horan’s home hang on a row of 150-foot towers and carry 138,000 volts of electricity. The thought of additional current running down that corridor made Horan nervous and angry. The Nadig Reporter story said the electromagnetic fields produced by power lines may cause cancer. His first wife, Harriet, had died of ovarian cancer four years before. “I was infuriated. Utilities are supposed to be operated in the public interest, but here Com Ed was putting more power lines in without telling anyone.”

Since then Horan and a group of his neighbors have persuaded the village of Lincolnwood to halt construction by Com Ed and to formulate the toughest limit on electromagnetic fields ever proposed by a governmental body. Currently, the official line from both the scientific community and government regulatory agencies is that too little is known to set meaningful limits, and some think setting limits might even place the population at greater risk.

Yet Lincolnwood has joined a growing number of communities, school districts, labor unions, and individual citizens across the country who are tired of waiting for scientific confirmation of statistical links between electromagnetic fields and cancer, and who believe there is already enough evidence to start taking precautionary measures to protect the public health. If the Lincolnwood proposal becomes law, this high-tension-wire act could send shock waves through the electric power industry here and abroad. It may also spark a surge of liability lawsuits against utility companies. In a culture entirely dependent on electricity, the repercussions of such a law could affect the daily lives of all Americans.

Electromagnetic fields (known as EMF) exist everywhere there is electricity. These fields (measured in units called “milligauss”) are generated not only by electric power lines but also by many other sources, such as household wiring, microwave ovens, television sets, computer terminals, and electric blankets. Almost everyone is exposed to EMF every day.

The debate about whether EMF causes cancer has raged for almost two decades. While statistical evidence has shown a link between exposure to fields and a greater incidence of childhood leukemia and other forms of cancer, scientific verification has been slim.

“Epidemiological studies seem to show a weak correlation between EMF and cancer,” says Anthony Valentino, an EMF researcher and the vice president of the applied-sciences group at IIT Research Institute. “But epidemiological studies have their problems. Showing a correlation is one thing, but showing cause and effect is another. For example, you may be taking data from people living near power lines. After the science involved is a little clearer, you may find, since power lines are often near highways, that the cancer was caused by the asbestos used in the streets. I’m not saying this is the case. I’m just trying to show that what may look like a direct connection may not be related. The correlation raises concerns, but we need laboratory studies.”

So far, laboratory tests have shown that low EMF levels do affect the way cells function; cells have natural electric fields that appear to be disturbed. Ann Henderson, a biologist at New York’s Hunter College, found that genetic activity was stimulated by fields similar to those generated by household appliances. But whether this could cause cancer is still a matter of debate. “Anything is possible, but we don’t know if there is a link between EMF and cancer. Epidemiological studies say there is a connection. But I’m a biologist, and nothing has been proven yet. If I knew the answer, I’d be in Stockholm.”

Given the paucity of hard scientific evidence, many experts remain skeptical about the cancer risk. Valentino says, “I’ve come to believe that even if there is a connection, it’s very weak and should be less of a concern than other environmental factors, such as smoke in the air.”

All researchers agree that more research needs to be done. M. Granger Morgan, head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the author of an EMF study commissioned by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, thinks people’s fears may be legitimate, but now is not the time to panic. “We’re pretty sure that fields can cause physical changes under certain conditions, but whether or not it’s a danger to the public health is another issue. If fields present a risk–and they may, and it’s possible–the risk of getting cancer would be minimal. Society as a whole should do more research, but individuals who are exposed to EMF should not spend lots of money or sell their homes.”

Until the uncertainty is resolved, Morgan advocates a “prudent avoidance” policy. “There are simple things you can do to limit your exposure to EMF, such as stop using your electric blanket or place your motor-driven electric alarm clock away from your bed.”

Henderson warns, “While it doesn’t hurt to be cautious, we should be careful about treating an unknown like it was the truth.”

After reading about Com Ed’s meeting with Sauganash residents, Marty Horan learned that Com Ed was planning to hold a public-relations meeting at the local library on August 16. He fired off a letter alerting his neighbors.

Norm Snitovsky, a friend and neighbor, read Horan’s draft. “I asked Marty to tone down the first letter. It sounded a bit alarmist. But I’m convinced Marty’s letter played a great part in arousing the people to take action.”

“I distributed copies of the letter to about 75 neighbors and hoped for the best,” says Horan.

Ellie Zoub had never met Horan, but after reading his letter she contacted other neighbors to let them know about the possible new power lines and Com Ed’s upcoming meeting. When Zoub showed up at the library, she found almost 100 people squeezed into the meeting room. “Edison went into a state of shock. They expected the usual quiet meeting where they would discuss rates and bills–and then continue to do as they pleased. But that’s not what happened.”

Lincolnwood mayor Frank J. Chulay was also at the meeting, but he found out about it because a notice was enclosed with his electric bill. “The meeting was not intended to address people’s concerns about electromagnetic fields. It was just an informational meeting. I wanted to see what was going on with Com Ed, but there were a lot of people there trying to get their neighbors aroused. Don’t get me wrong. It is a reason for concern. But it is all around us, and it may be something we cannot do away with entirely.”

Zoub thought the Lincolnwood government did not want to address the issue. “The village at first acted like they couldn’t be bothered. But they always have enough money for their own special projects, like traffic studies for the new [Lincolnwood Town Center] shopping mall. Why not look into this? It’s not only an issue for us. It’s a possible epidemic issue. If the health hazard is true, it affects the entire nation. To do nothing is criminal.”

Concerned citizens bullied the utility’s unprepared representatives into setting up another meeting. Zoub introduced herself to Horan, and they–along with Horan’s wife Anita, Snitovsky, and Irv Zeman–formed the Citizens’ Committee.

“Prior to the next forum with Commonwealth Edison, I had a meeting at my house,” says Horan. “It was just a few concerned people. We knew we had to get organized for the next meeting, but we didn’t know what we would do and who would do what. We tried to form an agenda, and I wrote letters to the Lincolnwood Life, the Skokie Review, and the Nadig Reporter. I urged all my neighbors to come to our meeting with Com Ed.”

Members of the Citizens’ Committee had already started to wade through the mountain of research and articles published during the last 20 years. “After I wrote the first letter to my neighbors, people started dropping articles and information in my mailbox,” says Horan. “Some of these articles were quite complex.”

One of the first discoveries the group made was particularly unsettling: three of the five members forming the Citizens’ Committee had lost spouses due to cancer. In addition to the death of Horan’s wife, Zoub’s husband had died 9 years before and Zeman’s wife had died 20 years before. All three had lived in the same homes near the power lines from 12 to 26 years.

“There has been an inordinately high number of cancer deaths in the area,” says Zoub. “On my block, where there are six or seven homes, there have been four or five cancer deaths. The next block on the street had three or four cancer cases, and on the block of Touhy to the north there have been four or five cancer illnesses, including a young child. On Marty’s block, there have been three cancer deaths–his wife, Irv’s wife, and another woman.

“It makes me mad, because over the years Edison has been constantly adding power and putting up new lines. There are ways to minimize EMF, but they just do what costs them less. It’s a dollars-and-cents issue with Edison, but people’s lives are too valuable.”

Zoub started getting calls from other residents complaining about the large number of cancer cases in the area. “A woman living by the intersection at Pratt told me she has been treated twice for cancer, and she has neighbors on either side of her home who have cancer.”

The woman, Eleanor Ersoy, had contacted Zoub after seeing her name in Lincolnwood Life. During the 26 years she has lived close to transmission lines, Ersoy says, she has counted 10 out of 18 homes on her block that were at one time occupied by families in which someone had cancer. (One of the people Ersoy thought had leukemia was actually a healthy child who had been killed in a traffic accident.) “I’m 60 years old. When my kids were young, I was a den mother and I was involved in the schools, so I knew what was happening in the neighborhood. But I don’t really know what’s going on now.”

Ed and Chris Davidson have lived across the street from Ersoy for the last ten years. They are both registered nurses and have two sons, ages seven and five. The youngest boy was born with Wolf-Parkinson-White syndrome, a rare heart abnormality that he developed while still in the womb. Chris later developed Hodgkin’s disease, but has been in remission since 1988. Ed is concerned about the possibility of more power lines. “Why put up a hazard,” he says, “even if it’s only a potential hazard?”

The trenches Horan saw Com Ed’s subcontractors digging on the right-of-way between Devon and Jarvis were 30 feet long, 5 feet wide, and 6 feet deep. He was sure more was happening than repair work, and a neighbor went to the village hall to find out if the utility had a construction permit.

“We saw them putting in a cable when they were digging,” Horan says. “And then we found a work permit dated December 1989 that gave them permission to add lines. The village of Lincolnwood does not have jurisdiction on the right-of-way, and Com Ed only needed a permit because they crossed a thoroughfare at Pratt. Apparently, the village was told this was routine maintenance. Then my neighbor Gerald Bender took some pictures and retrieved a section of cable left on the ground. It had a diameter of about three inches, and we looked on the permit and found it was a 12 kilovolt cable.” (It appeared Com Ed was installing a new distribution cable, but surprisingly Horan’s copy of the work permit makes no mention of any new cable. Com Ed has since said the cable hasn’t been activated yet, and the utility probably was only planning for future use.)

Horan started contacting government agencies and public-interest groups to enlist support for the Citizens’ Committee. The Citizens Utility Board sent a representative to Horan’s home. CUB wanted to attend the meeting with Com Ed but asked Horan not to tell people its representatives were coming. “It appears to be Com Ed’s policy to avoid meetings we attend,” says Martin Cohen, associate director of CUB. “They will refuse our invitations, and they will not show up at the same forum. But we didn’t tell anyone we were going to the meeting in Lincolnwood. We don’t want people to think we’re exploiting the issue–that would be a typical Edison charge. We just want to make sure the citizens get a fair shake.”

Cohen says he first became aware of the possible link between EMF and cancer about a year ago. “Now we’re trying to stay abreast of what’s happening. The necessary research has to be done. It certainly is a frightening possibility, and the people in Lincolnwood were clearly frightened.”

Before their September 12 meeting with Com Ed, the Citizens’ Committee decided their primary objective was pushing the utility to declare a moratorium on further construction. “It was a fiasco,” says Horan. “They had no intention of declaring a moratorium. They sent a few people to the meeting, and the village sent the administrator, Bill Sommer. Com Ed had one heavyweight, a regional director. But we had done our homework, and I don’t think they knew what they would encounter.”

Cohen adds, “Com Ed had three representatives at the meeting. One was a scientist. He outlined the evidence and tried to reassure people that there was nothing to fear. There was also a management guy who said Com Ed was sympathetic but nothing would be done because there was no evidence that EMF was harmful. Then a resident asked what Com Ed planned to do on the right-of-way. The management guy said they had no plans at this time. The crowd became irate, and someone asked what ‘at this time’ meant.”

“There was lots of anger and hostility among the residents because we couldn’t get clear-cut answers,” says Horan. “We confronted them with our evidence at the meeting, and they still denied they were expanding. They hedged on everything.”

Cohen says, “Finally the third representative, a field engineer, lost his temper and said, ‘Look, we didn’t buy that land because we liked the view. How do you expect to get electricity?'” Then the engineer admitted that Com Ed had installed the new cable and said it had a 20-year plan that called for even more lines on the right-of-way.

“Someone asked what was a safe EMF level,” says Cohen. “And this guy said 50,000 milligauss. Of course, tests have shown EMF may be harmful at levels as low as two or three milligauss, so this answer resulted in an uproar. The engineer said he couldn’t set an EMF standard when it was not harmful. He said, ‘I’d put my daughter’s bedroom right under the lines.’ Then he calmed down and tried to toe the company line and say yes, there appears to be a legitimate concern, and the company was sympathetic, but more research needs to be done. By that time though, nobody was listening. He already let it out that he thought it was hogwash.”

“I wonder what would have happened if we didn’t do something?” says Horan. “They were planting a new wire and denying it. They called it routine maintenance. They said more had been made out of [EMF] than really exists. I am skeptical. It’s the way they operate. Does the installation of a 12-kv cable entail routine maintenance? No way.”

“The Edison people appeared off guard,” Cohen says. “It didn’t look like they’d ever dealt with this issue before. Usually they’re very well choreographed. I’m sure it will be different in the future.”

Electric current creates both electric and magnetic fields. Electric fields can be blocked by physical objects, such as buildings and aluminum siding. But magnetic fields penetrate all barriers, except ferrous metals like iron or nickel. Magnetic fields can pass through almost anything, including your home and your body. It is now feared that even weak magnetic fields may be harmful.

Politicians have only recently started to address the issue. The federal government has not moved to regulate EMF, but seven states (New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Oregon, and Florida) have set limits for electric fields. Only Florida has added limits on magnetic fields. However, Florida’s maximum EMF levels are set at 150 to 200 milligauss, which critics contend is in effect no limit at all.

In Illinois the General Assembly recently passed a resolution asking both the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the state EPA to complete a formal study on the potential health hazards of EMF. “We discussed the issue with the Illinois EPA, and they felt this was more in our domain, since it is a health issue,” says Bruce Barrow, a toxicologist with the division of environmental health of the IDPH in Springfield. “We didn’t want to duplicate efforts.” He is preparing the study and thinks the final report will be released in June.

Until now, most of the battles over EMF have not involved state or local governments. They have instead been between grass-roots groups and utilities over the installation of power lines near homes, schools, or playgrounds. For example, a school district in Texas recently won a court injunction prohibiting a utility from placing power lines near a school yard.

Florida developed its magnetic-field standards after Tampa-area residents protested against the construction of a 44-mile stretch of power lines from Lake Tarpon to the small suburb of Kathleen. According to Karen Anthony, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, citizens took their case to court, and the state’s Environmental Regulatory Commission eventually worked out a compromise between the utility and the protesters. An exception to the state’s standard was made, and now power lines on the corridor can generate peak magnetic fields of no more than 35 milligauss within 100 feet from the utility right-of-way and 24 milligauss within 190 feet. However, residents have since complained that the regulatory commission ignored research linking cancer and extremely low fields, and their county government is currently challenging the state’s standards. The state has already admitted its standards were based on what existing technology could meet, not on studies about potential health effects.

Much of the research on the possible hazards has been done at the university level, where most researchers say the cancer risk has yet to be established. David Savitz, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, doesn’t think EMF limits are necessary. “There’s no such thing as a scientifically safe level because there is no evidence to support the idea that it is harmful at any level.” That’s a surprising statement coming from a man whose studies show that the risk of developing leukemia for children living near power lines is almost double that for other children, and that pregnant women who use electric blankets during their first trimester are four times more likely to have children with brain cancer–an extremely rare disease, especially in children. Savitz has also done occupational surveys that show power-line workers are more likely to develop leukemia and malignant brain tumors than utility employees working in an office. By the mid-1980s, 15 out of 17 occupational studies conducted around the world found a similar statistical link between cancer and exposure to EMF, according to Paul Brodeur, who wrote a controversial series of articles on the subject for the New Yorker.

Many of those favoring stringent field limits express dismay that the federal government is not more involved. “It’s just the little guy taking on the utilities,” says Norm Snitovsky. “But this problem is larger than just here in Lincolnwood. There have been electromagnetic-field studies done all over the world. I can’t understand why the EPA is not involved.”

At one time the EPA was involved, but money for its research was cut by the Reagan administration. However, after years of silence the EPA has recently been trying to seriously address the question of whether electricity can cause cancer.

In late December the agency issued a draft of a report that was considered controversial, even though it contributed little to the discussion, because it sounded uncomfortably like a government health warning. It said there was a “consistent pattern of response that suggests, but does not prove, a causal link” between EMF and cancer. The release of the draft, which was originally set for November 27, was delayed until Christmas Eve because both the Bush administration and the Pentagon feared it would alarm the public. White House science adviser Allan Bromley and Assistant Secretary of Health James Mason also reportedly asked that the draft be held up because they anticipated an adverse public reaction. By the time the draft was finally released, Bromley had succeeded in adding a preface stating that the effects of EMF are unknown and the risk, if real, would be minimal. This apparent watering down of the EPA draft report did not satisfy the Pentagon, which was much more vociferous in its criticism, calling the authors “biased.” (In the new age of high-tech “smart” warfare, military equipment has become especially dependent on electrical systems.)

An earlier version of the EPA report had proposed that electromagnetic fields be designated a “class B1” carcinogen, which would have characterized EMF as a “probable” source of cancer. That proposal was dropped after a White House review, though the EPA denied charges that it was forced to delete it.

The Citizens’ Committee and Lincolnwood agreed that it should be determined how strong the electromagnetic fields were in homes located near the right-of-way between Devon and Jarvis. “Edison proposed to do an EMF study, but we didn’t want them to get their hands on it,” says Ellie Zoub. “So the village hired a private firm.”

In late October, the Evanston-based Environmental Management & Field Testing (EM&FT) took measurements at ten locations along each side of the right-of-way, including six private residences and two public playgrounds. Since EMF levels are dependent on the amount of current running through a power line, the firm returned a half dozen times to repeat measurements in order to account for variations in current flow. Their final numbers represented an average range in EMF strength.

The average EMF reading on the east side of the right-of-way was 45.81 milligauss; measurements on the west side averaged 14.57. Radiation readings on the east side were higher because both large high-tension transmission wires and smaller distribution lines were closer to these properties. The old Chicago & North Western train tracks, where Com Ed presumably wanted to install new power lines, were on the edge of the west side of the right-of-way.

Field strength generally declines with distance (placing power lines farther from residential areas is considered one solution to the EMF problem). Consequently, drop-off occurred more slowly on the east side of the right-of-way. Thirty feet away from Com Ed’s property EMF levels averaged 17.85 milligauss on the east side and 7.92 on the west. At 100 feet the average levels were 6.14 on the east and 3.73 on the west.

EMF readings inside the six homes located near the right-of-way ranged from a high of 15.79 milligauss to a low of 0.95. “The EMF levels were high,” says Ward Rapp, codirector of EM&FT. “Well above the average level.” According to records retained by Rapp’s firm, the average EMF level in Chicago-area homes is 1.98 milligauss. Rapp says this average is a “little high because homes next to power lines skew the average up.”

Rapp started EM&FT five years ago with his partner Patricia Clark (Com Ed has confused her with a Patricia Clark who works for CUB, creating problems for EM&FT). EM&FT, which also does environmental consulting work, has developed an important sideline taking EMF measurements as people have become more concerned about the potential adverse health effects.

“A power line is an easy thing to attack because of its visibility,” Rapp says. “But that doesn’t mean communities without transmission lines don’t have a problem. EMF can come into your home from the water system. Most municipal building codes have home electrical systems grounded to cold-water pipes. The pipes then conduct the current.” In addition, he says, “Major distribution lines can also give off as much EMF as transmission lines, and sometimes you don’t know where these are because they’re underground.”

Com Ed generally plants transmission lines in Chicago underground because of city congestion. Some people advocate placing power lines underground to lower EMF emissions, but these lines can emit just as much EMF if measures aren’t taken to reduce the fields. You could also be living on top of underground lines and not know it.

“Com Ed faces a big problem. How do you deliver electric power when electromagnetic fields are a natural by-product of electricity? To reduce the field is like trying to fight nature,” says Rapp. “Theoretically, the problem is correctable. Electromagnetic fields can be reduced by balancing the circuitry [configuring power lines so that neighboring wires cancel out each other’s field]. But it may be difficult because of variations in current flow. Also there are simply a lot of lines to deal with.

“The existing network of transmission lines is admirable in its complexity. It’s a system without a grid. But the only safety concern was preventing electric shock, not reducing electromagnetic fields. It wasn’t planned to deal with this problem. There are things that can be done [to lower EMF]. I don’t know if it’s practical. Com Ed knows what they can do.”

Tom Hemminger, director of environmental services for Commonwealth Edison, said the practice of balancing circuitry has been used by electric utilities for at least as long as the 28 years he has been with the company. “For many years this technology has been used because it not only minimizes the field, but it also makes the lines more efficient to operate. Wherever there are multiple conductors, there is some cancellation of electromagnetic fields. And there are things that can be done with household wiring, such as only grounding one wire to the cold-water pipes instead of grounding several wires. But fields can’t be completely canceled. They can be reduced, but there will always be a residual field.”

Underground wires are often twisted into a braid because that creates opposite current flow, a practice that lowers EMF and reduces wasted electricity. But since more cable must be used, it’s more expensive for utility companies to implement.

Rapp expresses surprise when told of Com Ed’s efforts to reduce wasted electricity in power lines. “If they’re concerned about waste, by coincidence they’ll deal with EMF,” he says. “EMF is the fallout of wasted electricity. But for utilities with a lot of generating capacity, like Com Ed, it’s usually cheaper to waste electricity instead of constructing for conservation.”

Hemminger thinks all talk of reducing fields is speculation until there is scientific proof that EMF can cause cancer. “It’s hard to say how effective reducing the field is, because a dose-effect relationship has not yet been established. There are a lot of big unknowns.”

Rapp points out that the large number of sources of EMF makes the task of lowering fields more difficult to tackle, but, he says, “a potential carcinogen deserves attention. Power lines are the most obvious thing to concentrate on, because you can see them and they look scary. But you can be influenced by a lot of things. The critical difference here seems to be that power lines are constant. There has been an ongoing argument about whether an ambient field is more hazardous than sharp bursts of electromagnetism from hair dryers, microwaves, appliances, or electrical equipment. I tend to think it’s a cumulative thing. The longer you’re exposed to a field, the greater your risk.”

The village of Lincolnwood is a small, quiet suburb sandwiched between Chicago and Skokie. It has a population of nearly 12,000, and the typical single-family home costs more than $200,000. Each December visitors from neighboring towns drive through Lincolnwood to see the many elaborate holiday decorations that light up its lawns.

On November 29 the village held a public meeting at the Lincolnwood Hyatt, a large purple hotel standing in the shadow of the high-tension-wire towers. Across the street a new luxury condominium complex is being built overlooking the power lines.

The meeting allowed residents to review the results of the EMF study and to comment on the village’s recommendations to Com Ed. After examining the survey and the current research on the possible link between EMF and cancer, William Sommer, the village administrator, had formulated a proposal that would make significant cuts in EMF levels in Lincolnwood.

“We discovered that EMF levels around two to three milligauss can still be harmful,” Sommer says. “But we found no tests that indicated a level below two milligauss was a health risk. So we’re asking Commonwealth Edison to reduce EMF levels to a maximum of 1.5 milligauss at all building setback lines along the right-of-way between Devon and Jarvis avenues. We would like for this to be accomplished by December 1991.

“There’s a lot of controversy about what is a safe level–even the EPA is not sure,” he concedes. “We’re not scientists. We set a standard according to the best of the available knowledge. We don’t know what they’ll have to do to reach the standard, because no one has ever asked them to do this before. We’re just trying to give them a target.” (This target would be about half the level a computer terminal or television emits.)

Lincolnwood mayor Frank Chulay lives near the right-of-way, but he didn’t appear to be as concerned as his neighbors who lived closer to the power lines. “I live far enough away where my home doesn’t have the same problems with EMF. I had my home tested, and it was nowhere near as high as the homes along the right-of-way. My home’s EMF level was below the 1.5 milligauss standard, and so were most of my neighbors’ homes.”

The village is planning to amend its building code so EMF would not be conducted through water pipes, and it will include EMF regulations in its franchise agreement with Com Ed. If the utility fails to reduce EMF levels, Lincolnwood plans to take legal action to force the utility to reconfigure all power lines within the village to meet the 1.5 milligauss limit.

“Com Ed’s position is that they would like to work with the village, but they think the 1.5 milligauss standard is too low,” says Sommer. “We’re going to give them an opportunity to make their case, but we’ve declared a moratorium on the installation of any new power lines that cross any village right-of-ways until the board of trustees is satisfied.”

Chulay says, “We’re trying to enlist any governmental agency to help get involved, such as the state or federal EPA or the Illinois Commerce Commission.” The ICC has a mandate to ensure that utility companies are providing environmentally safe service.

Lincolnwood’s proposal may be the toughest restriction ever placed on an electric utility in the United States to date, yet other countries have been thinking along the same lines for a long time. Both the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union already have national magnetic-field limits. Last year Australia adopted interim standards based on guidelines formulated by the International Radiation Protection Association, and Germany is currently basing its standards on the same guidelines.

The majority of EMF research has been done in the United States, yet the federal government has taken no steps to regulate electric utilities on this issue. If other countries have set EMF limits, why hasn’t the United States? Some proponents of standards believe the politics of greed is involved. Electric utilitites in this country may be operated in the public interest, but most of them are still for-profit ventures.

Despite the large number of statistical studies linking exposure to EMF with cancer, the vast majority of EMF researchers still believe too little is known about the issue to take effective action. The utilities of course say the potential risk is too small to worry about. “Not all the evidence is in yet, so there is no cause for alarm,” says Gary Wald, a spokesman for Com Ed. “If there is reason for concern, it appears the increased cancer risk is very low. That’s one reason why it has been so difficult to establish a definite link.” Wald says Com Ed is “looking into the subject, both internally and through our support of EPRI.” EPRI is the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility-funded research group based in Palo Alto, California. EPRI has been the leading supporter of past EMF research and currently has more than 30 commissioned studies under way. Some public-interest groups are uncomfortable with the institute’s close ties to the utility industry and have said too much time and money has been spent on replicating studies only to verify previous results. Other consumer advocates have charged that researchers paid by EPRI have a clear conflict of interest. But university researchers say they can’t afford to be choosy. Ann Henderson, who does research at Hunter College, summed up the situation: “Research is desperately needed, and there’s not a whole lot of money around right now.”

When told of Lincolnwood’s attempt to legislate very low EMF standards, Com Ed’s Wald said it was “not surprising. There’s a lot of fear and misunderstanding out there.” This fear may be one reason why some consumer-electronics companies are already developing low-field appliances. The Northern Electric Company manufactures a low-magnetic-field electric blanket. IBM has introduced a low-field personal computer, and Apple Computer is reportedly studying Swedish video-data-terminal standards for use in its new models. (San Francisco recently passed a law forcing businesses to install equipment to make VDT use safer, but most of the provisions entail measures to prevent headaches, eyestrain, and keyboard-related nerve damage to wrists and fingers. However, companies must also give operators frequent work breaks, and an advisory panel has been set up to study possible radiation hazards from VDTs.)

Lincolnwood trustee Raymon Grossman soon found other municipalities were interested in his village’s attempt to regulate EMF emissions. “In late November I attended the National League of Cities convention in Houston, and I got a tremendous response when I brought up the issue of EMF at an environmental workshop. There was a lot of interest in what we were doing. One town in Florida forced the utility to move power lines, and another place in California is renegotiating its franchise agreement so that 1 percent of all revenue must be spent on putting lines underground. Of course, we found burying power lines is useless unless the lines are configured correctly. Other places are now waiting to see what happens here. Many people feel EMF may become the big environmental issue of the 1990s, because it’s everywhere.”

Nathan Partain, a utility-industry analyst with Duff & Phelps, an investment-management firm in Chicago, thinks electric companies will find it necessary to confront the issue sooner or later. “The controversy will be one of the big concerns for utility companies in the 1990s. During the 1970s and ’80s utility companies were building generating plants. The companies with excess generating capacity are now looking to sell power to other regions, so they want to start transmitting electricity from one part of the country to another. [EMF] could be a big problem for electric utilities. During the 1970s people didn’t want power plants in their backyards, and now they don’t want power lines.”

Com Ed already has major problems with adding power lines. Last year the utility ran into stiff opposition over a plan to install a 345,000-volt transmission line along the Dan Ryan Expressway from 63rd to 23rd streets. The controversy forced Com Ed to delay the project, which it claims is necessary to supply electricity to downtown, even though the plan was already approved by the ICC.

The first south-side group to express concern was the Illinois Institute of Technology. IIT reportedly found out about the utility’s plans only after receiving an anonymous tip two weeks before construction was scheduled to start. Ironically, Com Ed president Bide Thomas is on the university’s board of trustees.

IIT claims its opposition to the power lines has nothing to do with the possible adverse health effects of EMF. Instead researchers worried that their experiments and electronic equipment might be upset by field interference. The university also expressed reservations about how the campus would look with large high-tension-wire towers looming over the 20 buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe.

Commonwealth Edison agreed to postpone the plan and to fund an EMF study on campus. In another odd coincidence, the utility hired the IIT Research Institute, a private research foundation affiliated with the university. Since the early 1970s IITRI has been working with the U.S. Navy on the development of an EMF radio-communication system and investigating how it might interfere with other communication systems, such as telephones and power lines. (Much of the early EMF research was done by the Pentagon. In 1973 a panel of scientists formed to review Navy studies recommended that the military immediately notify the president that 60-hertz household current might pose a hazard to the health of many Americans. Household electricity is alternating current; 60 hertz, or cycles, means current runs back and forth, reversing direction, 60 times a second.)

IITRI also did some of the earliest EMF tests on household appliances. For many years it had been assumed that fields from power lines posed little threat because people had long been using appliances that generated extremely strong magnetic fields. But it was later learned that IITRI’s measurements were unusually high because detection equipment was stationed very close to the appliances; new measurements showed EMF levels dropped dramatically only a small distance from the appliance. And while hair dryers, can openers, and microwave ovens all generate strong fields, they are used only for relatively short periods of time. This is why even mainstream publications like Consumer Reports have advised people to avoid using electric blankets, which lie on top of your body overnight.

Once Com Ed’s power-line plan became public, many other civic organizations and south-side community groups expressed their disapproval. The Chicago Housing Authority said it was shocked about not being consulted by the utility; Stateway Gardens and the Ickes, Dearborn, and Robert Taylor homes are all located next to the Metra right-of-way where the transmission lines were to be installed.

CHA spokesperson Katie Kelley said Com Ed agreed to prepare another study about the health effects of exposure to EMF. The study should be released during the next several months. “We wanted to talk to Commonwealth Edison now, because in the past we have dealt with hazardous materials, such as asbestos and lead paint, that became serious problems 20 years later. We wanted to make sure we weren’t going down the same road with EMF. We have 40,000 CHA residents who live within a half block of the proposed power lines, and 75 percent of those residents are children. Studies indicate we should have special concern about the effect of electromagnetic fields on the health of children. We’re not just talking about children in housing units either. We have schools and day-care centers in the vicinity.”

One of the more vocal opponents of the proposed transmission line was the Chicago-based Labor Coalition on Public Utilities, a nonprofit coalition of union locals in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. “We think more has to be spent on EMF research,” says executive director Lois Rosen. “But until we know more, electric utilities should spend the extra money to make people’s lives safer. Edison wants to build 43 high-current towers along the Dan Ryan. The project is supposed to cost about $40 million. If they put the lines underground, it would cost another $40 million. They say there’s not enough evidence to warrant spending the extra money, but we think there’s enough evidence about the dangers of EMF to know it should be done.”

The coalition was responsible for a resolution passed last September at the biannual Illinois AFL-CIO convention that urged the government to conduct more research into EMF and asked the utilities to place more power lines underground. “The public only found out about the Dan Ryan project because of an anonymous whistle-blower,” Rosen says. “Why did we have to find out this way? This kind of action with obvious scientific implications shouldn’t be done in secrecy. It’s a public matter.

“Edison has been quiet lately, which is not a surprise knowing the way they act. Edison has a bad record on PCB cleanups. Residents on the northwest side were not notified about PCB spills in their neighborhoods. Edison was trying to handle it secretly, but one day someone in an alley stumbled on Com Ed workers in moon suits sweeping something into a sewer. Residents had to use the Freedom of Information Act to find out what was going on. It took great effort to get Edison to face their responsibility. Some of the spills had been there for eight years, and they weren’t going to tell anyone about the problem until they got around to cleaning it up.” In the summer of 1988 Commonwealth Edison cleaned up the PCB spills on the northwest side. When residents accused the utility of a cover-up, Com Ed reportedly claimed it had notified their alderman. But 26th Ward Alderman Luis Gutierrez, who later learned there was a PCB spill behind his own home, says he was never contacted. “To the best of my recollection, I only received notification after an inquiry was made by civic and community groups in the 26th Ward.”

“Com Ed was uncooperative the whole time,” says one community organizer. “We asked for a map with the locations of spills. They said no, and the next day the map showed up in the newspaper. All we were asking was for them to put up barriers and post signs. The signs they did post were small and were not multilingual. We have a large Hispanic community here. Speeding the cleanup was the most important thing. If Com Ed had been more cooperative, the whole matter wouldn’t have blown up in their face.”

Lois Rosen says the profit motive is usually at odds with the public interest. “The utilities have to sell more electricity to make more money. There’s no profit in conservation. New buildings downtown, like the Harold Washington Library, are all electric, even the heating systems. Electric heat costs less than gas to install, but it’s more expensive to operate. The economic welfare of the community is not involved in Edison’s plans. If they weren’t pushing so hard to encourage electric consumption in the Loop, they wouldn’t need to put power towers along the Dan Ryan.”

One reason the public is often ignorant about Com Ed’s plans is that the utility clears its expansion plans through the Illinois Commerce Commission, not local governments. A municipality still has to grant the right for construction to cross its streets and property, but what happens on the utility right-of-way is between Com Ed and the ICC.

This system is obviously meant to cut red tape while still protecting the public interest. But this weak centralized regulatory arrangement has its problems. As the need for electricity has grown, electric utilities have increased current on existing lines, which generates stronger EMF, without notifying people living near rights-of-way.

If a municipality can show damages, it can file a complaint against a utility in the circuit court. But since Lincolnwood made its proposal, Com Ed has tried to handle it strictly through the ICC. In a letter dated January 25, 1991, Com Ed chairman James O’Connor announced that the utility would not take any action until the ICC ruled on the Lincolnwood case.

It’s difficult to know how the ICC will rule on municipal field standards, because it has never addressed the issue formally. However, the ICC is now hearing an EMF case. A Cook County resident filed a complaint against Com Ed claiming “High voltage wires [are] too close to home . . . on two sides [and pose a] dangerous situation to property and potential health risk.”

This person asked not to be identified because he is afraid his property value will decline from adverse publicity. He is an elderly man who emigrated to the United States more than 50 years ago, but he still has a thick accent and speaks in halting English.

“I can’t afford a lawyer,” he says, “so I’m representing myself. Four years ago the electric company put up three heavy high-voltage wires along the side and front of my house. I complained when they started work, but they tried to cover up what they were doing. The workmen said they were replacing wires.

“I thought the lines were on my property. It’s very close to my home. If one of those wires snaps, it would fall on my head. I complained to the village, and the mayor jumped on my throat. He yelled, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ I said, ‘You let them do this. The village granted a permit.’ I called him back later, and he said there was nothing he could do.

“Then I complained to Commerce Commission. After that Com Ed tried to pull the wires back on one pole, and extend it over the alley. But they didn’t really do anything. Then they sent a surveyor to my house, and he said the lines were six inches off my property. So now it’s my word against theirs.

“At first I thought the ICC was on my side. But by the time I had my second hearing, I was disgusted. Com Ed had everything prepared. One by one their witnesses were questioned by their lawyers and each one of them came up with lies. They said magnetic fields don’t mean a thing. Com Ed’s experts were questioned by their lawyers, not the Commerce Commission. Then when it was my turn, they wouldn’t let me dispute their evidence.

“I said, ‘If the lines are six inches off my property, it might be legal, but is it safe?’ When I put up a fence, I had to give space around the lot line. Six inches!

“I am 75 years old. They say these wires can cause health problems, especially in older people and kids. I complained, and no one listened.

“I have one more hearing in March, but it will be dealing with a different issue. Since the wires were put up, I have bad interference with my television set, and it makes a lot of noise. The electric company can’t interfere with your TV. So Com Ed came over and said there was nothing wrong, but I had an antenna man who said I could spend lots of money and nothing would be cured because the lines are interfering with the TV. Other people in the neighborhood had TV problems too, but they all got cable. I don’t want cable.

“Every time they touch a wire they make it worse. They now admit it may have something to do with the line, but they don’t know how to fix it.

“This is a very serious problem. I am old. Suppose I want to sell this place. My property is destroyed. When I told them it was ruining my home value, they laughed at me.

“Com Ed originally told me that once a new highway was completed they would put lines up there and these lines would become obsolete. They said they were going to take these lines down. This was not true. The highway is finished, and these lines are here to stay.”

Some authorities believe the safety argument against EMF, though already upheld in some courts, is still too difficult to prove. These experts say a community wishing to lower EMF from power lines would stand a better chance if it made an equity argument: home values are being hurt, so the community wants EMF at levels similar to areas without power lines.

But are prices dropping for homes next to power lines?

Philip Mitchell, a spokesman for the Chicago-based American Association of Real Estate Appraisers, says, “There is no detectable effect on the market value of real estate 300 feet away from power lines. But we found mixed results for homes closer than 300 feet. One study has indicated there is some small effect on the value of homes that are less than 300 feet away, but most of this probably occurred at less than 100 feet away from power lines. I have been involved in several major university studies, and we were never able to detect an effect. This does not mean that two or three people didn’t sell their homes for less than they could have gotten. It just means there is not a large-scale group effect.

“The one study that did find an effect on prices up close to power lines had some interesting conclusions. First, homes next to power lines sold for only a tad less than other homes in the area. And since power lines are ugly, this study found the effect may be cosmetic: once trees grew tall enough so you could no longer see the towers, prices would go back up.

“The message is that what people say and what they do is often very different. People talk a lot, and they’ll say they want to move away from a power line. But money is money. When it comes time to sell, these same people will sit and wait for the highest price, and that price usually is not detectable from neighboring markets.”

Mitchell’s viewpoint appears to be verified by the experience of a Canadian electric utility. After three 138,000-volt transmission lines were installed on Vancouver Island, protests caused the company to offer to buy the homes of anyone who felt threatened by the power lines. Out of the 55 homes sold to the utility in the summer of 1989, 42 were resold a year later at a total loss of only $27,000. However, while it appears the loss in home values was slight, a devaluation did occur and might have been more significant if prices were appreciating.

A Lincolnwood real estate agent said the Com Ed right-of-way is located in one of the nicest neighborhoods in the village. “Some people don’t want to buy homes next to power lines, but other people will buy those homes.”

The big question is whether or not people will still buy these homes as public awareness of the potential health hazard increases. If EMF is found to be carcinogenic, prices for homes near power lines will probably fall unless something is done to minimize the danger.

Lincolnwood’s attorney on the EMF proposal, James Gitz, is not pursuing an equity argument. Gitz, an environmental lawyer with the Chicago firm Ancel, Glink, Diamond and Cope, believes the village has the right to set EMF standards because it must protect the health and safety of its citizens. But when it comes to regulating an electric utility, can a municipality usurp the power of the ICC?

“It’s a dicey issue, because it’s not open-and-shut in terms of what a municipality can do,” Gitz says. “In Illinois there are two types of municipalities. One is a home-rule unit, which is recognized under the 1970 state constitution as having inherent powers to regulate matters of public health. Chicago is a home-rule unit. Lincolnwood is not, in part because of its size–home-rule units must have populations larger than 25,000. However, the municipality, as a subdivision of the state, has certain ‘police powers’ in matters of zoning, property, and public health and safety. Lincolnwood doesn’t have the direct power to tell the utility what to do. But as long as the village is operating under its narrow rights on land matters, zoning, licensing, and protecting the public health, Lincolnwood has a right to pass any ordinance, and it will not be preempted by the Illinois Commerce Commission. The legislature could still step in and set a uniform state standard–and that might happen if a lot of municipalities decide to set their own standards. The ICC could also promulgate its own standard and try to usurp the authority of the municipality.

“Until then, the village can pass any ordinance and it has the force and effect of law. Once that happens, Com Ed would have to go to court and prove that the regulation was unreasonable. But the village is entirely reasonable; its first commitment is to protecting its citizens. If there are defects with the ordinance, we can fix it.”

He points out that Florida has already set limits on magnetic fields, and some state courts have stopped the building of power lines near school yards. In Houston Lighting and Power Company v. Klein Independent School District, the original court awarded punitive damages to the school district. Although punitive damages were not upheld on appeal, the final decision prompted the utility to move the power lines away from a school.

“People are determined to do something about it,” he says. “Moving power lines is one solution. But Lincolnwood is saying, ‘We don’t care how you get it accomplished. You may not have to remove any power lines if you use the latest technology to reach the result of 1.5 milligauss.’ Lincolnwood would unquestionably be setting precedent. There has never been a regulation setting magnetic fields at this low a standard. But we welcome discussion with all other interested parties, the state and Commonwealth Edison.”

Without proof that EMF is a carcinogen, Com Ed will undoubtedly argue that the village’s actions are premature. Gitz has an answer to that argument. “It may appear the village is attempting to regulate EMF while the jury is still out. But the federal government has passed legislation regulating hazardous or special waste without knowing everything about it. Environmental judgments are often made without having a full understanding of the implications. After the EPA targets a waste site for cleanup, it decides how clean is clean. When the designated work is done, it’s done, for better or for worse. So does that mean it’s clean? We’re looking at the available evidence and taking our best shot. As time goes on, we’ll know how to best regulate EMF, but what do we do until then? Commonwealth Edison deals with all sorts of safety features for their nuclear power plants. But there’s no argument there. It’s considered the cost of doing business. It should be the same way with power lines.

“The U.S. EPA said [EMF] needs to be addressed, yet it adopted no standards. One explanation may be that if the EPA admits there are dangers associated with electromagnetic fields, the utility companies wil be faced with a tremendous and costly problem. Also, an admission could open up the whole area of liability suits. There are millions of miles of transmission lines running through the country. Once you realize the dimensions of this problem, you can see why the EPA is cautious. But even if they don’t step in, we’ll see states start to set standards. By that time doctors and scientists should have a better idea about how to set a safe standard. There’s enough expert advice out there to make a pretty good case. Com Ed can summon all their experts, but they will not carry the day if we have a fair hearing.”

Lincolnwood is basing its argument for tough EMF limits on Illinois Revised Statute 111 2/3, section 8-401, which addresses the duties of public utilities: “Every public utility . . . shall provide services and facilities which are in all respects adequate, efficient, reliable and environmentally safe and which, consistent with these obligations, constitute the least-cost means of meeting the utility’s service obligations.” That would seem to make it clear that if public utilities have transmission and distribution lines that are emitting harmful levels of EMF and they have the means to limit or do away with the fields, they have an obligation to do so, providing they use the cheapest means.

“The village of Lincolnwood is also resolved to revise their building code if necessary,” Gitz says. “They want to make sure they reduce EMF, even if it comes from wiring in the home. Their objective is to absolve the public from the harmful effects of EMF. We wouldn’t accomplish anything if we didn’t take care of all the causes.”

An epidemiologist named Nancy Wertheimer was instrumental in raising awareness about the potential hazards of EMF. In 1968 she started a study to see if older pregnant women were more likely to have children with leukemia than younger women. Six years later she decided to resume her study, but now she focused on whether environmental factors played a part in childhood leukemia. Taking a couple of days out of each week and using her own money, she drove around the Denver area examining the homes of every child who had died of leukemia between 1950 and 1969.

One day she was standing in an alley behind one of the homes and noticed an electrical transformer, a black cylinder attached to a pole. Transformers “step down” or reduce current when it’s distributed to individual homes. She began to notice that transformers were very close to the homes where children with leukemia had lived. She then noticed that children living next door to these homes also showed a greater incidence of leukemia. The farther away from the transformer, the fewer incidents of leukemia.

Wertheimer discussed her findings with her friend Edward Leeper, a physicist. Leeper told her that lines usually carry uniform amounts of current no matter how far away from the transformer, so alternating current in itself probably was not the missing link. He suggested the magnetic fields created by the transformer might be responsible for the correlation. Leeper built Wertheimer an instrument to measure magnetic fields, and eventually she found evidence to suggest that there was a correlation between leukemia and exposure to fields from high-current power lines.

When their research was published in 1979, the electric power industry immediately tried to discredit their findings. Wertheimer’s homegrown method of research also fueled skepticism within the scientific community. However, after similar studies reached the same conclusion, the Wertheimer-Leeper study began to gain legitimacy.

Wertheimer, now in her 60s, lives in Boulder, Colorado. While her research appears to show that ambient magnetic fields created by power lines are more harmful than fields generated from the routine use of appliances, she cautions communities against attacking power lines as their main source of EMF. “Most of the people exposed to EMF do not live near high-voltage power lines. If we put all our money and effort into high-tension wires, it might hurt the effort to reduce exposure of the general population. I believe the EPA backed off because at this point we can’t set standards.”

But if EMF is possibly harmful, wouldn’t setting a low 1.5 milligauss standard be only prudent? “The lines would have to be buried to meet that standard,” she says. “There’s no way high-tension wires can be that low for people near the wires. There are ways to fix the problem, but we must know what to fix first. Pouring millions into high-tension power lines will not be the most effective way to deal with this.”

More troubling to Wertheimer is that EMF is not like other forms of pollution. With air and water pollution, you can be sure more is worse. But studies show lower levels of EMF may be just as harmful as high levels. “In some laboratory studies, as the dose goes up, the risk appears to go up. Then the dose can be increased, and the risk appears to go away. There are windows in intensity. The data suggests 2 milligauss is worse than 0.2 milligauss. But 20 milligauss may not be more harmful than 2 milligauss. We just don’t know yet.”

One public-health official who requested anonymity agrees. “Everybody thinks more is worse, but there is evidence that weaker fields may be more harmful than stronger fields. By legislating a standard, [Lincolnwood] could be going from the fry pan into the fire.” Lincolnwood officials say they chose the 1.5 milligauss standard based on available research, and they assert there have been no studies that show levels below 2 milligauss to be harmful.

David Savitz, who has replicated Wertheimer’s research with utility backing, chose 2 to 3 milligauss as a demarcation for his study only because it was convenient, and he says Florida’s higher magnetic-field levels were “just as arbitrary as this town’s low standard.”

Wertheimer thinks she understands why Lincolnwood citizens are fighting for the 1.5 milligauss standard. “I sympathize with these people. They should be given every consideration. The lines have taken away their peace of mind, and negative publicity, deserved or not, may impact their property values. If we find the danger is real and their property values go down, they should be recompensed. They shouldn’t have to pay for the rest of us. But we don’t know enough yet to set a standard. We’ll know more in a couple years.

“High-tension lines are a source of high exposure, but there are other, less obvious sources that can produce just as high exposure. There are ways to limit field exposure. In this area, many places are using nonconductive water mains. But we have to know more before we can take effective widespread action. Right now we have the grossest kinds of indices, and intensity is not the whole story. Probably nine in ten wouldn’t have to worry if we knew more about the issue.”

It was a cold December morning, and the homes on Kenneth Avenue were decorated for the holidays. Marty Horan was packing his luggage and getting ready to go spend the winter months with his wife’s children in the San Fernando Valley. He had seen his protest picked up by Lincolnwood officials, and he wasn’t worried that the village would backpedal on the issue. “Some people say the village got involved because there is an election in April for three trustee seats. But so what? That’s politics. One of the things that makes me feel good is that our government mechanism still works. It’s a classic example of how things can go right. I personally am now confident the village is interested in protecting us on this issue.”

“It can no longer be ignored,” says Ellie Zoub. “Government needs to get involved because it’s a basic safety issue. A few years ago they stopped grapes coming in from Chile because they found several bad ones. They certainly should be concerned about this.” She says fears about property values should be the last thing on the minds of her neighbors near the right-of-way. “People expressed concern about the effect this will have on their home values, but we can’t play ostrich. It’s not fair.”

Norm Snitovsky was looking forward to the village’s meeting with Com Ed on January 29. “Every time I look outside I see those lines, and I know this issue is not going to go away. Now Com Ed’s going to bring in some Ivy League experts and try to snow us with big words. I hope the village cuts them down to size.”

Com Ed’s January 29 meeting at the Lincolnwood Hyatt drew another large crowd, which was promptly lulled to sleep by a two-hour slide show detailing the case that EMF from power lines was not harmful. But once the lights came up, the crowd started talking back.

So what’s wrong with setting a 1.5 milligauss standard? someone asked.

“Certainly the 1.5 standard is something you and your village board can request from Commonwealth Edison, but that will not tell you a thing about whether or not you can prevent the possibility of cancer,” said Dr. James C. Lin, head of the department of bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Would you buy a home next to these power lines? asked someone else.

“I guess it would depend on the house and the noise level of the area,” said Dr. Alice Martin, a geneticist and lawyer.

Several residents referred to Lin and Martin as employees of Commonwealth Edison.

“I want to make it clear I am not working for Com Ed,” Martin said.

Are you being paid to be here? someone asked.

“Well, just for my expenses,” she replied.

Com Ed clearly believed regulatory action was only in the domain of the ICC. “We need some guidance from a regulatory agency before we can do anything,” said Bob Dwyer, Com Ed’s district manager.

You mean before you’re forced to do anything, added one audience member.

Com Ed wants to make its case before the ICC, but the proverbial genie may already be out of the bottle. Six days before the utility’s last meeting with Lincolnwood residents, the Wilmette board of health decided to write a letter to Com Ed asking that four areas within the village limits have EMF levels reduced to less than 2 milligauss. The four trouble spots (an area next to the power lines just west of the Edens Expressway and neighborhoods close to the intersections of Lake Avenue and 15th Street, Laurel and Third, and Chestnut and Tenth) are all located near transmission or distribution power lines. The village hired Environmental Management & Field Testing to take EMF measurements at various locations throughout the village.

Wilmette first entered the EMF fray in 1989 when residents learned the CTA wanted to install an electric substation at the Linden el stop. “The CTA runs on direct current rather than alternating current, but they needed to build a power source at Linden,” says a village health official. “In December 1989 we had EMF measurements taken around the el station. We then told the CTA that if they build the substation, field levels in area homes could not exceed the December 1989 levels. The CTA already said they can maintain that.”

Wilmette, which has hired Lincolnwood’s attorney James Gitz, will hold a public meeting with Com Ed on March 21 to discuss the setting of an EMF standard.

After the Lincolnwood Citizens’ Committee discovered the apparently high number of cancer cases in their neighborhood near the utility right-of-way, Marty Horan contacted the American Cancer Society, which referred him to the state division of epidemiological studies in Springfield. The division, which was created more than five years ago as part of the Illinois Department of Public Health, surveys cancer clusters using a population-based registry with data collected from 1985 to 1988. Lincolnwood was then added to the 16 communities already being surveyed by the division.

“Only about 5 to 6 percent of all cancer is caused by outside environmental factors,” said a spokesman for the division in early January. “Thirty-five percent is caused by things individuals can control, such as cigarettes, alcohol, or diet. It is not surprising that the public is going to get outraged by something they can’t control, like high-tension wires.”

The results of the Lincolnwood survey were released at the January 29 meeting with Com Ed. All cases of cancer between 1985 and 1988 were identified, including benign brain tumors, but the results were not “statistically significant for either sex.” However, the value of the report was negligible because the state identifies cancer clusters by zip code, which includes large areas that are not near power lines. Lincolnwood trustee Raymon Grossman had earlier expressed frustration because he was having a hard time finding someone to do a more specific survey.

But others believe conducting a cancer survey doesn’t make sense. “There’s no reason to wait for a study,” says Norm Snitovsky. “If on average people move every seven years, how are you going to track these people down? And is the time they spent here long enough for the wires to damage their health? We live in a metropolitan area, and people bounce around.”

However, many people believe Lincolnwood has the perfect population for a cancer study because of its many long-term residents; three of the five members of the Citizens’ Committee have lived in their neighborhood for more than 30 years. According to village officials, a more representative study will be forthcoming, as the Illinois Department of Public Health has agreed to work with the village on a site-specific survey.

After the January 29 meeting, village administrator William Sommer said during the next several months there will be three more meetings on franchise renegotiation with Com Ed addressing the EMF issue.

What we have here is an unfortunate comedy of errors.

If the potential dangers of EMF are minimal, why does Com Ed’s strategy appear to be stalling as long as possible before dealing with customer concerns? The utility is doing itself and the public a great disservice by refusing to air information that could allay people’s fears–if it has such information. Clearly it’s in Com Ed’s own best long-term interest to determine if electric service causes cancer.

Because Com Ed has acted not only unconcerned but also as an outright obstruction, it has lost the public trust, and individual citizens are now determined to take matters into their own hands. But if weak electromagnetic fields can be as harmful as or more harmful than stronger fields, the public’s ignorance in regulating EMF could be placing people’s lives at even higher risk. And that’s the greatest disservice of all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.