One of my first assignments when I was a reporter for this magazine was a story on the flap over the Environmental Protection Agency's 1990 draft report on electromagnetic fields (EMF). I later covered passage of the Energy Policy Act and its EMF research and communications program, and was invited to the White House to see George Bush sign the bill into law.
I sat amid a sea of EMF researchers in San Diego as Maria Feychting and Anders Ahlbom officially presented the results of their Swedish childhood cancer study, and I have traveled to Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Savannah, Palm Springs, and even Copenhagen for EMF meetings and conferences.
I called Roberta Baskin of Street Stories the day after her EMF piece aired in 1993 and spent almost an hour with her going through it clip by clip. Even my family connections tie in to EMF: my father-in-law was a key advisor to former Rep. James Scheuer, one of the architects of the federal EMF RAPID Program.
You might call me the Forrest Gump of EMF. And Forrest is asking, What happened to the EMF debate?
To be sure, EMF is rarely front page news. The issue reached its media and public interest zenith in November 1992 with the Feychting-Ahlbom childhood cancer study. Since then, EMF has made a noticeable descent into relative obscurity, with virtually no major television stories since spring 1993.
Why Has the Issue Disappeared?
The easy answer is that the current lack of media and public interest in EMF reflects the lack of provocative research results. Yet studies, big studies, have been released over the last two-and-a-half years. For example, Dr. David Savitz issued his long-awaited U.S. utility worker study in 1995. He reported an increased risk of brain cancer, but after quick mention in The Wall Street Journal, the story disappeared.
Another possible explanation is that too much is going on. Savitz announced his results only one week after the Republicans formally took over Congress and began to implement their Contract with America. Medicare reform, Bosnia, and deficit reduction have dominated the news since then. Perhaps there hasn't been any room for EMF.
But this explanation also falls short. The Swedes announced their study results only a week after Bill Clinton won the 1992 election. And while heavy coverage of the study did not occur until after his inauguration, it did occur (em right in the middle of gays in the military, Kimba Woods, and Bosnia (again).
To understand what has happened to the EMF issue, we have to look more broadly at how the media has changed in the last 10 or 15 years:
People. Who, what, when, where, and why no longer drive media stories. Reporters focus on how events affect individuals. Just read the front page of any newspaper and count how many stories start off with a reference to a person rather than an event.
Conflict. Bad news is more interesting than good news, and news that pits one person or group against another is the best of all. Consider how the media covers presidential campaigns. President Clinton is running unopposed; Sen. Dole holds a huge lead over any potential rivals. So what is the media doing? Egging on Colin Powell and Ross Perot as potential spoilers.
Sensationalism. The success of tabloid television ("Hard Copy," "A Current Affair," "Jenny Jones," "Geraldo" (em to name but a few) has filtered its way into the mainstream press. Given a choice between interviewing the president of Serbia and O.J. Simpson, even the venerable "60 Minutes" is going to pick O.J. That's what viewers want, and viewers are what advertisers want.
Hold on, I can hear you say, EMF plays right into these trends. It's an issue of concern to real people, involves conflict between little guys and big business, and certainly lends itself to sensationalistic abuse.
That's how the EMF issue appeared three years ago, which is why media interest was relatively high at the time. High-profile lawsuits were about to go to trial in California and Georgia. Feychting and Ahlbom reported an increased risk of leukemia in children. The government of Sweden announced that it was considering a new policy reflecting the EMF-childhood leukemia connection.
By 1995, all of that had changed. The plaintiffs lost all of those EMF lawsuits, robbing the issue of its "little guy-big business" angle. The Swedish government abandoned its policy, diminishing the credibility of the Feychting-Ahlbom study. And in this last year:
s Six Nobel laureates filed an amicus brief in September on behalf of the defendants in a California EMF court case. It reads in part: "[A]ny decision which even implicitly can be seen as support for the concerns about EMF would lend credibility to beliefs which are essentially without scientific foundation and based on irrational or speculative fear of injury." The American Medical Association filed a similar brief.
s Plaintiffs in a Texas EMF lawsuit asked a Harris County District Court judge for a "nonsuit," effectively ending the litigation. Joe Jamail, the plaintiffs' high-powered attorney, told Fortune magazine in November that he decided to delay the case because "the state of the scientific evidence is not fully developed."
s The American Physical Society issued a statement in April, concluding that "the conjectures relating cancer to power line fields have not been scientifically substantiated."
Faced with this lack of resolution, the media has no story to tell, nothing to hype. They've already done stories on the uncertainty of the debate, on the tantalizing but inconclusive results of some studies, and on the pros and cons of "prudent avoidance." In today's media environment, no hype means no news.
What Should Utilities Do?
To a certain extent, the issue has faded because researchers have failed to provide any convincing evidence that EMF exposure poses a threat to public health. I have a six-month-old son, and I haven't moved his crib away from the service drop into my home.
However, it would be dangerous to assume that the current lull represents the end of the EMF debate. Just because EMF doesn't fit into the people-hungry, crisis-driven, sensationalistic media right now doesn't mean it won't next year, or even next week. If an unequivocally positive study is released or a personal injury plaintiff wins an EMF trial, the issue will explode anew.
In the interim, utilities should:
s Stay on top of the issue. No matter how quiet it is now, you won't have much time to reacquaint yourself when the next story hits.
s Communicate with customers and employees. One of the most dangerous accusations plaintiffs can make is that the utility withheld information. You don't want to get caught in a communications blackout when the next story hits the front page.
s Finance research. The EMF RAPID Program has not been able to live up to the spirit of its authorizing legislation, in part because non-Federal sources failed to pony up 50 percent of the cost. Utilities are doing their part through the Edison Electric Institute and the Electric Power Research Institute, but the industry should not open itself up to charges that it nickel-and-dimed the program.
s Fight disinformation. EMF activists are trying to get the media interested in the issue again. For example, they are promoting the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) draft study on EMF, leaked this summer by a member of the NCRP panel that produced it. The draft report is already big news in England and Australia; don't let that happen here. If your local paper publishes an inaccurate story, call the reporter and write a letter to the editor.
The changing nature of the media, combined with an onslaught of negative news, has driven EMF off the front pages and, undoubtedly, out of the minds of many reporters. From a utility perspective, this lack of news is certainly good news. But it is definitely not the time to declare victory (em just an opportunity to catch your breath before the debate breaks out again. t
Leonard S. Greenberger is manager of energy/environmental projects at Potomac Communications Group, Inc. in Washington, DC, where he serves as editor of Edison Electric Institute's EMF News. He worked as associate editor for PUBLIC UTILITIES FORTNIGHTLY from April 1991 through August 1992. The opinions presented here are his own.
Articles found on this page are available to Internet subscribers only. For more information about obtaining a username and password, please call our Customer Service Department at 1-800-368-5001.