The debate on electric and magnetic fields (EMF) and public health and safety raged back in the late '80s and early '90s. Discussions on the topic were openly debated by just about everyone. Then public fears over EMF peaked after two key events captured the attention of the nation. First, a team, headed by Dr. David Savitz at the University of North Carolina, published a study that associated wire codes and childhood cancers. Then, New Yorker Staff Writer Paul Brodeur's book, “Currents of Death: Power Lines, Computer Terminals and the Attempt to Cover Up Their Threat to Your Health,” hit newsstands. Was there indeed a link between EMF and certain health problems? Experts came down on both sides of the issue. Nevertheless, some local school districts and community groups mounted protests in response, filing lawsuits against electric utilities. Landowners with transmission lines running across their property even won cases against utilities on the basis of potential health hazards. Many new projects were put on hold as the utilities became bogged down fighting lawsuits and interpreting new government rulings.

As a young transmission line design engineer for FPL in Juno Beach, Fla., I distinctly remember running calculation after calculation to check EMF levels at the edge of many transmission line right-of-ways in my territory to make sure they fell within our self-imposed limits. Project managers in our group lived on the front lines — where they always seemed to be heading off to meet with angry homeowner groups or local community leaders to discuss this issue. In fact, our design group even had a full-time engineer devoted exclusively to matters dealing with EMF.

As with most hot topics though, time has diffused the situation, tucking that little hint of fear somewhere in the back of our minds. However, this was a crucial time in the research arena, as studies shifted from electric field exposure to magnetic field exposure. Follow-up studies and additional research over the past 15+ years revealed the major sources of residential magnetic fields for most of the population were outdoor distribution lines and residential grounding systems. Although transmission line exposure is still an issue, it affects only a small fraction of homes. More recent research and reports have focused on finding the missing link between magnetic field exposure and childhood leukemia (see this month's cover story, starting on page 30).

What fascinates me is the recent work being done by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) through its EMF Health Assessment Program. As you'll learn from the story, EPRI scientists are currently exploring hypotheses that may eventually explain the relationship between magnetic fields and childhood leukemia. One is looking into the possibility that an unrecognized exposure (contact current) is the missing active agent. According to EPRI, the contact current is most likely due to residential grounding practices intended to provide electrical safety and fire protection. Grounding the electrical system to a water pipe in the home could expose a child to contact current while in the bathtub or shower — or while using the sink. If their hypothesis proves true, this will place the EMF issue directly at the feet of those who design and install residential electrical systems, as well as members of the NEC Code-Making Panels.

In the meantime, my advice to you is to track this research closely, preparing to address the situation quickly should the time arise for action. Even though he's a teenager now, I admit this new information certainly made me think back to all of the times I watched my son play with the faucet as a toddler in the bathtub.