Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Electromagnetic Fields and Parental Panics: A Case Study in How Science Can Bring Comfort

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Electromagnetic Fields and Parental Panics: A Case Study in How Science Can Bring Comfort

Article excerpt

I AM A SCIENTIST IN THE FIELD OF EVIDENCE-BASED medicine and public health. Essentially, I am a science translator and communicator. I help healthcare workers use current science when treating patients, and in developing policies and programs. Much of what I do involves working with experts on a wide variety of topics to determine answers to health-related science issues. We ask questions about effectiveness of medical treatments. Which treatment is better? What treatments might cause harm? What are the risk factors for disease? We analyze results of clinical studies to figure out exactly what the results mean and what we should do with this information.

In addition to my career, I live the typical life of a working mother. I have two kids (a girl and a boy), a three-bedroom house in the suburbs, a two-car garage, a cat, a dog, two fish and an amazing husband. Rarely do my profession and personal life interact, but a few years ago on my daughter's first day of school in first grade my worlds collided. While the children were having fun on the playground after school, one of the other mothers threw me what I call a panic science bomb. It seems that her daughter has eye twitches, and she concluded that they were caused by electromagnetic fields (EMF) emanating from a transformer outside of the girl's classroom. The transformer also happens to be in front of my daughter's new classroom, so that got my attention. Oh, and EMF causes cancer in children, she continued, suggesting that our daughters' lives were at stake!

I call this a panic bomb because, although I am a scientist, I knew little about the health effects of EMFs. So for a moment I began to panic! What exactly are EMFs? And what might they be doing to my daughter and the other children at her school? My heart started racing. This is, of course, a natural reaction. As Dr. Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, (1) people tend to react first with rapid intuition and emotion. But after a few moments my more thoughtful and critical thinking kicked in. I asked the mother what her daughter's pediatrician or eye doctor had said about the eye twitches. Her response was completely unexpected. She had not taken her daughter to either a pediatrician or eye doctor. Presumably her medical information came from the Interweb. She said she has a very high standard of health for her family and was demanding that the school have the transformer moved.

That night, after my kids went to sleep, I spent hours online: PubMed, WHO, NIH, American Academy of Pediatrics, OSHA, Mayo Clinic. All of these organizations unequivocally stated that EMF is not associated with any health issue in adults, and there was certainly no evidence that it is associated with eye twitches. A 2002 report from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, titled EMF: Electric and Magnetic Fields Associated with the Use of Electric Power, suggests that there may be a weak association between EMF and childhood leukemia. (2) To those who do not have training in epidemiology and evidence-based medicine, this may sound alarming. But given my background, I knew that association does not necessarily mean causality. The NIH document describes that the first report of an association between EMF and childhood leukemia was published in 1979, (3) but that more recent, large scale studies did not find any association. I also came across a systematic review, which compiled the results of seven studies with more than 23,000 combined subjects, which concluded that "the association [between EMF and childhood leukemia] is weaker in the most recently conducted studies, but these studies are small and lack methodological improvements needed to resolve the apparent association." (4)

At first glance, this systematic review seems to indicate that there might be some risk. But as a scientist, I do not rely solely on the authors' conclusions of any study. …

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