A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

Dispute over EMF Cancer Risk Continues

July 22, 2004

When three cases of male breast cancer showed up in the same small office in Albuquerque in 2001, a lawsuit was quickly filed. “The odds of three men in one specific office getting breast cancer are a trillion to one,” said Sam Bregman, the plaintiffs’ attorney. He argued that the cancers were caused, at least in part, by EMFs from an electrical vault that was next to the basement office where the men worked.

At the two-week trial in April 2003, Sam Milham testified for the men, while John Moulder was an expert witness for the defense. The jury decided that there was insufficient evidence to hold magnetic fields responsible and declined to award damages.

Milham would not let the case rest. In a brief report published in the July issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Milham writes that, based on some conservative assumptions, the risk of breast cancer in that office was a hundred times the expected rate. Milham calculated that the chances of finding these three cases in that office were 100,000 to one.

Milham notes that after Gene Matanoski first announced an EMF-male breast cancer link in 1991, there have been 14 additional studies that have reported a similar association.

“I am more convinced than ever that male breast cancer is a sentinel tumor for EMF exposure,” Milham told us recently. If you, like us, are waiting for the Japanese EMF–childhood cancer epi study to appear in print, don’t hold your breath.

Two years ago, Asahi Shimbun, a leading national newspaper, leaked word that Michinori Kabuto of the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Ibaraki had confirmed an EMF-cancer link in his own country. He went public last year at a Symposium on Risk of EMF and Its Governance, held in Tokyo on September 15. Kabuto reported that he had found a close to fivefold elevated risk of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) among children exposed to magnetic fields of greater than 4 mG (>0.4 µT) in their bedrooms. This finding, though based on a small number of cases, was statistically significant. Among those invited to the symposium were Leeka Kheifets, Chris Portier, John Swanson and A.A. Afifi. Now we hear that Kabuto is having trouble getting the study published. It has been rejected more than once, we’ve been told by multiple sources. “It’s crazy,” said one epidemiologist who has read the paper. “It’s a very carefully done study. I don’t understand what’s going on.” “It should be published,” agreed another leading epidemiologist who has also seen the paper.

An exchange of letters in the July 1 New England Journal of Medicine points to the continued institutional resistance to taking EMFs seriously. Last April 8, Ching-Hon Pui and colleagues at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, published a detailed review of the mechanisms that could explain ALL. The paper includes this sentence: “Exposure to residential magnetic fields has largely been excluded as an instigating factor.” Only one reference was given to support this conclusion —the U.K. study headed by Nick Day, published in 2000.

Bruce Hocking, an occupational health physician in Melbourne, Australia, wrote back, citing the two meta-analyses (by Anders Ahlbom and Sander Greenland) which have convinced most observers that EMFs play a role in the etiology of childhood leukemia. Hocking also pointed to IARC’s decision to classify 50/60 Hz EMFs as a “2B” cancer agent, that is, IARC believes EMFs are possible human carcinogens. “The possible role of magnetic fields in childhood leukemia should not be dismissed,” wrote Hocking, especially since exposures can easily be kept low. Pui replied that there are still plenty of reasons to be skeptical and even if there were a link, “the attributable risk would be negligible” because public exposures are so low. Pui misses the point, Hocking told us: It’s not that EMFs don’t matter, it’s that we should keep exposures low.

Of course, Pui’s review was published in a journal that has long disdained EMF risks. A few years ago, Ed Campion, an editor there, had a hissy fit —the journal would call it an editorial— and banged the drum for an end of all EMF health research. Since then Campion has moved up the masthead and is now the New England Journal’s senior deputy editor.