The Buzz About Riverside Center

City bureaucrats move into FPL's posh Miami River digs with only a milligauss or two of apprehension

The City of Miami's purchase of the Riverside Center office building was, by all accounts, a heckuva deal. Florida Power & Light surrendered the brand-new marble structure for only $16 million A $7 million less than FPL wanted and almost half as much as it would cost to build the ten-story tower in today's market. Sweetening the deal, FPL threw in a modern cafeteria, a security system, and a fully stocked gymnasium at no extra charge.

The bureaucrats toiling in rented offices at Dupont Plaza hailed the sale when it was approved by the Miami City Commission in July of last year. There had long been talk of microorganisms lurking in the Dupont's walls; concern about the building became so severe that three assistant city attorneys filed compensation claims after they discovered a metallic film on their skin. Many employees felt that the posh Riverside Center, which opened less than four years ago, would be a healthy change.

As the workers began packing their pencils and moving into the new building, though, more than a few of them glanced warily at the FPL central yard across Southwest Second Avenue, a block-long substation of steel and wire that transforms high-voltage electricity into calmer currents usable in homes and offices. The yard hums with the sound of fans cooling the futuristic-looking transformers. Some of the city accountants and secretaries worried about the electromagnetic field, known as EMF, that hovers around power lines.

An oft-cited 1992 Swedish study suggests a link between EMF and leukemia in children. Other reputable studies suggest that with stronger electromagnetic fields, the odds of developing cancer increase exponentially.

Power company officials counter that the research only suggests a link, but falls far short of proof. "To date, no cause-and-effect relationship has been established between EMF and long-term health problems," says FPL spokeswoman Stacey Shaw.

"And the tobacco companies still insist there is no link between tobacco smoke and cancer," replies Dr. Sam Milham, a Seattle-based epidemiologist and a pioneer in EMF research.

The argument continues, but several researchers agree about one issue: There is a maximum amount of EMF to which anyone should be exposed for long periods of time. Fifteen experts gathered last year for an Environmental Protection Agency-funded conference about EMF dangers recommended that no one endure long-term exposure to EMF in excess of 2.0 milligauss -- the same ceiling set by the Swedish government in 1992, a day after the leukemia report was issued. (Named for German mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss, the gauss is a unit used to measure magnetic induction.) New Scientist magazine published the results of the powwow in October 1995.

The EPA has not acted on the results, but if 2.0 mG is an accepted ceiling, then some city workers at the new building might have reason to get a little charged up. According to City of Miami data collected before the purchase of Riverside Center, the EMF level in the northeast corner of the building's lobby is 6.0 mG. In the first-floor mailroom, located in the southwest corner, the level is 5.0 mG. The reading at the northeast corner of the fifth floor, where finance department analysts sit for eight hours a day, is 3.7 mG -- nearly twice as high as the threshold recommended by the study.

"That's high. That's very high," says Milham. "Most houses and buildings measure 2.0 mG -- 6.0 is very high. I wouldn't work in an environment where it was 6.0."

FPL officials, however, challenge the 2.0 threshold. "Our engineers who specialize in the area of EMF say that the measurements [in Riverside Plaza] would be very typical of what you would see in any kind of commercial building," says Stacey Shaw. "The levels are primarily associated with the wiring in the building and with things such as fluorescent lights and computers," she asserts, adding that a study undertaken last year by the American Physical Association, the nation's largest professional organization of physicists, found no evidence linking EMF with cancer. "Those are the people we rely on."

Charlie Cox is the president of AFSCME Local 1907, the union that represents most city workers. When Riverside Plaza was purchased, several union members called him with safety concerns, and Cox comforted them with his own personal experience. Until his election as union president ten years ago, he repaired and replaced power lines on a daily basis. "I spent years working on transformers and I am just fine," he boasts. "We had some employees call us, but it's been checked out. The city checked it out and there's nothing to worry about."

That's not necessarily true. The environmental consulting firm the city employed, Law Engineering, only measured EMF in and around the building. It did not interpret the readings in any way. "Because the effects of EMF have not been clearly defined or accepted by the scientific community or regulatory agencies studying them, Law will not make recommendations as to their effects," reads the firm's final report. The city only ensured that all their measurements were within U.S. government standards.

Since there are no federal health standards for EMF, the point was moot.
The consulting firm measured the EMF at eight different sites inside the new building. Half of the readings fell below 2.0 mG. On the fifth floor, for instance, a magnetic field meter detected 3.7 mG in the northeast corner but only 1.3 mG in the northwest corner. In the southwest corner, the reading was just 1.0 mG.

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