By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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The source of the high EMF readings in the northeast corner, as well those in the lobby and the mailroom, is probably not the substation. The effect quickly diminishes with distance, becoming nearly harmless by the time the field passes the two rows of barbed-wire fencing that surround the substation. The likely source of the high EMF is a large underground power line that runs from the substation beneath the parking garage on the building's north side.
A city employee familiar with the design of the building describes the buried power line as "huge." At the time of the sale, though, everyone was so concerned with soil contamination around the power line, which used to be lubricated with a toxic substance, that the city "sort of forgot about" any possible dangers the line itself might pose, says the employee.
The high EMF readings do not cause Charlie Cox to waver from his position. After all his years working outdoors on power lines, he says he's more likely to develop skin cancer from the sun than cancer from EMF. The hazards from electricity, he feels, are slim. "These consumer groups, they tell you that air conditioning is bad for you. They tell you that the tap water is bad for you, that you have to go out and buy bottled water. And that's just not true. I grew up drinking tap water just like everybody else did. And I haven't had any problems."
The American Physical Society officially disputes the link between cancer and EMF, and its members fear that the hysteria surrounding the issue saps resources away from proven health risks. "The costs of mitigation and litigation relating to the power line-cancer connection have risen into the billions of dollars and threaten to go much higher," the society claimed in a position paper published in April 1995.
A recent Miami court case involved a Coral Gables educator who had sued FPL, claiming the EMF coursing through his house caused his and his wife's leukemia. Last week Circuit Judge W. Thomas Spencer ruled in favor of the power company, stating that "FPL has no duty to warn of a harmless level of radiation." The educator's Fort Lauderdale-based attorney, Howard Talenfeld, notes that the judge did not rule that EMFs are harmless, only that FPL is not liable in this case. Talenfeld plans to appeal.
The EMF level in the Coral Gables house was less than 2.5 mG.
While Talenfeld proceeds with his court case, the debate over the possible health risks from EMFs continues. Watchdogs at Consumer Reports magazine tackled the topic in May 1994, concluding that while EMF research has been sporadic and inconclusive, "taken together, the occupation and residential studies done to date suggest that exposure to stronger-than-average magnetic fields may slightly increase the risk of developing some types of leukemia."
The Virginia Department of Health entered the fray earlier this year, and worded its findings more cautiously. "Studies that do suggest an implied, increased risk of cancer from exposure to electromagnetic fields fall far short of providing incontrovertible evidence for either an exposure-effect or a dose-response relationship."
As the debate evolves, several city employees plan to monitor the research carefully. "I think that we need to keep an eye on this until we are fully aware of the risks and the potential dangers," says one city employee, who asked not to be named. "You have to look at the health aspect of it and err on the side of caution.