The Buzz About Riverside Center

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.

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.


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