Powering Strong Communities

Understanding and Addressing EMF & RF Health Effects Claims

Activists and some members of the public use claims of health effects from electric and magnetic fields (EMF) to oppose new utility facilities. In the last decade, claims have spread to include newer technologies that use radio frequency fields (RF), such as utility smart meters and 5G antennae mounted on utility poles. A utility that is the source of these exposures which raise health concerns – particularly about the health and safety of children – cannot long maintain its credibility if it does not communicate effectively with the public about those health concerns.

The Nature of the Claims

Public concerns about EMF and RF most often focus on childhood leukemia, adult cancers, neurological disorders, and human reproduction and development. Claims are also made about loss of productivity in dairy cattle, threats to the well-being of other farm and domestic animals, risks to wildlife, and damage to property values.

These health risk claims can have significant consequences for utilities. Recently, a large transmission project was rejected by regulators in the face of strong public opposition based on alleged EMF health risks and damage to property values. Another project near a school had to be withdrawn by the utility’s CEO after claimed EMF health risks galvanized community opposition. Other utilities have faced significant delays and/or costly changes to projects in order to address EMF or RF concerns.

What Studies Show

There are thousands of studies on EMF and RF. Every year several hundred new studies are published in scientific journals. This large body of research has been evaluated many times by mainstream public health authorities, such as the US National Cancer Institute and the World Health Organization, which have concluded that the science does not demonstrate a causal relationship between EMF or RF and any illness or disease. 

Nonetheless, there is a great deal of misinformation about EMF and RF health risks online.  There are scientists and medical doctors who claim there are many studies showing associations with health risks and adverse biological effects that lead to diseases such as cancer. Activist groups, such as the BioInitiative, claim that the scientific research demonstrates that EMF and RF exposures are “known” causes of cancer. Others interpret the International Agency for Research on Cancer classification of EMF and RF as “possible” causes of cancer in humans as showing there is a recognized and established threat to health.

What Utilities Can Do

There is no single approach that will fit all, but utilities can help themselves by getting into position to respond promptly and effectively to public questions and concerns about EMF and RF exposures. This means keeping informed about the steadily growing body of EMF and RF research, knowing what the public health authorities and the activists are saying about health risks, being ready to address new studies that attract public and media attention, and developing accurate, defensible and persuasive messages about EMF and RF issues.  

Utilities should regularly evaluate and update information about EMF and RF health issues to make sure it is accurate and defensible. A utility’s specific response and communication on this topic will vary based on community needs and what technologies are being deployed, and can include talking points, printed materials, materials on its website, and in direct communications with customers.

In recent years, many utilities have had a loss of institutional knowledge about EMF and RF issues. This creates a potentially significant liability exposure when EMF and RF issues arise and the utility does not have the experienced people needed to provide a prompt and reliable response. Community questions about EMF and RF health issues have escalated from concerns to controversy and acrimony when members of the public believe the utility response was inadequate, uninformed, dismissive, incorrect, or misleading. Missteps in these interactions can lead to community opposition to utility facilities, which in turn can result in expensive delays or changes to proposed projects, and in some cases, costly litigation.

About the authors: Tom Watson and Curtis Renner of Watson and Renner regularly advise and counsel electric utilities about EMF and RF and health effects issues, and have represented them in regulatory and court EMF and RF litigation since 1980. They are also legal counsel to the Utility Health Sciences Group (UHSG), an industry-wide organization dedicated to providing its members with the knowledge they need to address EMF and RF health issues responsibly. An APPA representative serves on the UHSG Steering Committee and several public power utilities are members of UHSG. For more information about UHSG, contact one of the authors ([email protected] or [email protected]).