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Mock Neighborhood Site of Electromagnetic Field Research

January 18, 1991

LENOX, Mass. (AP) _ It’s not your average neighborhood.

Instead of houses, there are squat gray panels fed by power lines that can be turned off and on at will.

An engineer’s vision of a bedroom community, this mechanical hamlet is being used to research whether the electricity that makes much of modern life possible is linked to cancer.

″If we have a problem here, we need to know about it and decide what can be done about it and what options do we have available,″ said Gary Johnson, director of the Electric Power Research Institute’s magnetic field research facility.

Built along a country lane in the Berkshires, the facility simulates a small segment of a residential neighborhood. Four-foot-high panels with instruments represent houses with typical wiring.

A 1,200-foot long power distribution line runs overhead, as well as high- voltage lines; another electrical system runs beneath the ground. There is also an independent water pipe system.

Towering above the development is one real house, a wooden shell that doubles as an office and test site for measuring the electromagnetic fields of household appliances and electrical wiring.

Although sources of electromagnetic fields are everywhere, from water pipes to fluorescent lights to toasters, the Lenox study is designed to measure and identify the sources of magnetic fields surrounding the average person.

Tools and measurement procedures developed here can then be used in the institute’s environmental studies that will try to answer the question of whether there is a health link.

According to an Environmental Protection Agency report, made public last summer, considerable evidence from more than a dozen scientific studies shows that high exposure to electromagnetic fields from electric power lines are ″a possible, but not proven, cause of cancer in humans.″

The report says more studies are needed to link electromagnetic fields and cancer. Some members of the utility industry have sharply criticized the report.

The Electric Power Research Institute is a non-profit research institution financed by utilities. But Johnson said he doubts industry ties have slowed down research, noting that the institute accounts for much of the present research.

And that research is needed, experts agree.

″There’s fairly significant proof that the fields are in some way associated with biological effects. Exactly what exposure causes how much disease we have no idea,″ said Martin Halper, director of the analysis and support division of the EPA in Washington. ″We really don’t know whether what we’re talking about has a significant public health impact.″

If a health hazard ever is established, it would pose a dilemma because magnetic fields are hard to shield, Johnson said.

″I like my electricity and I’d hate to have to face the thought of major modification,″ he said. ″There are just numerous sources of magnetic fields and to look at sort of a comprehensive approach to reducing all magnetic field exposure you’re talking about a tremendous amount of investment and effort.″

Still, Halper said some measures might help. For instance, in the last two years, electric blanket wiring has been redesigned to avoid the problem, he said.

Studies and tools and methods developed in Lenox will be used in a nationwide residential program in 1,000 homes, Johnson said.

″There’s a large amount of public concern out there for it,″ he said. ″It’s better to at least address the issue and be looking at it so that you have some options and answers available should it turn out something needs to be done.″

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