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Living Near Power Lines: Is it Dangerous to Your Health?

Published 8/28/09 (Modified 6/17/11)
By MoneyBlueBook

The Internet is quite a mixed bag of information - a wild, wild west cornucopia of unfiltered and unadulterated questions and answers. Among the nuggets of knowledge, there's an endless supply of trashy material and unsubstantiated half truths. For every debatable issue imaginable, there are legions of supporters and oppositions on both sides of the divide. Search engines like Google and Bing do nothing to segregate the legitimate articles from the biased quackery and it's often up to the readers themselves to differentiate fact from fiction. Such is the case with a very contentious and controversial issue of mine that's literally hitting close to home - the issue of living next to power lines and whether they have any negative impact on one's health.

From the various articles available online, you'll frequently read comments and posts from individuals claiming that their personal cancers and miscarriages were the direct results of living too close to nearby power lines. Though when subjected to scientific scrutiny, this does not necessarily indicate a definitive connection between the two, it's easy to see how the passionate and emotional voices could come to such conclusions. In my case, both of my parents are survivors of lymphoma cancer. Both of them successfully completed their chemotherapy treatments and both were able to cure themselves of the cancers that plagued their bodies for months. However, as far as I know - they and I have never lived in close proximity to power lines of any sort. However, if we hypothetically had, I'm sure I would have immediately jumped to such emotional conclusions as well and pointed to power lines as the leading cause of the cancers. As I examine this controversial issue, it's important to bear in mind that when it comes to such ubiquitous and misunderstood issues as the effects of electromagnetic fields from power lines, people's reactions may frequently be driven more by emotion and passion than by reason and true evidence.

I'm Buying A Dream House: But It's Located Near Electrical Power Lines

After years of renting, I'm finally in the process of buying my first home. At the conclusion of months of tireless searching and countless weekdays and weekends of visiting open houses and housing prospects, I've finally found the perfect starter home in the perfect location. It's a beautiful single family house -���� a brand spanking new construction home in a very desirable location near major transportation routes with excellent accessibility to stores and close proximity to places I need to be on a regular basis. But there's a problem, and a big problem at that depending on how you look at it. The prospective new construction lot I'm looking at is located somewhat near a string of power lines and within viewing proximity of several gigantic power line towers. To be precise, the constructed home would be located approximately 350 yards (1050 feet or 320 meters) from the nearest high voltage powerline.

The first time I drove through the newly minted housing development - I instantly fell in love. But after I saw the looming power lines in the distance, I began to have second doubts. Aside from the unsightly nature of the looming eye sores, I had mild qualms about the safety and health hazards of living in such relative close proximity to the gargantuan steel structures and high tension wires. After all, I was brought up by my parents and shaped by the mainstream media and social norms to naturally believe in certain things - such assorted health based beliefs like - microwave ovens emanate hazardous radiation waves, smoking causes cancer, Tylenol damages your liver, immunizing your child may lead to him or her developing autism, diet coke causes cancer, red meat is unhealthy, eating too much fish can lead to mercury poisoning, too much egg yolk will kill you, and finally - prolonged exposure to high tension powerlines can cause leukemia in children and lead to other cancers and Alzheimer type afflictions in adults.

But instead of taking such beliefs at face value this time around, and probably because the home and the neighborhood otherwise satisfied almost every other factor on my check list, I decided to investigate the power line health issue in greater depth. What I discovered was rather troubling - but not for the reasons you might think. After hours and days of research and pouring over numerous governmental issued reports on powerlines and research articles on the alleged connection between power line generated radiation and cancer in humans, I've come to the overwhelming conclusion that there is simply insufficient evidence at this time to establish a causal link between the two. Despite my own hard conclusions based on existing data, concrete facts, and actual measurements conducted by invited powerline company personnel of the suspected area, I don't think a consensus on this controversial issue will ever fully be reached by all people. It seems that for every scientific study which appears to conclusively link power lines to various health issues, there's another prominent health study which conclusively refutes it. Despite the fact that the "scientific research reports" that allege a real causal link between power line electro-magnetic field radiation and cancer afflictions only comprise about 10-20% of the total research, and a dominant 80% or so (based on my very rough fuzzy math estimates) refute a definitive link between the two, the "yes it causes cancer" crowd seems to win out in most debates, drowning out the rest - presumably through their ability to sway opinions through the use of emotional rhetoric and scare tactics.

Is It Safe To Live Near Power Lines? Does EMF Radiation From PowerLines Cause Cancer?

Power lines frequently generate intense opposition and heated protest - from homeowners to environmentalists - from power company authorities to even bloggers like yours truly. The responses are frequently conflicting and emotionally heated. The debate stems from the powerful but invisible electro-magnetic fields (EMF) generated by power lines as electricity is transmitted through them. Some say the magnetic waves corrupt DNA structures and contribute to the development of various cancers. Although these electrical magnetic fields are also generated by common house hold appliances such as TV's, alarm clocks, cell phones, hair blow dryers, computers, can openers, and electric blankets, much of this debate tends to focus exclusively on high tension power lines and the gigantic pylon towers that support them in certain neighborhoods.

While it's nearly impossible for me to discuss the entire scientific bases for the various conclusions out there, suffice it is to say - once you are able to discard the hype and hysteria, the general consensus by the most reputable sources do strongly suggest that currently, there is insufficient evidence to make the quantum leap that magnetic fields from power lines have the capacity to cause childhood leukemia, childhood brain tumors, or other cancers in children - and that presently, there is totally inadequate and inconsistent evidence to establish a relationship between power line fields and breast cancer or other forms of brain tumors in adults. This is not to suggest there is absolutely no possibility of a casual link between the two, but that the realm of verifiable data and research can not yet scientifically link the two as cause and effect.

Extensive research has been performed on the issue and major health organizations such as the National Cancer Institute, the National Research Council, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) -���� have all performed studies and looked at the available research - and opined that there is not conclusive evidence that EMF exposure poses a cancerous risk or that���� residence near high voltage lines increases health risks. Authorities such as the NIH have noted that the available research, despite all of the inflammatory passions involved, fail to demonstrate that the levels of risk represent a real increase in cancer occurrences. Furthermore, such public health authorities have criticized the inflammatory research out there that report a causation link between powerline exposure and cancer, citing possible pervasive study biases stemming from the faulty selection of study subjects and failures to take into consideration other contributing factors such as poverty, nutrition, obesity, pure chance, and sample sizes based on volunteered opinions alone. Despite these authoritative findings, public hysteria will likely always remain - it's just the infallibility of human nature.

New conflicting reports and absolutely contradicting updates by the media and various vested interests on both sides of the divide are constantly being disseminated every year on the supposed dangers of power lines, perpetually shaping the public's emotional perception of the issue. However, if you really want to listen to the most authoritative voices on cancer research regarding EMF radiation fields, powerlines, and their effects on human children and adults, try reading the following online articles. Please let me know if there are any more authoritative sources on the matter:

  1. Electric and Magnetic Fields: National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences
  2. Health Risks Associated With Living Near High Voltage Power Lines: Health Physics Society (July 2008)
  3. Electric and Magnetic Fields (EMF): Health Concerns: Connecticut Department of Public Health (April 2008)
  4. Electric and Magnetic Fields (EMF) Radiation From Power Lines: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (May 2006)
  5. Electromagnetic Fields and Public Health: World Health Organization (May 2006)
  6. Magnetic Fields Exposure and Cancer: Questions and Answers: National Cancer Institute, U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) (April 2005)
  7. Electromagnetic Fields Explained: Arizona Association of Realtors (2003)
  8. Power Line Fields and Public Health: American Physical Society (1995)

Effect Of Home's Proximity To Power Lines On Future Resale Value

Admittedly, regardless of the scientific research, people will always be scared of power lines. No matter what the government or health authorities tell the masses, and no matter what little concrete correlation there is with power lines and EMF induced cancers, it's a virtual given that a vocal segment of the population will never be swayed and will forever regard power lines as instant cancer-causing implementations of electrical doom (laced with extra helpings of government cover ups). For property owners and real estate agents, this is what we call an unfortunate, but irremediable defect - something objectionable about a property that cannot be readily changed. Similar unchangeable defects would be living near railroad tracks, living near an expressway, or living within smelling distance of a waste treatment plant.

While it's true that location in somewhat close proximity to power lines will diminish the overall buyer pool of individuals who would consider your home as a viable purchase (possibly turning off families with very small children perhaps), its desirably is also greatly influenced by other location factors as well. While there may not be a significant drop in property value in certain otherwise very desirable neighborhoods, there may be fewer buyers who will be willing to buy the house when you decide to resell it. Some may be paranoid of the potential health hazards, while others simply won't be able to live with the prospect of having ugly power line towers as permanent ornaments of their neighborhood landscape. While obviously there will always remain an active market for these types of homes, some have suggested that the houses and condos located in close proximity to power lines and power line towers should expect a 1-2% price hit, while others have suggested higher discounts up to 5% or more. However, in my personal research of price comparables in various housing neighborhoods located near powerlines that I've sought out, I haven't found that to be the case.

Remember, everyone has a price. While off the cusp, I'm sure everyone will say that they would never purchase a home near a power line - if they were offered the opportunity to purchase a sprawling mansion for half the price of other comparable homes in the area, I'm sure they would feel differently. The fact that there are homes located near graveyards, cemeteries, nuclear power plants, prisons, and heavily trafficked highways show that everyone has a price. It just depends on how accurately a property's price reflects all of the variables.

Would I Personally Buy A House Located Near Power Lines?

Yes, I would - assuming the home was properly priced, not located directly underneath the power lines, was not directly within view from the front or back of the home, and was sufficiently far enough to satisfy my own whims of prudent avoidance. In fact, I am currently faced with that decision right now, and I believe the answer is a resounding - yes. In the spirit of prudent avoidance, it also depends on how far the home is in relation to the nearest powerline pylon tower and proximately to the powerlines themselves. If my property or backyard directly touched the power line towers or if they ominously loomed over my property like hulking giants, that in of itself would probably be a deal killer for me.

While I personally believe the EMF health dangers of powerlines to be overblown and vastly exaggerated, I think it's still wise to exercise a reasonable dose of paranoid caution. While I believe the direct connection between powerline EMF waves are extremely tenuous and not proven by available science, I still think it's best to limit the distance between powerlines and one's home - just in case. Once again, this is simply prudent avoidance - as the possible dangers, no matter how miniscule or conceivably great, are so potentially devastating if ever found to be true. Besides, from a purely aesthetic point of view, who wants to stare at one of those ugly power line towers from either the front or back yard anyway? I think if the lines are only mere steps from you home or literally sitting in your backyard, this may be a concern. But if they are sufficiently far away in the distance, I think any potential health concerns would be greatly diminished.

So how close is it too close to be living near high tension power lines? Many power line researchers have pointed out that there is generally no serious cause for concern for homes located at least 300 feet away (roughly the length of a football field) from the nearest power line as EMF levels decrease rapidly and exponentially with distance from the lines. At this distance, the EMF levels from the lines are no different from the typical background levels found in most homes. If you are not certain about the EMF levels in or around your home, it's best to contact your local power company and request an EMF reading. Many power companies will perform an EMF measurement for free, particularly if you are a prospective home buyer interested in a new housing development.

Just to get the opinion of readers, what do you think of the photographer's proximity to the nearest power lines based on the photograph provided directly above? This is the approximate location of the housing lot I am currently considering as a prospective home buyer. The nearest power lines are about 350 yards away (more than 3 football lengths). In the photo provided, they perhaps appear larger than they ought to primarily because they are located on the top of a hill on a higher elevation, and there are no trees yet planted to obscure them as is usually the case in established old communities with power lines. Far enough to be objectively safe or still close enough to cause fear? What do you think?

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