Electromagnetism Fears Spark Protests

China has seen numerous protests triggered by fears of chemical pollution. Two incidents in the past month have revolved instead around concerns over health threats from electromagnetic radiation, despite the lack of evidence for harmful effects at the exposure levels involved. On Sunday, Reuters reported a rare protest in Beijing against a new high-speed rail line:

Residents told Reuters they were concerned the new line from Beijing to the northeastern city of Shenyang would run too close to their apartments and local schools, causing excess noise and electromagnetic radiation.

They also complained the government had refused to listen to their concerns and accused them of faking an environmental impact assessment.

“I only knew this line was planned two weeks ago when I got a letter from the government thanking me for my support,” said a protester who gave her family name as Zhang. “But neither me nor any of the other residents support this. They are inventing things.”

[…] In 2008, hundreds of people in China’s financial hub Shanghai marched against the extension of the city’s magnetic levitation train, or “maglev”, worried it would emit radiation and sicken them. Police detained dozens.

Global Times’ Chen Xiaoru reported in November that residents had rejected three successive environmental impact assessments for the Beijing-Shenyang line.

“Though railway authorities say that they are going to build above-ground tunnels along the track in populated areas to isolate noise and radiation, the railway is still going to influence the residents’ lives as some buildings are only 30 meters from the track,” a resident was quoted by the Beijing Times as saying.

[…] Chen Yaoxuan, a resident representative from Beijing’s Gome Champion City, a residential compound along the planned route, said that her building is only 70 meters from the track. “The radiation will cast a negative impact on residents’ health. The railway should not be allowed so near a densely populated area,” said Chen.

[…] According to the new environmental impact assessment, the rail line’s electromagnetic radiation level meets national standards.

“Electromagnetic radiation isn’t harmful as long as the construction of the rail line meets the national standard. However, it is difficult for residents to know how well the standard will be adhered to,” Li Ruihua, an expert in electrical engineering from Tongji University, told the Global Times.

Also in November, protests broke out in Wenzhou over a planned electrical substation and overhead power lines. From Alice Yan at South China Morning Post:

Hundreds of the protestors in Liuliang and Fangbei villages were injured after confronting police, in a bid to stop construction of a 220-kilovolt substation. The project would require building high-voltage power lines over their homes, which some feared could threaten their health.

At least four police cars and a local media van were badly damaged in the clashes, which involved protests in each of the two villages.

The earlier protest, in Liuliang, involved about 1,000 villagers and 2,000 police, the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy said yesterday. Two police cars were smashed and officers closed roads to the restive village.

Beijing Cream collected photos and video of the Wenzhou protests, while Radio Free Asia described violent clashes between protesters and police and reported one local resident’s concerns:

Fang said the planned transforming station was being built on farmland which had been taken by force from collective ownership by the village, without the consent of the wider community.

He said the villagers would fight the plans “to the bitter end.”

“Transforming stations inevitably produce electromagnetic fields, and they can have a big impact on humans, for example, making women more likely to have miscarriages,” Fang said.

“They also contribute to an increased risk of cancer, and affect people’s throat and respiratory tract,” he said.

“All of this makes people very worried.”

In fact, no firm evidence exists of significant health effects from low-level electromagnetic radiation. From the World Health Organisation:

In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research.

Some members of the public have attributed a diffuse collection of symptoms to low levels of exposure to electromagnetic fields at home. Reported symptoms include headaches, anxiety, suicide and depression, nausea, fatigue and loss of libido. To date, scientific evidence does not support a link between these symptoms and exposure to electromagnetic fields. At least some of these health problems may be caused by noise or other factors in the environment, or by anxiety related to the presence of new technologies.

[…] A number of epidemiological studies suggest small increases in risk of childhood leukemia with exposure to low frequency magnetic fields in the home. However, scientists have not generally concluded that these results indicate a cause-effect relation between exposure to the fields and disease (as opposed to artifacts in the study or effects unrelated to field exposure). In part, this conclusion has been reached because animal and laboratory studies fail to demonstrate any reproducible effects that are consistent with the hypothesis that fields cause or promote cancer. Large-scale studies are currently underway in several countries and may help resolve these issues.

The American Physical Society has echoed the WHO’s findings, and lamented the disproportionate attention these health fears have received in the U.S.:

The scientific literature and the reports of reviews by other panels show no consistent, significant link between cancer and power line fields. This literature includes epidemiological studies, research on biological systems, and analyses of theoretical interaction mechanisms. No plausible biophysical mechanisms for the systematic initiation or promotion of cancer by these power line fields have been identified. Furthermore, the preponderance of the epidemiological and biophysical/biological research findings have failed to substantiate those studies which have reported specific adverse health effects from exposure to such fields. While it is impossible to prove that no deleterious health effects occur from exposure to any environmental factor, it is necessary to demonstrate a consistent, significant, and causal relationship before one can conclude that such effects do occur. From this standpoint, the conjectures relating cancer to power line fields have not been scientifically substantiated.

These unsubstantiated claims, however, have generated fears of power lines in some communities, leading to expensive mitigation efforts, and, in some cases, to lengthy and divisive court proceedings. 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 diversion of these resources to eliminate a threat which has no persuasive scientific basis is disturbing to us. More serious environmental problems are neglected for lack of funding and public attention, and the burden of cost placed on the American public is incommensurate with the risk, if any.