Managing Potential Health Risks from Electric Powerlines: A Decision Analysis Caught in Controversy

Document Type

Article - Merrimack Access Only

Publication Title

Risk Analysis: An International Journal

Publication Date


Abstract/ Summary

Over the past 20 years, several epidemiological studies have found an association between exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and health effects, including childhood leukemia and adult brain cancer. However, experts strongly disagree about whether this association is causal and, if so, how strong it is. In this article, we examine several alternatives to reduce EMFs from sources of the California power grid, including undergrounding distribution and transmission lines and reconfiguring or rephasing lines. The alternatives were evaluated in terms of the potential health risk reduction, cost, impacts on service reliability, property values, and many other consequences. Because of the uncertainty about an EMF-health link, the main effort was to determine the sensitivity of the decisions to the probability and seriousness of an EMF hazard. User-friendly computer models were developed to allow stakeholders to change the model assumptions and parameters to analyze the impacts of their own assumptions and estimates on the decision. The analysis clearly demonstrated that only four of the many concerns raised by the stakeholders could make a difference in the decision: health risks, costs, service reliability, and property values. Whether undergrounding, moderate alternatives for EMF reduction, or no change was the best decision depended on a few key factors, including the probability that EMF exposure is a hazard, the severity of this hazard, how the EMF reduction measures are financed, and the impacts on property values. While the analysis did not resolve the EMF issues, it showed that even in the most controversial settings, a little analysis goes a long way to clarifying the issues and to focus the debate.