Power Lines and Cancer -- To Move or Not to Move

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A recent study out of Switzerland indicates there might be an increased risk of certain blood cancers in people with prolonged exposure to electromagnetic fields, like those generated from high-voltage power lines.

If you live in a house near one of these high-voltage power lines, a study like this one might make you wonder whether you should move.

But based on what we know now, I don't think that's necessary. We can never say there is no risk, but we can say that the risk appears to be extremely small.

'Scare Science'

The results of studies like this add a bit more to our knowledge of potential harmful environmental exposures, but they should also be seen in conjunction with the results of hundreds of studies that have gone before. It cannot be seen as a definitive call to action in and of itself.

The current study followed more than 20,000 Swiss railway workers over a period of 30 years. True, that represents a lot of people over a long period of time.

However, the problem with many epidemiological studies, like this one, is that it is difficult to have an absolute control group of people to compare results with. The researchers compared the incidence of different cancers of workers with a high amount of electromagnetic field exposure to those workers with lower exposures.

These studies aren't like those that have identified definitive links between an exposure and a disease — like those involving smoking and lung cancer. In those studies, we can actually measure the damage done to lung tissue as a direct result of smoking. But usually it's very difficult for the conclusions of an epidemiological study to rise to the level of controlled studies in determining public policy.

Remember the recent scare about coffee and increases risk of pancreatic cancer? Or the always-simmering issue of cell phone use and brain tumors?

As far as I can tell, none of us have turned in our cell phones. In our own minds, we've decided that any links to cell phone use and brain cancer have not been proven definitively. While we can't say that there is absolutely no risk in using cell phones, individuals have determined on their own that the potential risks appear to be quite small and are outweighed by the benefits.

Findings Shouldn't Lead to Fear

As a society, we should continue to investigate these and other related exposures to try to prove one way or another whether they are disease-causing. If we don't continue to study, we won't find out. It's that simple.

When findings like these come out, and I'm sure there will be more in the future, I would advise people not to lose their heads. Remain calm. You should take the results as we scientists do -- as intriguing pieces of data about a problem we will eventually learn more about, either positively or negatively, in the future. It should not necessarily alter what we do right now.

What we can do is take actions that we know will reduce our chances of developing cancer.

Stop smoking and avoid passive smoke. It is the leading cause of cancer that individuals have control over.

Whenever you go outside, put on sunscreen or cover up.

Eat a healthy diet and stay physically active.

Make sure you get tested or screened. Procedures like colonoscopies, mammograms, pap smears and prostate exams can catch the early signs of cancer, when the chances of successfully treating them are the best.

Taking the actions above will go much farther in reducing your risks for cancer than moving away from power lines or throwing away your cell phone.

Dr. Joseph Moore is a medical oncologist at Duke University Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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