Prevarication Becomes Electric

New Awareness of EMF Health Risks Fuels Opposition to Chelsea Substation

If you happen to be standing on the sidewalk just east of the entrance to Barnes & Noble on Union Square, you may be taking a bath in a strong electromagnetic field of 66 milligauss—four to five times a utility line worker's average dose of 14.5 mG. Few New Yorkers realize that magnetic fields emanating from high-current wires leading into and out of step-down transformers located beneath the pavement on virtually every block in Manhattan expose them, if only briefly, to "hot spots" several feet wide that, if experienced daily on an occupational basis, might place them at about eight times the average risk for leukemia.

New findings regarding EMFs are certain to be a hot issue on January 30, when the city Board of Standards and Appeals holds a public hearing on Con Ed's controversial proposal to build a substation at 24th Street and Sixth Avenue in Chelsea. The hearing will be held at 9:30 a.m. at 40 Rector Street.

Con Ed acknowledges that thousands of distribution transformers fed by millions of miles of cable can be found right underneath the sidewalk. And unlike electrical fields, which are generally shielded, magnetic fields generated by the high currents almost never are. So it's hardly surprising that the industry claims the health effects of this exposure are negligible. As Dr. Louis Slesin, the editor of Microwave News, puts it, they regard the whole issue of EMF fields as "a Pandora's box." And Con Ed, he says, takes a harder line on EMFs than most utilities.

The Con Ed substation at 40th Street and First Avenue
photo: Pak Fung Wong
The Con Ed substation at 40th Street and First Avenue

Much as the utilities might like to deny that prolonged exposure to EMFs at levels common in industrialized societies is a risk factor for cancer and other diseases, the weight of scientific opinion has been moving in the opposite direction recently. There is a growing consensus that chronic exposure to electromagnetic fields at levels as low as 4 mG (average residential exposure is .5 mG) is a risk factor for childhood leukemia. Last July, under pressure from a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the California Department of Health Sciences made public the results of its $7 million "California EMF Project," initiated in 1993. Among the major findings: that magnetic fields likely cause childhood and adult leukemia, adult brain cancer, spontaneous abortions, and Lou Gehrig's disease; and that they possibly cause childhood brain cancer, male and female breast cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and contribute to suicide and heart problems.

To members of the Chelsea Alliance (chelseaalliance.org), involved in a protracted struggle with Con Ed, the utility's boilerplate refusals to recognize the potential health hazard of EMFs have been a 10-year dog and pony show. In 1992, the group was able to garner enough public support to make Con Ed back down from constructing the nine-story substation—which would resemble a huge, windowless industrial plant—on the site of a popular weekend flea market.

The area was residentially rezoned in 1995—five high-rise apartment buildings have since been built on adjacent blocks; Gay Men's Health Crisis is a few doors away. High-voltage power lines running through switch gear covering much of the west wall of the substation would come smack up against residential low-rises. The utility estimates there could be 45-mG fields coming out of the rear wall, which it claims could be shielded to a level of 4 mG.

But members of the Chelsea Alliance point out that at a 1992 assembly committee hearing concerning Con Ed's proposal to expand its substation at 40th Street and First Avenue, a Con Ed environmental scientist estimated that the peak field values emanating from the rear wall there were 125 mG—not 45 mG. And he suggested that the technology to prevent an increase in magnetic fields was lacking.

Con Ed is now claiming it will use various combinations of aluminum sheets, ferromagnetic metal, plus aluminum alloy and/or steel to shield the proposed substation—while at the same time denying generally that EMFs pose a health risk. According to Slesin, shielding EMF fields is "more of an art than a science." Lou Vitale of VitaTech Engineering, who installs shielding in commercial buildings, says that the work is difficult and often is not done properly. "If there are net and ground problems" they can "punch through the shield," he says.

"So what if it doesn't work?" asks one member of the Alliance. "They'll say, 'Sorry.' We'll have no recourse to any agencies, or regulation of any kind." The only government regulations currently on the books are designed to protect workers and communities from the acute effects of exposure to fields from high-voltage transmission lines.

Besides EMFs, residents are concerned about other toxins, such as the thousands of gallons of dielectric oil contained in the substation's transformers, and they also worry that Con Ed is inserting a possible terrorist target in their midst. The utility owns another lot in Chelsea on Eleventh Avenue at 28th Street, in a manufacturing zone, which the Alliance says would be more logical for the substation. Con Ed insists it needs the site for parking or possible office space, and says that "electrical sources need to be closer to their end users."


Despite a pervasive silence in the U.S. mainstream media, concern about the health risks associated with electromagnetic fields has been mounting worldwide. Last summer, the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization voted to classify EMF fields as a Class 2B (i.e., "possible") carcinogen, along with DDT, lead, PBBs, and chloroform.

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