Power-line radiation and childhood leukemia: this cold case may finally be solved

j0399316.gifPower lines and childhood leukemia. This was big news in the 1970s, when epidemiologists found cancer clusters in neighborhoods near high-voltage power lines. In the late 80s, the New Yorker published a breakthrough series of articles bringing a human face to the issue.

Based on the epidemiology, it seemed like there had to be some kind of link. The problem was, scientists, working with cells and animals in laboratory experiments, couldnâ''t find a conclusive cause. And the issue fell off the proverbial radar screen, as the public became more concerned about cell phone radiation and brain tumors.

Granger Morgan and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University advised "prudent avoidance" in a series of booklets on the subject as well as articles in Spectrum. Basically, take reasonable steps to minimize risk, but don't drive yourself nuts. That made sense to me; as part of research for an article I had my house tested for EMF (back in the day when my local utility would provide this service on request). After I found out the biggest emitter was the clock on the front of my stove, I had it disconnected (seemed prudent, I was pregnant at the time and cooked a lot). Then I pretty much forgot about it.

Until this week, when scientists from the Jiao Tong University School of Medicine in Shanghai announced the results of research that may finally explain just how EMF radiation causes childhood leukemia. Xiaoming Shen and his colleagues determined that the distribution of leukemia among children living hear high voltage power lines or transformers is not random; rather, it affects children carrying a certain genetic variantâ''that is, the ability to repair DNA breaksâ''vastly more often.

This simple sounding finding has huge implications. Researchers have long thought that EMF radiation caused DNA breaks, but couldnâ''t figure out how. Shenâ''s research points to a different mechanism; the EMF radiation doesnâ''t cause the breaks, but inhibits DNA repair, particularly in children that have a weakened repair mechanism to begin with.

Others will likely try to repeat this research and may, finally, close this cold case.

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