In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

WHO and Electric Utilities:A Partnership on EMFs

Posted by seumasach on May 25, 2009

Microwave News

October 1, 2005… As members of the WHO Task Group make their way to Geneva for next week’s meeting to complete its Environmental Health Criteria (EHC) document on power-frequency EMFs, new information has emerged showing that the electric utility industry has played a major role at every stage of developing the review document. 

Microwave News has learned that Mike Repacholi, the head of the WHO EMF project, recruited utility representatives to help write the original draft of the document and later asked them to review the completed draft. Then, as we reported last week, Repacholi invited eight utility representatives to attend next week’s task group meeting —the only observers who were invited (see September 22 entry). The task group and the industry observers will assemble at a WHO conference room in Geneva on Monday, October 3 to recommend exposure limits.

Documents show that Leeka Kheifets played a central role in drafting the EHC document. Kheifets has had a long relationship with EPRI, the research arm of the electric utility industry. She worked for EPRI before becoming Repacholi’s assistant in Geneva. Now, back in California, Kheifets recently disclosed to the British Medical Journal that she “works with the Electric Power Research Institute… and consults with utilities.” Among those who collaborated with Kheifets on the EHC document include: Gabor Mezei, also of EPRI, Jack Sahl of Southern California Edison, the U.S. utility and John Swanson of National Grid, the U.K. utility. 

Repacholi sent a draft of the EHC out for review in early July. Among those asked for comments were: 

• William Bailey, Exponent Inc., U.S.
• Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC) 
• Kent Jaffa, Pacificorp, U.S. 
• Michel Plante, Hydro-Quebec, Canada
• Utility Health Sciences Group (USHG), U.S. 

To be sure, a number of independent researchers were also participated, but it is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for a WHO health document to be reviewed by so many with such strong ties to the affected industry. 

Not surprisingly, most of the industry comments seek to downplay potential health risks. 

Here for example is an excerpt from those filed by Plante on the epidemiology chapter: 

“The whole section on cancer seems more like a desperate attempt to maintain some positive statistical association from epidemiological studies alive than a factual and honest presentation of arguments both, for and against, carcinogenicity.”

Plante, who will sit in on the weeklong deliberations at Repacholi’s invitation, has been assigned to the epidemiology working group, where he will no doubt continue to maintain that the link between EMFs and childhood leukemia is inconsequential. 

Plante has played a villainous role in the EMF controversy. A decade ago, he was involved in stopping work on an epidemiological study on possible EMF cancer risks to electric utility workers. The Canadian-French study was the first —and the last— to investigate whether exposure to high-frequency transients could lead the cancer. The multi-million dollarstudy, published in the November 1, 1994 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology was considered, at the time, a landmark event. The research team led by Ben Armstrong and Gilles Thériault of McGill University found strong cancer risks as well as dose-response. Members of the EMF community were excited by the results and looked forward to follow-up efforts. But, Plante worked with others at Hydro-Quebec to shut down the McGill project by forcing Thériault to return the data he and the others had painstakingly collected (see MWN, N/D94). Thériault was never allowed near it again. 

Jack Sahl, another invited observer who will also sit in on the epidemiological working group, was a leading member of the UHSG for much of the 1990s. The USHG was the brainchild of Tom Watson, now of Watson & Renner, a law firm based in Washington. In the 1990s, all the major electric utilities in the U.S. —by one count, 76 participated — were members of the USHG. Watson was originally invited to attend next week’s meeting, but his invitation was later withdrawn. Still obscure is why Repacholi changed his mind and disinvited Watson.

It is not known who wrote the comments submitted by the USHG, but it is possible that every electric utility that is a member of the USHG was given the chance to review the WHO document and funnel its comments back to the WHO. 

What is clear is that the USHG attempted to weaken the EHC document. For instance, while the draft states that, “evidence is increasing that magnetic fields could interact with DNA-damaging agents, at least in some cellular models,” the USHG suggested that for the “sake of clarity and balance… it would be useful to include… ‘Any such effects on DNA cannot, however, be considered as established’.” 

USHG also proposed the following change in the chapter on protective measures: “It should also be pointed out that ‘redirecting facilities or redesigning electrical systems may be so expensive as to be inconsistent with the low-cost and no-cost steps typically viewed as prudent avoidance’.”

Nor was the USHG bashful about promoting the utility position, arguing: 

“It would be useful for the summary to include a clear statement that the scientific research does not establish ELF EMF as a cause or contributing factor in any disease or adverse health effect, including cancer.”

Very useful to industry, indeed.

Thanks to Repacholi, the electric utility industry has been and continues to be a full partner in the writing of the EMF document —a document which will be the WHO’s official position on EMFs for years to come. The most disconcerting part of all is that no one at the WHO thinks he is doing anything wrong.

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