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  September/October 1999 Features:
Cancer, Inc.
Rachel's Daughter
The Estrogen Connection
Signs of the Wild
Manta Dance
Inside Sierra
Ways & Means
Good Going
Hearth & Home
Lay of the Land
Home Front
Mixed Media
Last Words

Sierra Magazine


The title "Current Risks: Experts finally link electromagnetic fields and cancer" ("Body Politics," May/June) makes a claim that is not supported by the text of the article. It states that "a panel convened by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences decided there was enough evidence to consider the invisible waves called electromagnetic fields...a possible human carcinogen." The asserted linkage is still tenuous. A direct cause-and-effect relationship between electromagnetic fields and cancer has yet to be demonstrated.
Ellis Lapin
Larkspur, California

"Current Risks" by Liza Gross raised the well-studied issue of potential health risks from electromagnetic fields (EMFs) created by household appliances and wiring. Although it does a good job describing this phenomenon in simple terms, the article does a poor job of informing readers about the real nature of the extensive debate on EMFs' effect on health. It could cause needless anxiety and worry to an already-fearful public. Ignoring a great bulk of scientific evidence, the author focuses on one study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, implying some sinister collusion in its decision not to continue further research on EMFs.

The EMF controversy has been extensively studied by dozens of individual scientists and health professionals as well as distinguished panels in the past 15 years. The great majority of them found no evidence linking EMFs to human health problems. After three years of study by the National Research Council, the National Academy of Sciences issued a 300-page report in October 1996. It found "no conclusive and consistent evidence" that ordinary exposure to EMFs in the home can "produce cancer, adverse neurobehavioral effects, or reproductive or developmental effects." In another study, the National Cancer Institute and childhood leukemia experts reported in The New England Journal of Medicine that "EMFs are not a major and probably not even a minor cause of cancer." The editors called for an end to EMF research, saying that it has "produced considerable paranoia, but little insight and no prevention."
Steven Hegedus
Newark, Delaware

A great deal of research on the biological effects of EMFs has been done in Russia, and forms the basis of that country's restrictive regulation of human exposure to EMFs. For more information on Russian and American research, and the politics restricting American research in this area, see The Body Electric by Robert Becker, M.D.
Brooke Jennings
Salt Lake City, Utah

Liza Gross replies: The study of EMFs and cancer has long elicited contentious debate. Since the subject first emerged in 1979, there have been more than 50 epidemiological studies. While some of the studies are negative, when scientists examine them as a whole-which is what the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences did-many researchers conclude that there is evidence of a cancer risk. That's what the NIEHS panel concluded last June.

Neither the negative findings of the National Research Council nor scientists who argue there is no risk can explain the positive results found in previous studies. Meanwhile a study by the University of Toronto and the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children published this June found that children exposed to high levels of EMFs are 4.5 times more likely to develop leukemia than those with low exposures.

As for the National Cancer Institute recommendation to end EMF research because it has produced "little insight," scientists have been studying this phenomenon for only 20 years. It took almost 50 years to explain how cigarettes cause cancer. In its report to Congress on EMFs this June, the NIEHS cited "lingering concerns" about cancer risk and said efforts to reduce exposure to EMFs should continue. That's prudent advice. If you're not sure whether something might cause harm, common sense suggests avoiding it until you have more information. Rather than suffer "needless anxiety," people should be relieved to know that reducing risk is so easy.


In "Earth's Eye" (May/June), Edward Hoagland writes, "But fish don't touch me as much as animals, perhaps because they never leave the water." People use the word animal when they mean to say "mammal." While our furred relatives are certainly animals, so too are fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans, insects, arachnids, and mollusks. Many in this society seem to attach a hierarchical structure to the status of different creatures, placing fish or frogs below raccoons or bears. Life is a web, not a ladder, and each species is vital for its contributions. It is important to remember that humans are animals, too-the only ones smart and stupid enough to threaten the very existence of those processes that give us life.
Mike Pedde
Peterborough, Ontario


I was hoping "The Hidden Life of Bottled Water" (May/June) would explicitly state that small plastic bottles are an inefficient way of getting this vital resource to consumers. People choose to drink bottled water to obtain purity and fail to consider the huge impact the production and disposal of all those bottles has on the environment, and of course on the water supply itself. I hope others will reconsider this choice, and, unless there is a pressing health concern about the municipal water supply, go straight to the tap.
Michael Barth
La Jolla, California


Bravo to the Sierra Club for joining with Amnesty International ("The Sierra Club Bulletin," May/June). We are natural allies.

In Houston, we are forming a coalition of environmentalists and justice advocates. A draft of our mission statement says, "We realize that our social, economic, environmental, and spiritual problems are related." I long for a future where we have time enough for love. Where we work harder on healing than dominating. Where the army can redefine peace as something other than the absence of war. Where we are more expert at intimacy than technology.
Nan Hildreth
Houston, Texas

Editor's note: For more information on the Sierra Club and Amnesty International's Defending the Environmental Defenders campaign, e-mail or visit our Web site at


I read with considerable interest Bob Schildgen's "Unnatural Disasters" in your May/June issue. He adequately described the problem of inappropriate uses of areas subject to flooding, but left readers with little guidance in how they can address the problem. Two excellent guides are available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency: Protecting Floodplain Resources: A Guidebook for Communities (Publication 268) and Addressing Your Community's Flood Problems: A Guide for Elected Officials (Publication 309). They may be obtained by calling (800) 480-2520.
James M. Wright
The Floodplain Management Group
Seymour, Tennessee

Sierra welcomes letters from readers in response to recently published articles. Letters may be edited for length and clarity. Write to us at 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; fax (415) 977-5794; or you can e-mail us

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