Power Lines, Electricity and Health

Power Lines, Electricity and Health

In last week’s Retro Report, the New York Times examined the reasons why American suspicion of electrical power lines continues to prevail. David Ropeik, who was interviewed for the documentary, sums it up well: “We have to recognize that there are very real risks out there,” he said, “but one of them is fear”.

Fear in America

Dread of electric power lines began to grip the country in the late 1980s. This followed reports that clusters of cancer had developed among children whose families lived near high-voltage power lines. When in another study David Savitz concluded that children who lived near power lines were twice as likely to develop cancer as those who did not, because of the electromagnetic fields the lines created, the fear sank in.

In the years that followed, larger studies were conducted to examine the public health impacts of electrical power lines. The results of 500 of those studies were analyzed by the National Academy of Science, and in 1996 they concluded that there was no persuasive evidence that household appliances or power transmission lines presented a threat.

A few reasons to fear

Yet the fear persists, and for good reasons. Because the perceived risk of cancer from power lines constitute a risk that people can neither see nor control, it makes it to the top of the to-be-feared list described by commentators such as Ropeik. Other reasons why the fear of power lines has become ingrained in the American psyche include the fact that they might cause suffering before death and the fact that the risk involves children.

Ultimately, says Paul Slovic in his much cited work Perception of Riskthe onus lies on those who promote and regulate health and safety to understand how people think about and respond to risk. Without such understanding, well-intended policies may be ineffective.

The Giant of Africa

But while people in the United States worry about the health risks of power lines because of the electricity that flows through them, people in Nigeria and the rest of sub-Saharan worry about power lines for an entirely different reason: electricity hardly ever flows through them!

A former global policy director for ONE, Edith Jibunoh, recently shared her experience living in rural Nigeria, where limited access to electricity was both a part of life, and a threat to it. She says “With the knowledge that a hospital visit means you have to bring your own supplies, including candles to light up your room or diesel to power the generator – especially if you require services at night, sometimes the need for emergency care for people with very little incomes, is the equivalent of a death sentence”.

Even in urban settings the story isn’t very different. In the 250-bed hospital where I worked as a physician for five years in Uyo, the capital city of Nigeria’s Akwa Ibom State, frequent electric power cuts and poor maintenance of the power generators often meant death or prolonged illness for people who came to us for help. My country is one of those places where patients would arrive at a hospital with severe complications, but without adequate electricity to treat them, procedures have to be compromised or delayed until daylight. Some patients are even turned away.

Many reasons to worry

Several causes have been identified for Nigeria’s electricity problems. Despite being citizens of the richest nation in Africa and living in a country that is richer than Norway and several European nations, Nigerians are plagued by poverty. This might explain the poorly-motivated workforce, vandalism, theft of cables and other vital equipment, accidental destruction of distribution lines, illegal connections and resultant over-loading of distribution lines that have been listed as some of the major problems of the facing the country’s power sector.

Many of the power plants in Nigeria are gas-fueled. Hence, vandalism of gas pipelines has also been a contributor to the power problem. But, according to Bloomberg, availability of the gas is a major factor to be considered in the first place. Because Nigeria’s principal distributor of natural gas, NLGNL, prefers to export the gas to foreign buyers for a better deal than it would get on the local market, power plants in the country have been receiving less than half the gas they need.

Ultimately, though, poor leadership and governance, corruption, as well as poor monetary and fiscal policies may actually be the root causes of the poor infrastructural development in Nigeria.

Hope and change

But there is hope. Solar suitcases and other innovative power generating techniques are becoming increasingly available. Some of these can provide enough electricity to power a small hospital unit or rural clinic. If widely available, their impact could be huge.

However, urgent reforms are needed to enable Nigerian power sector meet the ever growing domestic and industrial demand for electricity on a large scale. There is need for transparency and accountability.

In the end, depending on where you live there may be a different reason to be concerned about power lines. The fact that they carry electricity, or that they don’t, both create the potential for health risk. Our perception of those risks determines the management strategies we apply to them.


Image courtesy I. Wongm

This article was first published by the University of Michigan Risk Science Center

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