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A powerful danger? Are power lines near the U.S Forest

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Service's office in Bedford making employees there sick?

http://www.tmnews.com/articles/2006/04/ ... news29.txt

By Laura Lane

Sunday, April 16, 2006 6:35 AM CDT

BEDFORD - For decades, powerful transmission lines feeding into a power substation along Ind. 37 north of Bedford have carried electricity to thousands of southern Indiana residents.

The towers that string them along grow up from the ground like tall trees in a dandelion-dotted field.

But is electromagnetic radiation from the high-voltage lines harming workers in the Hoosier National Forest headquarters office, a 25-year-old metal building dwarfed by tall transmission towers?

No one knows for sure.

More than 20 years of research into the danger of electromagnetic radiation from power lines pretty much concludes that exposure does not cause cancer.

But an expert looking at the number of cancer diagnoses among the forest headquarters' work force found it to be more than three times what would have been expected.

Numbers spark fear

When a woman working part time at the forest service office started compiling cancer data for people who have worked there over the past 15 years, concern and fear surfaced.

Nineteen workers, in an office that employs about 50 people at any given time, had been diagnosed with cancer. Of those, eight have died. Another is seriously ill and no longer able to work.

The employees contracted all sorts of cancer - brain, breast, ovarian, colon, melanoma, lymphoma, liver, lung, prostate - which experts say makes it less likely that the illnesses have a common source.

A longtime forest service worker noticed in the late 1990s that cancer had stricken several of his co-workers. He gathered health information and was surprised to see how pervasive cancer was among long-term employees who worked in the building.

The state epidemiologist, who studies the relationship between the cause and occurrence of disease, determined the rate of cancer among the forest service workers in the Bedford office was quite high.

During the time that 19 workers were diagnosed with cancer, he said the expected number, given state averages, would have been 5.59 cases.

A crude employee-drawn chart that overlays work stations with electromagnetic field levels shows that seven of the cancer-stricken workers - including five who died - worked in the northwest section of the building where a 2005 study showed levels much higher than those in other parts of the building.

Not one of the workers from Bedford's Hoosier National Forest office contacted for this story would talk on the record about their health concerns. Several said they fear losing their jobs if they come forward publicly.

"I'd like to speak out, but I can't," said one worker with less than two years until retirement.

Another said there's talk of outsourcing some jobs. "I really don't feel comfortable talking about it since my future here is uncertain," that person said. "I've been here a long time. And I hope to be here a lot longer."

That employee could not think of any coworkers willing to talk to a reporter. "I know a lot of people that are concerned, but none who are fearless."

"I would rather not have my name associated with a story about this," said yet another employee. "But there are a number of people here who are concerned."

One worker summed up the office sentiment. "This has been really intense for people around here because we have had a number of people pass away, and it has been hard on us and their families and friends," he said.

"People are reluctant to speak up, but they are worried about long-term effects, over time, that we cannot measure."

A voice emerges

Count former employee Sara Grant among the concerned. But unlike the others, and with not much to lose, she chose to speak out.

Grant, who has a social services degree from Indiana University, came to work at the Bedford office in December 2004. She was associated with the Senior Community Service Employment Program, a federal initiative to employ older workers. The Hoosier National Forest office is a host site for the agency.

The 63-year-old woman liked her job, and the people she worked with.

Early on, she heard talk about the number of forest service workers who had been diagnosed with cancer.

"It was whispered about among the employees," Grant said. "There was a lot of talk but no one felt free to talk about it openly."

She started asking questions.

"I was told from the very beginning not to let management find out I was looking into this," she said.

The employee who had collected health data years before passed the information along to Grant in the summer of 2005.

"He said he had all of this information but didn't know what to do with it. He was depressed about it," Grant said. "He handed me this information and I said, 'Good God, it affected half the staff.' I took it home on a Friday night and was shocked."

In the spring of 2004, the Hoosier National Forest Safety Director, Lester Wadzinski, arranged to have state epidemiologist Robert Teclaw come to a staff meeting to discuss cancer clusters and possible dangers from electromagnetic radiation off power lines.

"His conclusion was that our cancer rate is higher than it ought to be, but he could not draw any conclusions," Wadzinski said.

After that, some employees were relieved and others were not. "Some felt like, 'Well, OK, I guess there is no cause and effect. Others, I think, were more concerned. And then some weren't sure just what to think."

Teclaw remembers going to the meeting and presenting a slide show and background to the employees "about what little is known about the health effects of power line exposure."

He said he has given presentations regarding cancer clusters, but in eight years as state epidemiologist, this was the first regarding power lines and electromagnetic fields and the possible connection to cancer.

"I talked about how it is still undetermined whether that is a health hazard or not, that it has not been shown conclusively to be a problem," Teclaw said.

"Unfortunately, cancer strikes about a third of us sometime in our lifetime, and sometimes it occurs by chance in a localized area and people take notice. Then they become concerned."

He explained that in most cancer clusters, the same kind of cancer is expected to occur, not many kinds as reported by Hoosier National Forest workers in Bedford.

Grant said she pursued the issue because she was worried about the longtime workers in the building and thought management was not taking their concerns seriously.

She presented the cancer data to an interim supervisor early this year and asked him to pass it along to the forest service's regional office in Milwaukee. She said she trusted him to follow through.

"I wasn't so concerned about myself, since I was only there three days a week," she said. "I wanted to try to get them to do something."

She also called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and spoke to someone there twice on the phone. She faxed 26 documents. She said she smuggled information to the Department of Health & Human Services' National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

A spokeswoman in the NIOSH Cincinnati regional office said documents with information about the Hoosier National Forest employees' concerns had been received and that the case is active and still pending. And confidential.

"After I talked to those people, we kept waiting for them to come and move us out of here," Grant said.

Instead, business continued as usual at the Bedford office.

A resignation

Grant was frustrated by her fellow workers' refusal to come forward publicly.

When NIOSH told her she needed signatures from three employees to launch an investigation, it took weeks to convince just two others to sign along with her - even though the NIOSH request was confidential.

"I had to keep trying to get people to sign. I am absolutely convinced there is some kind of problem there," Grant said.

Her frustrations mounted, and she submitted the following resignation letter to her supervisor, Teena Ligman, on Feb. 28:

"In recent months, I have had reason to 'research' the cancer rate and electro-magnetic levels in the Hoosier National Forest Building. Though some may disagree, I am convinced that this building represents a hazard," she wrote.

"For the last nine months, I have promised my friends and family as well as myself that if it ever came to the point that I was convinced that management at the Bedford Hoosier National Forest did not intend to address the issue of the cancer rate and electro-magnetic levels, I would resign.

"I reached that point in a host meeting held on Wednesday, February 22, 2006.

"I consider the Hoosier National Forest staff 'the brightest and the best' and it has been an honor and privilege to work with you. Thank you for all the opportunities offered me over the last 13 months."

A co-worker made her a bracelet and presented it to her when she left. The word "courage" was spelled out with alphabet beads.

"It was such a nice gesture, but it really didn't matter much, what I did, because nothing happened as a result," Grant said.

Studies of a building

McIntyre Brothers, a Bedford contractor, built the metal Hoosier National Forest headquarters back in 1981. The lease on the building is renewed every two years.

The transmission lines from a power generation station in Gibson County connected to tall towers adjacent to the building have been there a lot longer.

Terry Hoff, a spokesman for Duke Energy, which owns the lines, said they feed into the Garvey Lane 345 Substation, located less than a mile from the tower cluster. He said that substation has been there since the 1930s.

Back in 1992, Hoff tested electromagnetic radiation levels inside and outside the Hoosier National Forest office building, he said, at the request of concerned workers.

He said the reading was "almost not measurable" outside beneath the lines, explaining that the power emitted diminishes greatly with distance.

Hoff said levels were higher inside the building, which he attributed to the presence of computers and fluorescent lights. "The area around the microwave oven was a hundred times what it was under the lines," he recalled.

One of the 345,000-volt transmission lines from the substation divides Hoff's Fayetteville farm and runs 100 feet from his house. He oversees Duke Energy's power lines in Indiana and is often in close contact with electromagnetic radiation.

He doesn't worry much about its effects.

But he understands the concern of forest service employees as they seek an explanation for the increase in cancer among them.

A study of danger

Jane Cliff, regional press officer of the National Forest Service region that covers 20 states from Maine to Minnesota, said her office knows of the workers' concerns. She said the regional office advised Hoosier National Forest managers to hire an outside contractor to study the issue.

In the spring of 2005, Micro Air Inc. out of Indianapolis conducted an Extremely Low Frequency Magnetic Field Survey. A report said the electromagnetic levels measured inside the building "were less than the levels measured outdoors" and that "all levels measured were less than the maximum levels recommended" by two national organizations.

When Grant took the levels and corresponded them with areas in the building, she discovered that where the levels were highest were the areas where workers were more likely to have been diagnosed - and to have died - from cancer.

Cliff, who knew one of the workers who died, said a regional forest service safety advisor looked at the report and came to the conclusion that there was "no measurable problem due to electromagnetic fields, no known health hazards," she said.

Cliff confirmed that the worker concerns had been passed along to the Centers for Disease Control, where they are being evaluated. She said there might be a delay because of a request for health records that requires individual release forms from employees.

She said it's possible the workers might be moved to another building if further investigation warrants such action. "One option our office has, and I believe has suggested, is looking at procuring other space," she said. "I don't know how likely that is, though."

Cliff cautioned that the family health histories and lifestyle habits of the workers are not known. That makes it difficult to tie the cancer cluster directly to one cause.

"Many of these people could have had prior medical conditions," she said. "To determine a cause and effect for something like that is very difficult. But I know it's the kind of thing that leaves people wondering."

An official 'cluster'

Hoosier National Forest District Ranger Jim Denoncour has worked at the Bedford office the past 15 years. He has seen cancer strike his employees. He has seen some die.

"We are officially a cancer cluster and these clusters occur across the landscape with no explanation," he said. "When I look at the science, I have to rely on the experts and right now there is no technical proof that there is anything wrong here. I cannot make any connection that is concrete."

He said the different kinds of cancer among workers exclude a common cause. "If we all had our tongues rotting out, I would be looking for something specific, but it's not like that," Denoncour said. "I care very deeply about my people and if there was something I could prove I would do whatever I could to change it."

Hoosier National Forest Supervisor Ken Day has been on site since 1990. He said he anticipated the Micro Air survey might show problems with air quality and it did - a water leak causing mold on the carpet, which was replaced.

He said he cares about his workforce, which comes from around the country.

"Every time concerns surface about this, we try to do something," he said. "But when you look at the science, it is showing no risk of health effects, or weak connections that can't be proved. Individual perceptions and beliefs are on one side, and how do you tie in science to what someone believes?"

Day said he's more worried about being in a traffic accident on the way to work than getting cancer from the power lines outside the building where he spends his days.

"My office is one of the two that is closest to the power lines," Day said. "There are a lot of other things around us that are pretty risky."

He has arranged for a forest service health and safety expert to speak with workers about their concerns during a forum scheduled for Thursday.

"We will continue to try and work with the employees and alleviate their concerns," he said. "We're still faced with perception vs. science."

Perception matters

Cindy Basile is a 31-year-old wildlife biologist who for the past three years has worked at the Hoosier National Forest Tell City office.

She works closely with workers at the Bedford headquarters and spends a lot of time there.

Basile said the employees' health concerns are valid and widespread. "The fact that everyone is so afraid to talk about it shows there is a concern about retribution," she said.

Her anger about the issue rose during a February staff leadership meeting - the one that prompted Grant to resign. An update on the building and the electromagnetic field concerns was on the agenda.

"Half of the office came in for that meeting, which was unheard of," Basile said. "They wanted to hear what was said. Then they told us didn't have the information and they were going to skip that item."

Basile said she pushed the matter, asking managers to bring the employees up to date. "That's when Jim (Denoncour) said, 'If you don't like it, you can find another job.' I said people really perceive there is a problem."

She thinks like a scientist but also realizes that there's often diverse facets to consider when evaluating a situation.

"Some studies say there's no health risk, then a new study says maybe there could be, and there's no consensus," Basile said.

"But you have an office full of people who are pretty well convinced that it is a problem. They are watching their coworkers and friends die. They are scared to death. And no one will do anything?"

A timeline

1981: The U.S. Forest Service moves Hoosier National Forest employees into a newly constructed metal building on Constitution Avenue, along Ind. 37 at the north edge of Bedford.

1992: Responding to worker concerns, power company officials come in and measure the electromagnetic frequency from the power lines near the building. They report low levels outside near the transmission lines and higher, yet still safe levels inside.

Spring 2004: In response to worker concerns, epidemiologist Robert Teclaw, from the Indiana State Board of Health, talks to forest service employees on cancer clusters and the little known effects of electromagnetic fields on human health.

Spring 2005: The U.S. Forest Service pays an outside contractor to conduct a study of the electromagnetic fields around the building. Levels were found to be within industry standards and not of concern.

Summer 2005: Part-time forest service employee Sara Grant begins looking into her co-workers health concerns about the power lines adjacent to the Bedford office.

January 2006: Workers take their concerns to an interim supervisor and ask him to forward them to the regional office in Milwaukee. Officials there report back that the electromagnetic radiation levels are within a safe range.

February 2006: Grant resigns in frustration, saying that employees are in danger and that management is not taking their concerns seriously.

April 2006: Forest service managers at the Bedford office schedule a meeting with a health and safety expert from the regional office in Milwaukee to address employee concerns.

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