When Marilyn Wilson turned 40, nearly seven years ago, her friends threw her a surprise party: It was the last time in a long time that she remembers feeling good. Within a few years, Wilson was forced to leave her job as a social worker with the state Department of Health and Family Services, after burning through 17 years of accumulated sick leave. Some days, she could barely pull herself out of bed, and then, after an exhausting day; she couldn't sleep. Negotiating the stairs of her west-side Madison home became almost unbearable. The memory alone nearly moves her to tears. "I was dying," she says.
By her account, she visited more than 20 doctors, but none could explain what was wrong. Her fatigue could not be attributed to a bacterial or viral infection. Her hands were sometimes too weak to button her own clothes, but multiple sclerosis and its neurodegenerative cousins were ruled out.
Eventually a diagnosis emerged from the fog: chronic fatigue syndrome. Now Wilson had a name for her demon, but this brought little comfort: "How are you supposed to feel when you are told you have a disease that has no cure?"
For Wilson, the low point came toward the end of last year: "I felt okay in September but by November I came crashing down. I didn't go to Thanksgiving or Christmas. I couldn't get out of bed. I was dizzy and nauseated. My memory was fading in and out." She laughs to herself: "You know, I forgot to go to Jamaica on vacation. That's how bad my memory was; I didn't remember I was supposed to go until it was too late. "
Around this time, in a support group for women diagnosed with CFS, Wilson stumbled across what she calls "the most amazing discovery of my life." Catherine Kleiber, a Waterloo woman also diagnosed with CFS, contacted the group with news of her own miraculous recovery It was not brought about by special drugs or herbs, a unique diet, a special doctor or the healing power of prayer.
Rather, Kleiber turned off the power to her house. She felt better right away; within days, her CFS symptoms disappeared. Now she keeps her house as de-electrifled as possible, convinced that power quality was the root of her illness - and maybe that of others like her.
After "six years of hell," Wilson was ready to try anything. She called Dave Stetzer, an industrial electrician and consultant out of Blair, Wis., who has a long history of working with the phenomenon of "stray electricity" on farms. On Jan. 8 of this year, Stetzer came to Wilson's house, near Regent Street and Speedway Road. There he measured a low-voltage, high-frequency current flowing on her wires and throughout the house. He rigged Wilson up with a voltmeter connected to a small amp. When she touched her sink, her dimmer switches or the doorknob - anything conductive, the amp screamed.
"My house was full of dirty electricity " she says, "and I was completing the circuit."
Later measurements, says Wilson, confirmed the problem. She put a voltmeter on her counter and charted how she felt. Peaks in the measured current matched her lowest points in the day. For the first time, Wilson could explain why she felt worse in the early mornings, when people were getting up and turning on appliances, and in the summer and winter, when electricity usage for air conditioning and heat is at its peak. It was a revelation: "When I began to overlay my life experience with my electrical experience, It all made sense."
Stetzer installed a simple electrical liter in Wilson's house and, like Kleiber's, her condition improved almost right away "I didn't get better overnight," she says, "but it was almost that fast."
Now Wilson, 46, says her symptoms have receded. A disease that her doctors could not cure has undergone a remission that they cannot explain. This has made her a true believer in an issue some dismiss as kooky and others say may be the greatest hidden public health issue of our time.
"There's no doubt in my mind that there is a problem here," says Wilson. "and I would like the government and the utilities to acknowledge the problem, identify a solution, and put it into place. People shouldn't have to worry about whether their power is safe."
Wilson's experience has sparked an almost missionary zeal. Her house invokes an image of a student in the throes of a massive research project; books and articles on electropathology clutter every surface. When she gets going, she draws links between dirty power, Project ELF; and microwave riot-control weapons. It strikes her as suspicious that Phyllis Dube, the new head of the state Department of Health and Family Services, was formerly a utility company lobbyist.
But just because Wilson is a bit paranoid doesn't mean she's wrong. She recently received an award for activism from CURE (Citizens United for Responsible Electricity), a group concerned about the human health con- sequences of electricity And she's taken her message to the halls of power, contacting state public health officials and politicians. She even flew to Washington, D.C., with Stetzer and a small group of scientists for a meeting with Sen. Russ Feingold.
"We need water but we don't need water pollution," says Wilson. "We need air but we don't need air pollution. And our society needs electricity, but it doesn't need electrical pollution. Our electrons should stay on the lines and not go through the earth or up into our houses."
In front of Wilson's home on Mason Street is a transformer that delivers electricity to eight homes. She says that after Stetzer visited her home, he told her "that I had a serious problem; and the power company would have to fix it." Wilson asked MG&E to come out and take measurements. Within days, "huge MG&E trucks" delivered work crews that spent two or three days working on her block.
MG&E has a different memory of the situation. "We went out twice, and checked the service from the transformer to the meter, and as far as we can tell, we are within [state] guide. lines," says Steve Carlson, a spokesperson for MG&E. "We did not change or replace any equipment." He says MG&E didn't find harmonics on the wires leading into her house.
But Wilson says Stetzer's instruments showed that there was. She says MG&E has provided her with only the most recent measurements, rebuffing her request for data from before work was done.
Either way Wilson says the problem has been fixed, and she now feels safe in her home. But still, she says, "I can't spend a lot of time in Kinko's, or anyplace that has a lot of fluorescent lighting, or I just feel terrible."
Wilson and Stetzer believe the cause of her illness stems from a phenomenon known to electricians and engineers as harmonics. Electricity in the U.S. normally flows at 60 cycles per second (60 Hz) in an alternating current (AC). But computers, TV s, fax machines, fluorescent lighting and various other electronic devices incorporate circuitry that converts regular 120 volt AC to a low-voltage direct cur- rent (DC). The cumulative effect of everyone turning their appliances on and off through. out the day is to overload the power grid with harmonic frequencies -popularly referred to as dirty power:
For industry dirty power is a real problem. Harmonics cause insulation to deteriorate, overheat electric motors and burn out circuit boards. Karl Stahlkopf, vice president of the Electrical Power Research Institute (EPRI), which serves the utility industry, was quoted in the July 5, 1999 Fortune magazine saying that dirty power costs U.S. industry $4 billion to $6 billion a year, mostly on remediation. Other estimates double that figure.
Government and utilities do not officially recognize electricity's pathological effects. A 1995 draft report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended that electromagnetic fields be classified as a class B carcinogen, like formaldehyde or dioxin; the report was never published in final form. Another study by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences concluded there is no correlation between exposure to electromagnetic fields and cancer, even though a working group that contributed findings to the reports classified electromagnetic fields as "possible human carcinogens."
"Cancer clusters," high incidences of child leukemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in people who live or work near high-tension power lines, were widely publicized in the early 19008. Separate studies by epidemiologists at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Ontario found that line workers at electric utilities were twice as likely as other utility workers to commit suicide. Other studies suggest that exposure to electromagnetic fields affects the body's ability to produce melatonin, a hormone thought to influence emotions and sleep.
The standard line by utilities and the state Public Service Commission (PSC) is that electromagnetic fields pose no substantial health risk. But a study published in January 2000 by EPRI, the utility industry research center, finds that low-Ievel contact current "may explain the reported associations of residential magnetic fields with childhood leukemia." This study drew the first link between EMFs and contact currents, popularly known as "stray voltage."
Last year, The La Crosse Tribune published an award-winning series by reporter Chris Hardie documenting the effects of stray voltage on cows. (For the series and more, see www.strayvoltage.org.) Farmers across the state have seen the productivity of their herds plummet. Their cattle twitch, moan, pick their feet up constantly and fail to produce milk. And they die, rotting by the ton.
The PSC acknowledges the existence of stray voltage, but defines it as "a natural phenomenon that can be found between two con- tact points in any animal confinement area where electricity is grounded." This gives the utilities an out in two ways. First, it allows them to blame the farmer for not properly grounding his or her "confinement area." Second, it absolves the utilities of responsibility for phenomena outside the confinement area.
And it is current originating outside the confinement area that is the problem. When the power grid's neutral wires - which return electrical current in the form of electrons to the generating station and complete the circuit - become overloaded with harmonic frequencies, the ability of the wire to carry the current decreases. But the current has to go somewhere, so it goes into the earth through a ground plug.
And that overloading, combined with the spillover, is why harmonics can affect a city dweller like Wilson.
"Think about it like a sewage system," explains Stetzer. "If you take a four-inch sewer main, and triple the number of houses that are using it, you're going to see it back up. It's the same with current, except instead of expanding the size of the main, what we've done is poke holes in it and let the sewage flow out all over the ground. That's basically what we've done with electricity in this state, and you can measure it."
Once the current is in the earth, it makes its way back to the generating station via the path of least resistance. This could be a creek bed, a railroad track, a water main, or whatever other low-impedance pathway exists.
The voltages traveling along the ground are characteristically low, but the frequencies are not. Stetzer, who with various acad- emics has made a full-time hobby out of chasing down the sources of power quality problems, has measured frequencies in the radio to microwave range - frequencies that have a definite and measurable biological effect from the cellular level up.
And it's an interesting coincidence that the classic symptoms of CFS - fatigue, insomnia, muscle and joint pain, headaches and tender or swollen lymph nodes - are almost exactly the same as the symptoms listed by people who are exposed to radio or microwave frequency radiation in a controlled setting.
But the state doesn't buy it. For the record, the PSC doesn't believe ground currents are a problem, doesn't think electricity has any ill effects on human health, and doesn't bother looking at any frequency outside of 60 hertz - standard current.
AlI of the orders in effect for stray voltage investigations refer to the 60 Hz fundamental voltage or current and not to any harmonic content which mayor may not be pre- sent in addition to the fundamental frequency," says Mark Cook, the PSC's stray voltage program manager.
The PSC even denies what many farmers say has been established beyond a reasonable doubt - that ground currents make farm animals sick. Cook quotes a study by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that "no credible scientific evidence supports the claim that currents in the earth or associated electrical parameters such as voltages, magnetic fields and electric fields, are causes of poor health and milk production in dairy herds." (One of the engineers who worked on the study, Alex Furo of Ontario, Canada, resigned from the panel, later telling the Wisconsin Agriculturist that he perceived "an increasing tendency of the [panel] to align itself with the vested interests in the power industry")
As for possible human health effects, says Cook, "the PSC must rely on the expertise of other government agencies regarding health questions, because we do not have in-house professionals to research these subjects." And, according to Cook, the Department of Health and Family Services "has not reported any concerns about either elevated or low-level, high-frequency transients, power-quality events, harmonics, ground currents or earth currents having an adverse effect on human health."
Dr. Henry Anderson, the chief medical officer for occupational and environmental health at the state Division of Public Health, has said "scientific research on the human health risks associated with exposure to electrical currents is at best inconclusive." This opinion was offered in response to an inquiry from state Rep. Barbara Gronemus, whose rural district near Eau Claire includes many farmers who have grappled with the stray voltage issue.
But Gronemus, in a letter to Anderson, says, "There is a vast body of literature concerning the adverse effects of electricity on human health. I encourage you to explore it rigorously."
Gronemus is vexed by how adamantly the bureaucracy and utilities insist there is no problem. "They all know better; this has been going on for years," she says. "They say it doesn't exist, but if that's the case, why was there language in the budget saying that you couldn't sue the utilities over stray voltage? Something's rotten." (Gov. Scott McCallum's budget initially contained a provision that would have shielded utilities from liability in stray voltage lawsuits, but this was withdrawn after farmers objected.) Gronemus working on legislation of her own to deal with this issue, but declines to comment on it until the drafting is complete.
As Gronemus intimates, the literature on the health effects of electromagnetic fields is in fact extensive. Even a casual survey turns up more than 1,000 journal articles, and Stetzer claims to have nearly five times that many in his office. But by and large, that literature doesn't show a causal relationship between electromagnetic fields and disease, just a correlational one. The kind of double-blind, peer-reviewed human clinical studies needed to establish mainstream credibility simply have not been done.
What's more, most research focuses on electromagnetic fields (EMFs), rather than contact currents. They are distinct phenomena, but "people frequently don't make the distinction between them," says John Lorenz of the state Division of Public Health. "We are presented with reports of people measuring current and citing EMF literature to document potential health effects."
Lorenz acknowledges that ground currents entering a house - through plumbing, for instance - could be a potential mechanism of exposure, although he thinks this "is unlikely to result in a significant current flow through the individual that would approach the strength of the currents naturally occurring within the body."
Besides, he says, "all of us are exposed to either EMFs or electrical currents at low levels, the same way we are exposed to low levels of toxic chemicals in our food, water and air. We also know that at some intensity both EMFs and currents passing through the body present a risk of detrimental health effects. The critical questions are, 'At what levels is there a risk?' and 'Are people being exposed to those levels?'" And at this point, says Lorenz, the scientific evidence is "inconclusive."
While most of the attention garnered by dirty power and harmonics has focused on farms, the problem is not limited to the coun- tryside. "This is not a rural issue," says Rep. Gronemus. "This an issue that crosses town and city boundaries, and we all should be aware of it and want it resolved."
Stetzer, in fact, feels that in the city "the problem is worse" because of the number of houses using the grid. The density of houses, each with their own array of gadgetry being turned on and off, overloads the grid with harmonics much faster than in the country. It may be that cows are more susceptible to health effects. "If you look at a cow, it has to stand in this environment, barefoot, often in manure or urine, which are conductive, and be exposed to these currents all the time," says Stetzer. So even though cows and humans have the same biological resistance, "a human can move in and out of the environment, [while] the cow has to stand there."
Also, if a cow gets sick and veterinary tests are inconclusive, farmers have learned to look for electrical problems. The same is not true for people. If a person gets sick and the tests are inconclusive, they get diagnosed with CFS or something.
In most cases, says Stetzer, electrical problems that pose health hazards can be fixed. "I like electricity, " he attests. "I like my TV, and I like good lighting when I read, but I want the power I use to be safe."
But whose responsibility is it to make power safe? Should it be the manufacturers of appliances? The European Union already has standards to ensure that computer monitors and such do not pollute the power grid with harmonics. Is it the utilities? Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson used to joke that the U.S. has the power grid of a Third World country. "Moving to a five-wire system [thus increasing the capacity of the return wires] would practically eliminate ground current problems," says Stetzer. And the utilities could upgrade their power distribution systems to filter out harmonics. But these modifications "would cost millions."
That cost, says Gronemus, is behind the reluctance to admit a problem. "They are denying that we have an old, deteriorating, wornout system in place," she says, "and they don't want to spend the money to fix it."
Stetzer thinks a one-cent-per-kilowatt surcharge could finance all necessary upgrades. He likens it to highway repair. "A while back we had horrible roads, so we tacked on a five-cent tax for a gallon of gas," he says. "Now we have good roads, they're more comfortable to drive on, and they don't wear out your car as fast."
But the state is a long way from that solution, especially given that the utilities, the PSC and state officials for the most part do not admit there's a problem.
Marilyn Wilson says that, aside from Rep. Gronemus, none of the state officials she's spoken to - including Dr. Anderson, Mark Cook and a representative of Gov. Scott McCallum's office - have taken her concerns seriously. Sen. Feingold, after meeting with Wilson and others earlier this year, put out a press release calling attention to the issue and promising to remain vigilant: "Numer- ous medical studies point to a possible link between exposure to extremely-low-frequency electromagnetic fields and a variety of human health effects and abnormalities in both animal and plant species."
Feingold's response heartens Wilson and others who are trying to advocate on this issue. Unfortunately, as Feingold points out, most of the regulatory authority to address power-quality problems resides with states. And the state has thus far been unsympathetic.
"The bottom line is nobody is taking responsibility, " she says. "No one's stepping up to fix this." And that frightens her: "I was sick for six years; how many other people is this affecting who just don't know it?"
- Citizens United for Responsible Electricity