Posted: April 18, 2000
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Article SummaryPower line EMFs have greatly declined as a public controversy since this short article was written in 1993 – mostly because the industry took the issue seriously and learned with us that the risk was low. But comparable issues (cell phone EMFs come to mind) are still hot, and the article’s advice is relevant to any risk controversy.

Tips on EMF Risk Communication

Management Quarterly (Public Service Electric & Gas Company), Summer 1993, pp. 32–34

For an industry that has, on occasion, dropped the ball on risk communications, the energy industry is doing a pretty good job so far with EMF. There are exceptions – companies that discourse on “electrophobia” and pronounce the concern about EMF foolish and fanatical, or that decline to discuss the issue at all. But generally the industry’s response has been much more open and less defensive than I would have predicted.

It seems to be working. The public’s concern about EMF hasn’t peaked, but the sense of imminent hysteria seems to have passed. For most people, EMF has taken its place on the long list of worrisome but endurable technological hazards.

The advice that follows is therefore a little more challenging than the customary risk communication litany: tell the truth, show concern, etc. Think of this as a few excerpts from the advanced course.

1. Make it easy for people to get their own EMF readings.

An increasing number of power companies offer to bring a gaussmeter to ratepayers’ homes, so they can find out for themselves the extent of their EMF exposure. Those who take the utility up on its offer learn that microwave ovens and electric blankets usually yield higher readings than the power line through the backyard. Moreover, the technicians who make these home visits report a nearly universal decline in homeowners’ concern as they collect their EMF readings – even when the readings themselves are comparatively high. Knowing is almost always less scary than wondering.

Although many utilities are willing to do home measurements, few publicize their willingness. They are wary of triggering an avalanche of requests and reluctant to encourage EMF anxiety. Neither fear is justified, I think. The vast majority of ratepayers won’t exercise the option, and the publicity itself will help build trust and lessen concern. For most of us, the mere availability of the gaussmeter is reassurance enough.

2. Acknowledge the legitimacy of people’s EMF concerns.

Don’t understate those concerns. Most of your audience is already familiar with both sides of the EMF controversy. Suppose a neighborhood group is worried about a transmission line. Your side is that the evidence of health effects from EMF is uncertain, the benefits of electricity are manifold, the power lines have to go somewhere, the cost of burying them is prohibitive, and the transmission line was there before the neighborhood. Their side is that some studies do seem to show significant health effects, the uncertainty is unnerving, the impact on property values may be substantial, nobody warned the homeowners about EMF before they purchased, and it’s not even their houses’ power being carried past their children’s bedrooms.

Assume all these statements are true. What usually happens is that the utility keeps reiterating the first batch, while neighborhood leaders keep harping on the second. Think of this as the two sides of a seesaw. As long as the utility stays on its side, the neighborhood is bound to do the same. But what happens if the utility starts acknowledging some of the neighborhood’s points? “It is naturally very frightening to see studies coming out, some on one side, some on the other, and to wonder if your health is really at risk and if you’ll ever be able to sell your house.” “A lot of people would feel that the utility should have known all about this risk before we put up any power lines.” These acknowledgments neither diminish nor increase the neighborhood’s concern about EMF. What they do is let the neighborhood know that you understand its concern, and thus reduce people’s need to keep insisting on it. “Yes, that’s exactly how we feel” might be the response. Or even, “No, you couldn’t have known. But what are we going to do about it now?”

Concern about EMF follows the paradoxical law of the seesaw. If utility management is visibly concerned, ratepayers will go bowling; if you’re not, they’re likely to fill the concern vacuum and end up at a public meeting instead. So if you can’t honestly say you’re concerned, do the next best thing by pointing out that many equally well-informed people are. Be sure you acknowledge fully the scientific evidence supporting that concern. And despite the legitimate debate over what sorts of avoidance are prudent and what sorts are foolish, don’t get caught sounding like you think the proper response to an uncertain risk is to shrug it off until the experts have it tied up in ribbons.

3. Stop acting like EMF policy is up to you – or should be up to you.

A utility client of mine was under pressure from a neighborhood to reroute a proposed transmission line. The utility insisted the neighborhood’s EMF concern was unjustified and refused to consider a different route. It might instead have said – with complete accuracy – that since the alternative route was more expensive, only the state Public Service Commission could authorize it as a legitimate expenditure to be charged against electric rates. It could have urged the neighborhood to seek a PSC ruling that set EMF standards for the siting of new lines; it could even have joined the community in asking for the ruling. But to do so would have acknowledged publicly that power companies don’t have all that much power. Management preferred looking intransigent and uncaring to looking powerless.

Ego aside, looking powerless looks pretty good to me. Whoever said power company executives should decide about cost-risk tradeoffs? (Would you have wanted the gasoline industry to decide whether unleaded gasoline was a good idea?) The legislature, the Public Service Commission, health activists, and ratepayer associations should be key players in this social decision. A smart power company might stay out until the implementation phase; or it might position itself as the neutral engineering advisor to all sides; or it might even urge extreme caution and let the PSC and the ratepayers overrule it. Why do their dirty work for them?

4. Don’t let your lawyers or your emotions set your strategy.

Obviously you have to worry about tort liability, and the final authority on what you can’t say without getting into legal hot water is your lawyer. But remember that people sue more often out of outrage than out of greed. And remember that most lawyers are better at winning suits than at preventing them. So if a lawyer advises you to stonewall, ask hard questions about whether a strategy that is bound to anger people is really a legal necessity.

Finally, try to notice if you are actually attracted to strategies that are bound to anger people. Some utility executives, burned in battles with local activists, are simply in no mood to be collaborative, compassionate, or responsive about EMF or anything else. They want to get even and they want to get free. Like the parties in a messy divorce, they can count on their lawyers to reinforce their antagonism. It isn’t easy for angry utility executives and angry citizens to find alternatives to yelling at each other. It’s impossible if the executives don’t even know they’re angry.

Copyright © 1993 by Peter M. Sandman

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