In the winter of 1990, teachers at the Slater Elementary School in Fresno, California, began to worry about the high rate of cancer among the staff. First-grade teacher Patricia Berryman recalls, “We originally started to worry when we began to realize that an abnormal amount of cancer cases had been on one side of the school.
Then we saw the EPA report on electromagnetic fields and cancer and we realized that that was the side of the campus near the high-voltage lines. We had some leukemia and brain cancer, just like in the studies. We also had some children with leukemia. Well, we started to research everything we could find.” Berryman herself was particularly concerned because, “I’ve spent sixteen years teaching near those power lines.”
The teachers began to gather information about cancer cases within the school. “We couldn’t trace the whole student body, but we were able to trace the teachers. We went back through all the old yearbooks, made lists of everyone who taught here since the school opened in 1972. We had previous teachers call up and tell us of more cases. Then we made a map and presented it to the parents, to show them where the teachers had been working. Well, their mouths hung open.”
Berryman and her group discovered nine cases of cancer in a group of fifty-seven teachers, aides, and lunchroom staff who had worked in two pods (A and B) on the southwest side of the school. That side of the building lies only 110 feet away from a set of two high-voltage power lines-one a 230-kilovolt (kv) line, the other a 115-kv line. One teacher who had worked on that side of the campus for fifteen years had died of brain cancer in 1990, another of melanoma. They also found four cases of children with cancer, but, since the state didn’t keep any records of the disease in that area until 1987, it’s been difficult to trace the children. There were no cases of cancer in teachers who worked in the two pods on the other side of the campus, further from the lines.
According to the California Department of Health Services, the “conditions” among the school staff that have been diagnosed between 1982 and 1991 include nine invasive cancers (two cases of breast cancer, two cases of uterine cancer, two cases of ovarian cancer, one brain cancer, and two melanomas); one case of skin cancer; one nonmalignant brain tumor; two cases of cervical dysplasia; two cases of pre-cancer of the uterus; three cases of benign breast tumors or cysts; one case of keratosis; one case of sarcoidosis, and a number of basal cell carcinomas. Among the students who attended those pods, the state found three cancer cases and four possible cancer cases, as well as two nonmalignant tumors and one cervical dysplasia.
Besides worrying about cancer, some of the teachers were also concerned that the electromagnetic fields had bad effects on the children’s learning and behavior. “For years, we had noticed the behavior of the children in those classrooms. They couldn’t pay attention, they fidgeted, they just couldn’t keep their feet on the floor. We kept a journal while we were still there and knew we were going to be moving to the trailers. In those days, we really thought first graders simply could not sit still. It all changed when we moved away from those lines.”
When word of the problem started to get around in the spring of 1991, many teachers refused to work in the classrooms near the power lines. Fourteen teachers requested transfers to other schools. There was even talk of a teachers’ strike. But, still, nobody seemed to be listening to the teachers-until the parents became involved. Patricia Berryman explains, “1 remember a parent came up to me one day and asked, What can we do to help? The parents picketed and invited all the news media to attend. After that we got immediate action. “
More than a hundred parents and children picketed Slater in May 1991. They carried placards that read “SAVE THE CHILDREN” and “PRECAUTIONARY MEASURES MAKE COMMON SENSE.” The demonstration kicked off a school wide boycott that had been organized by parents like Lynn Stetson, who is currently the president of the PTA and one of the co-chair people of an ongoing EMF task force at Slater. The parents demanded that classrooms and a portion of the playground near the power lines be closed.
The Fresno Unified School District responded to their demands immediately by closing the ten classrooms, placing the children in ten portable trailers on the other side of the campus at a monthly cost of $ 695 per trailer, and closing off an area of the playground that was nearest the power lines.
A May 17 memo to the superintendent from Fresno Unified School District Chief Financial Officer Cathi Vogel recommended the changes, stating, “Although evidence is inconclusive regarding the potential hazards of power lines, the concerns of Slater staff, students, and parents are impacting the instructional program and must be addressed immediately.”
Donald Beauregard, Fresno area administrator for the FUSD, said, “We told everyone it was a temporary thing. We had to do something. We had teachers who were refusing to teach in those classrooms. This was about human health, teachers, and kids. There was a tremendous amount of fear and, as you realize, fear can interfere a lot with the overall educational process. Something that bothers me is, right now, we still have schools around the county that are being built right near transmission lines.”
Beauregard serves on the EMF subcommittee with Berryman, teacher Sandra Craft, and Lynn Stetson. The committee meets regularly to grapple with the overall issue of whether or not there is a danger from the power lines and, if so, what to do about it. Stetson refers to the committee as “our little group,” adding that she always feels they are the “underdogs” at public meetings.
Berryman concurs. “It’s terrible. There are only three of us and Mr. Beauregard. On the other side of the table PG&E [Pacific Gas and Electric] has all these engineers who keep telling us there’s nothing to worry about from the power lines. Then the state health department keeps telling us there’s no funds to do a study of our school.
The state brought in epidemiologists from the county health department. The first was a or Stall worth and he just got up and told us we were all wrong; there was nothing to it. Well, after that one meeting, we never saw him again. They told us his report got lost in the computer. Now we have a woman named Betty Carmona. She tells us she doesn’t know much more about this than we do ourselves, but she seems sympathetic.”
Or. Raymond P. Neutra, chief of the epidemiological studies section of the California Department of Health Services, hedges a lot when he discusses this and other EMF public health scenarios around the state. Despite the fact that or Neutra is directly involved in two major California studies of childhood cancer and EMF exposure, and is privy to all the latest information on the subject, he argues that studies haven’t really proven there is any connection between electromagnetic fields and cancer.
He also disputes whether or not there really was a high incidence of cancer at Slater, saying that nine cases were a “little higher than the expected four cases” for the entire teaching staff, although the incidences had only occurred among the fifty-seven teachers who had worked in two pods of the building. He also said his cancer surveillance unit was determining whether those teachers really worked in the classrooms they said they did and that his department didn’t have the funds to do a study of the children to track cancer cases.