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You just might want to sit somewhere else

'I walk by and see kids climbing all over it,' Guard Street resident David Taylor said of this power transformer near Spring Street International School, as well as other transformers in town. Taylor is fearful that children's close proximity to the transformer could be harmful because of EMF radiation.
— image credit: Richard Walker

Some people think that the large power transformers around town are eyesores. Others have larger concerns: the health effects from the EMF, or electromagnetic field, radiation the transformers release.

In particular, the power transformer located in front of Spring Street International School has drawn concerns from islanders, who worry that students they've seen sitting on the transformer could be putting their health at risk.

"I walk by and see kids climbing all over it," said David Taylor, a resident of Guard Street. Taylor is fearful that children's close proximity to the transformer could be harmful because of EMF radiation.

So far, Spring Street International School has erred on the side of caution. "We tell kids to stay away from it, but it really isn't a hang-out spot for our students," school director Louis O'Prussack said. "It's a pretty rare event that kids are on it besides the Fourth of July parade."

Research into the negative health impacts of EMF radiation has been generally inconclusive. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has found there to be a "weak association" between EMF radiation and childhood cancers, and "no evidence" of EMF impact on adult cancers. But research is ongoing. This radiation is difficult to get away from: EMFs are emitted from all electric devices.

Mark Tilstra of OPALCO — Orcas Power and Light Cooperative — said the radiation released from power transformers is "no more harmful than the EMFs released from your microwave or computer screen."

Still, he recommends that people follow the general rule of thumb that "the further away you are from these high-voltage machines the better," he said, citing the risks that come with close contact to any high-power electrical device.

People with a power transformer on their property often make the mistake of trying to conceal it with plantings or rocks. According to Tilstra, a clearance of about 10 feet should be kept around a power transformer so OPALCO workers can access it for maintenance.

Tilstra said power transformers serve a very important purpose — converting high voltages into lower, more usable voltages for people's homes.

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