SOUTH REDONDO BEACH (CBS) — A group of SoCal mothers believe electricity is making their families sick. CBS2's Paul Magers spoke with these residents to find out why they think nearby power lines and their neighborhood substation is creating unsafe living conditions.
"This is my hair loss from one shower," said Lori Barber, a resident in the Knob Hill neighborhood, as she held up a large clump of hair.
"I absolutely worry about health issues, I have three young children," remarked Doris Donlou-Richmond, Barber's neighbor.
Mary Contreras is yet another local mother who said her daughter has been experiencing a variety of gastrointestinal problems and that half of her esophagus is paralyzed -- all for unexplained reasons.
These women live in a neighborhood lined with schools and churches and a Southern California Edison substation, which sends out electricity to the city of Redondo Beach.
The substation is immediately apparent when first entering South Redondo Beach. Many residents said they did not even realize the substation was there until after they purchased their homes. The first five homes to be built on the Barber family's street were used to house the Edison employees that worked at the facility. Edison had initially planned to tear them down and expand the substation. Instead, the company sold the homes in the '90s.
The Barbers bought one of those residences in April 2010 and their baby Adelaide was born in November of that same year. Three months later, the Barbers said their daughter was diagnosed with unexplainable gastrointestinal issues.
"I can't help but believe it's related to living here," Barber said. "I have a 14-month-old baby girl that was just in the hospital last month with issues that we still don't 100 percent have answers for or that just don't make sense."
Contreras lives around the corner, directly behind the substation, and also became concerned when her son and daughter became ill and she began to suffer headaches daily.
"My son, he was diagnosed with a tumor and with a lot of joint problems," Contreras said.
These residents believe electromagnetic fields (EMFs) generated by the Edison power lines are the root of all their health problems, despite there being no definitive proof.
Barber's husband, Tom, showed us the power lines surrounding his home.
"We have a situation that we have electricity from high from both sides, high from over there and underground from in front of the house," he said. "You're in your own boxed-in microwave."
The residents have already asked for Southern California Edison employees to measure the EMFs in all of their homes. Edison notes on its paperwork that one milligauss is the average reading in most houses. The company reported that this community had readings that ranged between 4.1 and 32.6.
Edison said EMF readings vary based on what is inside a home and that not all readings relate to power lines.
Doris Donlou-Richmond has EMFs ranging from 5.4 to 13.9 on her property and an electrically-charged gas line. The gas company marked her meter "11 Volts" – alerting employees to stay clear.
"It's been three and a half years, they haven't resolved the issue, and there's no notation on my account other than they are not allowed to touch my gas line due to it being electrically charged," Richmond said.
Another neighbor purchased the Edison home closest to the substation. Simona Wilson believes something called "stray voltage" has been seeping into her shower and has jolted her body, causing nerve damage.
"When we learned about Simona's situation, we kind of thought it was interesting, and we started reaching out to people," Barber said.
Wilson vacated her home last September and has filed a lawsuit claiming that Edison was aware of the stray voltage for the past 20 years. She recently underwent a hysterectomy, a medical issue she also believes is linked to the Edison substation.
"I just feel horrible that we're sitting here together while one of our neighbors is having surgery," said Barber, adding, "Obviously, we're not the only people on this block that have an issue and if you didn't raise hell about it [SoCal Edison wouldn't] come to your house."
CBS2 took these residents' concerns straight to Edison.
"Certainly, I don't dismiss customers' frustration but to sort of characterize that we have not been engaged in trying to solve issues, you know, it's unfortunate," said Steve Conroy, of SoCal Edison.
"The first complaint that we actually received was around 2004, and it had to do with an issue of stray voltage," Conroy said.
Edison later corrected that comment in an email, stating they made disclosures about EMF readings and were aware of stray voltage issues as early as 1999 -- years before some of the women involved moved into the neighborhood.
Conroy went on to cite scientific studies to suggest that there was no direct correlation between EMF levels and health concerns.
"There's no evidence to say EMF is safe," according to Dr. De-Kun Li, Ph.D., of the Kaiser Foundation Research Institute. He has studied electromagnetic fields and possible health effects for 15 years.
Li said no one is certain which EMF levels are safe and which are dangerous. However, his research recently linked EMF exposure to miscarriages and asthma. He says even though there is no federal standard on EMFs, people need to take precautions.
"My study shows above two milligauss could be potentially problematic, particularly when exposed for a long time," Li said.
That limit is way below the EMF readings in the South Redondo Beach neighborhood. That's why Barber said she and her family moved out last November.
"I'm leaving," Contreras said. "I can't stand to put my children, and my husband and myself at risk."
"If Edison is not willing to buy back our house or give us back what we've put into it, we've potentially lost it," Lori Barber said.
And, for many families in the area, there are still too many questions left unanswered.
"I want to know why I have electricity in my gas line and I want it fixed," Richmond said.
"There are substations in neighborhoods that don't have EMFs or stray voltage – so, why does this one?" Barber asked.
Some residents said they were concerned about the possible effect of the electricity on nearby schools.
Alta Vista Elementary School sent a note home to parents after CBS2 reported on the situation earlier this week, saying both Southern California Edison and the gas company have checked the school and believe there's no threat.
Edison representatives said they will work with Simona Wilson's family on the stray voltage issue and said she could even hire the contractor of her choice to fix the problem. Edison also said they were working with the gas company to determine if there was any stray voltage on the gas line.
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