Saturday, 20 December 2014 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG

Desert Rose and the Story of Stray Currents

Monday, 14 July 2014 10:05 By Daniel Ross, Truthout | Report

A view of the Desert Rose sign at the very entrance of the community. (Photo: Daniel Ross)A view of the Desert Rose sign at the very entrance of the community. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

When Kathy Seacrist looks back over the past eight or so years, 2007 marked the beginning of a long nightmare. It was the year that her son, John McDonald, 37 at the time, started suffering from seizures.

"John was so healthy. Ate healthy. Everything. He was really buff. All my girlfriends fancied him," she said. McDonald, his daughter Malia, and Seacrist all lived together at her home in Desert Rose, a subsidized housing community in Palm Desert, California.

In 2009, Seacrist's own health began to deteriorate rapidly. "It started with terrible sinus infections and got progressively worse. I had slurred speech, my hands couldn't stop shaking," she said. By 2010, Seacrist, naturally slight, almost birdlike, someone always proud of staying trim and fit, thought that she was on the brink of death. "I was down to 82 pounds. For a while, doctors thought that I had MS. I told my mom, 'If it's my time to go, it's my time to go.' "

Tests conducted in her home in 2010 revealed the presence of toxic mold spores. "The whole insides of the walls were covered black with mold," she said. As a result, Seacrist tore out the walls, threw away all of her furniture and conducted ozone shock treatment in her home - a treatment designed to kill all of the toxic mold spores. In April 2011, Seacrist and her son filed a lawsuit against the City of Palm Desert for damages resulting from there being no condensation line connected to the air conditioning unit in her home.

Despite ridding her home of mold, Seacrist's health continued to decline.

The original symptoms didn't fade, and were exacerbated by insomnia. She started getting knifing migraines, heart palpitations and found herself slipping into a slump of depression. She began experiencing stabbing pains in her feet and legs that were so severe that she eventually had to leave her job as a waitress at the nearby Fantasy Springs Casino through disability.

Desert Rose resident Kathy Seacrist. Seacrist said that her doctor has told her that she could soon be wheelchair bound. (Photo: Daniel Ross)Desert Rose resident Kathy Seacrist. Seacrist said that her doctor has told her that she could soon be wheelchair bound. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

"It started getting so bad that by the end of my shift, it felt like all of the bones in both feet were breaking," she said. "Pains shooting up my leg. It was so weird. My hearing became so sensitive, too; the slightest noise felt like knives going in my ears. But on February 27 of last year, I had just finished, clocked out, took off my shoes and sat there. I didn't even think I could make it to my car I was in that much agony. That was my last day at work."

The issue of stray currents is a muddy, complicated one, made all the murkier by an array of differing expert opinions and a lack of comprehensive testing as to the human health effects of long-term exposure to low-level electrical currents.

In December 2013, Seacrist and her son, represented by the law firm of Swanson and Peluso, filed another lawsuit against Southern California Edison. The community of Desert Rose is separated from the Indian Wells electrical substation by the width of a narrow lane, and the lawsuit claims that Seacrist and McDonald's illnesses are the result of electrical current passing via the earth back to the substation - a phenomenon widely called stray current, and one more commonly known to harm dairy cattle.

The narrow lane separating the Indian Wells substation on the left from the Palm Desert community of Desert Rose, on the right. (Photo: Daniel Ross)The narrow lane separating the Indian Wells substation on the left from the Palm Desert community of Desert Rose, on the right. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

But while Seacrist, now 58, and her son are the only plaintiffs in the lawsuit, a significant number of residents, especially those residing toward the substation end of the community, share an array of similar medical symptoms with Seacrist and her son - symptoms that some medical experts believe are associated with prolonged exposure to low-level electrical currents.

Many long-time residents of Desert Rose, like Peter Kulesh, have suffered a laundry list of chronic illnesses. His includes malignant melanoma, prostate cancer, a mini stroke and a massive heart attack. Others, like Kulesh's wife, Dawn, tell of living for years with severe depression, of having hands that constantly tremble, of forgetfulness and slurred speech.

Residents like Annette Guzman, tell of having their life ruined by insomnia. "Everybody that's ever lived in this house can't sleep for nothing. Don't know why, we just can't sleep, not even the dog," Guzman said. Others, like Michele Fisher, describe some of the more common health issues experienced by Desert Rose residents: waking up in the morning riven with painful leg cramps, chronic dental problems, high-blood pressure and ringing in ears.

Resident Sherry Kelly, describes the experience of having a throbbing, burning sensation in their feet and legs when they stand barefoot on the floors within their homes. "And every time I put my right leg in my bathtub, the middle three toes cramp up - they point straight up and the pain shoots up my back," said Kelly. "While the burning sensation is constant pretty much all day, it gets worse when I take a shower."

Desert Rose resident, Sherry Kelly, and her son Kirk Finch. (Photo: Daniel Ross)Desert Rose resident, Sherry Kelly, and her son Kirk Finch. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

The issue of stray currents is, in any number of ways, a muddy, complicated one, made all the murkier by an array of differing expert opinions and a lack of comprehensive testing as to the human health effects of long-term exposure to low-level electrical currents. Even the terminology used to explain the problem differs from expert to expert, with terms like stray voltage, stray current, uncontrolled voltage and uncontrolled current used interchangeably.

For the sake of simplicity, I will stick almost exclusively with the term stray current throughout the piece.

We can define stray current as any continuous current (other than momentary fault current) that flows over the earth, metallic piping, building steel and into houses and farms - a stray electrical current detrimental to the health of humans and animals.

But multiple strands tie the story of Desert Rose into something of a Gordian knot. Many of the homes are beset with structural problems, which lead experts to believe that faulty wiring within the homes could also play a significant part. What testing has been done at Desert Rose to identify stray currents leaves a number of important questions unanswered. What is more, the issue of toxic mold - a problem with chronic health consequences - isn't confined solely to Seacrist's, but exists in multiple homes within the community.

As many see it, stray currents are a growing problem for utility companies keen to downplay their dangers for fear of a mushroom of expensive lawsuits. But are the dangers exaggerated, as others put it, by opportunistic lawyers keen to pounce on the latest health scare? For many within Desert Rose, they feel as though the wheels are moving all too slowly as they wait anxiously to find out.

The Story of Stray Currents

Before plunging headlong into the issue, Jim Burke, an electrical engineer with over 46 years in the industry and the author of over 140 technical papers, said that it's useful to have a basic grasp of the fundamentals of electricity. And these essential principles can be boiled down to the following: Voltage is the amount of impetus pushing current; current is the electrical flow; and resistance is, as the name implies, the resistance that the current meets.

"Voltage equals current multiplied by resistance. That's Ohm's law, the fundamental equation of electrical engineering," Burke told Truthout. "What it means is that you get voltage if you have current and resistance. So, if you have a lot of current and low resistance, you don't get a lot of voltage."

As for stray currents, the roots of the problem stretch back to the 1880s. When the inventor Thomas Edison built the first electrical distribution system for direct current, he used the earth as a pathway for the electricity to return to its source.

"That's how the Brooklyn Dodgers got their name," said Tom Shaughnessy, vice president of the PowerCET Corporation and co-author of a book on power and grounding.

"During the electrification of Downtown Brooklyn, the electricity [passing via the earth] would cause the horses pulling trollies to rear and start, and people would have to dodge the trollies to avoid them. That's how they got to be known as the trolley dodgers - and then, they became the Brooklyn Dodgers," said Shaughnessy.

According to Stetzer, the closer you get to the substation, the amount of electrical current flowing along the ground increases.

To rectify the problem, Edison adopted a three-wire electrical distribution system, said Donald Zipse, Life Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The three-wire system involves two "hot wires" distributing electricity to where needed, and a neutral return wire bringing the electricity back to the source. The three-wire system is the basis of electrical distribution in homes.

Zipse said that modern electrical distribution systems - which use alternating currents - are purposely designed, however, to use the earth as a return path back to the substation in conjunction with the neutral return wire. This is achieved through a multi-grounded neutral return system that provides a pathway for the electricity to pass into the earth at the transformer. The transformer is where voltage is either increased or decreased, and is the last juncture before electricity returns to the substation.

At the transformer, said Zipse, the neutral conductor returning to the substation is connected to a ground conductor into the earth. Therefore, while electricity can return to the substation along the neutral conductor, the ground conductor allows electricity to flow into the earth, providing another pathway back to the substation.

"With the multi-grounded neutral conductor connected to earth at least four times per mile and at each transformer and lightning arrester, there are now multiple paths over and through the earth that the hazardous electric current can flow over continuously, uncontrolled," said Zipse.

We can define stray current, he said, as any continuous current (other than momentary fault current), that flows over the earth, metallic piping, building steel and into houses and farms - a stray electrical current detrimental to the health of humans and animals.

"We have two uncontrolled factors here," said Zipse. "It's uncontrolled in how much current goes into the earth, and uncontrolled where in the earth that current returning to the substation flows."

Problems associated with stray currents are going to increase as modern technology becomes more sophisticated.

A growing number of experts agree that this is a problem. Dave Stetzer is the founder of Stetzer Electric and has been an electrician for well over 30 years. He said that as much as 70 percent of electricity returns to the substation through the earth, rather than along the neutral conductor.

"It would be nice of it all came back on a [neutral return] wire - if it did, we wouldn't be having this conversation," said Stetzer. "But in 1998, there were two independent studies done: one by the Electrical Power Research Institute, and one by the Minnesota Science Advisors. They found that 70 percent of all the current that goes out on the phase [hot] wires returns to the substation through the earth."

According to Stetzer, the closer you get to the substation, the amount of electrical current flowing along the ground increases.

"We all know that it has to return to the substation. So now you have to ask: Where's the highest amount of ground current concentration going to be? And the answer is, next to the substation," said Stetzer. "So, if you build a house next to a substation, or a substation is built next to your house, you're going to have a high amount of ground current going through there."

Dr. Sam Milham, a medical epidemiologist whose primary sphere of expertise is electrical pollution, or dirty electricity, said that stray currents could explain what is happening at Desert Rose. And he said that problems associated with stray currents are going to increase as modern technology becomes more sophisticated.

This is because neutral return wires don't have the capacity to conduct high-frequency electrical currents caused by devices like modern computers and televisions, he said.

"What happens is, the return currents that they make are at high frequencies," said Milham. "High frequencies don't like to run on wires as easily as sixty-cycle, low-frequency electricity. It's called the skin affect. High frequencies like to run on the skin of the wires, so basically you need a thicker wire with greater capacity to carry higher frequency."

Rather than increase the capacity of the return wires, he said, utility companies rely on the earth to conduct the high-frequency return currents back to the substation: "Instead of beefing up the return on the return wires, they dump 70 percent of it now into the earth at the transformers."

Soon after moving into the farm, Carol experienced a number of electric shocks, including a spike of ground current so strong, she was knocked off her feet.

There's far from a consensus as to the dangers surrounding stray current, however. According to Dr. Robert Kavet, senior technical executive at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the multi-grounded return system is designed intentionally to give electricity another pathway back to the substation in case of a distribution system failure.

"You want the [earth] to be available for the current back to the substation," said Kavet. "If you had just one pathway, and that failed, you would have a very serious electrical issue in your home."

"The topic is a very confused topic," said Burke, who added that, while it's true that the vast majority of electrical distribution systems use the earth as a pathway back to the substation, the system was designed this way for reasons of cost, overcurrent protection advantages and customer safety.

"They call it stray current, but it's kind of a misnomer because the current is not really stray, it's supposed to be there - radio waves and home appliances use the earth also," said Burke. "You can't really accurately detect or correct the flow of current in the earth. To the best of my knowledge, having dealt with this topic for over 40 years, there should be no medical reason to be concerned with earth currents unless they create 'stray voltages,' which are easily measured."

Stray Currents and Dairy Herds

The problem of stray current has long been an issue in rural areas of America. As the electrification of America's farms intensified, rural electrical distribution systems weren't always equipped to cope with the increased loads. This has resulted in a vast number of farms and farmers bedeviled by the effects of stray current (or stray voltage, as it is most commonly referred to in relation to farms).

Dairy cows, which are particularly sensitive to the effects of electrical currents and more so than humans, were the primary casualties. In cows that are affected, milk production plummets. In the most extreme instances, cows are killed through electrocution.

Chris Hardie, former local news editor of the La Crosse Tribune, a Wisconsin newspaper, published a series of articles documenting the plight of farmers whose lives were ruined by stray current. Hardie was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for the series.

Hardie told the stories of a number of farming families in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, including that of Carol and Mike Gunner who bought a farm in Clark County in Granton in the fall of 1995. Soon after moving into the farm, Carol experienced a number of electric shocks, including a spike of ground current so strong, she was knocked off her feet. She had been walking barefoot at the time, Hardie reports.

The health effects of stray currents on dairy cattle is relatively clear-cut. In contrast, the human health effects can be far subtler, and much harder to quantify as a result.

Four years later, when the series was first published and after 68 of their cows had died, the Gunners had been driven into bankruptcy. What is more, Mike and Carol Gunner's health had deteriorated to the extent that Carol had been certified disabled, while Mike was in the final process of his disability proceedings.

As the series progressed, however, various state utility companies attempted to strong-arm the LaCrosse Tribune into pulling the rest of the articles from publication.

"Half way through the series, we had a local and state delegation of utility officials requesting a meeting with, at that time, myself, the editor and the publisher of the Tribune," said Hardie. "This was because [the utility officials] had concerns about the series and what was published in the paper."

Hardie said that the utility officials couldn't find anything factually inaccurate with what he had reported. The issues they had centered around the bona fides of the sources he turned to for information.

"What transpired through the course of that meeting was a very specific attack on the credibility of the people I interviewed," said Hardie. "It was pretty obvious from the get-go that they didn't like the stories, and anybody that I interviewed that had a point that was contrary to their view point, they engaged on some credibility issues with those people."

"It is clear that it is the current that causes a reaction in humans, not the voltage. Measuring voltage in and of itself is erroneous. That's what the utilities do - they only measure voltage."

One of those sources targeted, said Hardie, was Dr. Hooshang Hooshmand - a Florida-based neurologist and a specialist in electrical injuries. He's received numerous and notable awards and memberships within the medical community.

Hardie said that, during the meeting, the utility heads produced a document that showed how Hooshmand was convicted of Medicare fraud.

"But he was still a practicing doctor," said Hardie. "His conviction didn't mean that he didn't have any credibility in the medical field. But that was kind of the tone of the meeting."

According to Spark Burmaster, a Wisconsin based electrical engineer who works with farmers to resolve issues of stray current, the health effects of stray currents on dairy cattle is relatively clear-cut. In contrast, the human health effects can be far subtler, and much harder to quantify as a result.

"The farmer has a measurable parameter because a dairy farmer can keep records for their dairy operation. They can see the milk production records go down, and see that they're losing money. Then, they fix their electrical system and see that it gets dramatically better in an instant," said Burmaster. "In humans, you obviously can't gauge it the same way."

Because of these hovering question marks over possible human health effects, conflicting ideas are floated as to what to measure to identify potential risk to humans.

According to Zipse, the current is the most important measurement to take to gauge the human health effects of long-term exposure to low-level electrical currents, as opposed to testing solely for voltage.

"It is clear that it is the current that causes a reaction in humans, not the voltage," Zipse said. "Measuring voltage in and of itself is erroneous. That's what the utilities do - they only measure voltage."

Zipse said that people living in concrete pad-type housing with copper or metallic piping - such as those occupied by the residents of Desert Rose - are subjected to continuous current, regardless of the voltage.

"Current is equal to voltage divided by resistance, so you have to make voltage measurements and resistance measurements at the same time to get current," said Zipse. "The problem is, the resistance of the human body varies depending on what type of body we have. Is it an infant? Is it a young child? Is it a pre-teen? Is it a male or a female? There are so many elements, that to simply measure the voltage and to make an assumption of the resistance of the body is erroneous."

Burke agrees that current rather than voltage is what causes humans harm. However, he believes that voltage should be the pivotal unit of measurement.

 "It doesn't take much current to kill you, that's absolutely true, but in order to get current across your body, then you need voltage across your body. You can't just take current out of the ground and put it though your body."

In order, Burke said, for the current to pass through the body, one part needs to be touching an electrical conductor (like a metal faucet) at one voltage, and another part of the body needs to be touching another conductor (like the floor) at a different voltage - in essence, there needs to be a voltage differential between separate parts of your body for the current to pass through it.

"You have to have one part of your body at one voltage, and another part of your body at another voltage to create current. So, if the showerhead is five volts and the floor is zero volts, those five volts across your body may create a small nonlethal current which you might feel. Stray voltage is generally less than 5 volts," he said.

In September of last year, Southern California Edison (S.C.E.) was ordered to pay Simona Wilson $4 million after she had suffered electrical shocks every time she took a shower in her home.

In contrast, Dr. Magda Havas, associate professor of Environmental & Resource Studies at Trent University, said that a human body can conduct electrical current simply through standing on electrified ground. She said that the direction of the current dictates how it flows through the body.

"If the electricity is flowing east to west, and you're standing facing north, it means that your left leg is further west and your right leg is further east," said Dr. Havas, who has been researching the biological effects of electromagnetic pollution since the mid '90s. "And in that case, there's going to be an electrical difference between both feet. Which means that it will go up one leg and down the other, and it goes right across your groin area."

Stetzer has conducted a number of studies looking into the flow of electrical current through cows. He said that, when a cow stands on electrified ground, he has been able to monitor a current that can travel up one leg, across the udder and down the other leg.

"I've shaved cows legs, put an [electrocardiogram] patch there and hooked them up to an oscilloscope to measure the amount of current flowing through them," said Stetzer. "When they lift their leg up, the circuit is broken."

As for Dr. Milham, he said that it's not enough to simply measure either voltage or current. He believes that an understanding of the frequency of the electrical current is paramount to understanding any potential harm to humans.

"You can have very strong sixty-cycle fields running through your body, and they don't bother you as much as weak high-frequency fields," he said. "Though ultimately, it's the currents induced in the body which do the harm."

From Cattle to Humans

In September of last year, Southern California Edison (S.C.E.) was ordered to pay Simona Wilson $4 million after she had suffered electrical shocks every time she took a shower in her home.

Wilson, now 33, lived in a house built by S.C.E. in Knob Hill in Redondo Beach, California, with her three sons, all younger than 6 at the time. Knob Hill is situated adjacent to S.C.E.'s Topaz electrical substation. When Wilson's father replaced the old porcelain shower tub in her home - the tub was raised 2 feet from the floor - and installed a new shower unit, Wilson immediately started to suffer ill affects every time she used it.

"One of the problems that you have when you have a house or a residential area near a substation, you have these currents like we were measuring returning through your house back to the substation,"

Among the list of immediate health effects that Wilson is reported to have suffered were nausea, chronic headaches and fatigue. Soon after, she experienced numbness in her hands, feet and legs, after which spikes of sharp pain would shoot through them. As her conditioned worsened, there were times when Wilson lost all sensation in her hands and feet, causing her to fall over.

Stray current returning to the Topaz substation electrified her showerhead, and caused a current to flow through her body every time she touched it. Wilson is said to have ordinarily showered three times a day, and would adjust the showerhead during the latter two times daily to deflect the water from her hair. S.C.E. is reported to have known for decades about the stray voltage problem in the vicinity immediately surrounding the Topaz substation.

I tried on numerous occasions to schedule an interview with Wilson, but we were unable to arrange a time to talk before the story deadline.

Other residents of Knob Hill have filed lawsuits against S.C.E. In regards to the Barber /Richmond v. S.C.E. case, the Superior Court has stayed the civil action ruling while the Public Utilities Commission decides whether it has jurisdiction over the matter or whether the Superior Court has jurisdiction. The PUC is unable to award damages to plaintiffs. PUC president, Michael Peevey was formerly president of Edison International and Southern California Edison Company. The next Superior Court hearing is in September.

Tests to identify stray current have been conducted at Desert Rose, though they haven't been extensive. Last year, Don Johnson, a Wyoming based electrical engineer who is also licensed to operate in Colorado, tested 34 homes in Desert Rose. Johnson found stray currents up to just shy of 4.5 milliamps on the grounding systems within the homes.

Dr. Havas said that exposure to electrical currents can damage the body's communications systems, such as the nervous and the hormonal systems. She said that prolonged exposure to electrical currents will also exacerbate any biological weaknesses that already exist in the body.

Johnson said that he took readings with the house breakers on and off, to accurately gauge the currents that existed inside and outside of the homes. And he said that the readings he found weren't surprising given the proximity of the homes in Desert Rose to the Indian Wells substation.

"One of the problems that you have when you have a house or a residential area near a substation, you have these currents like we were measuring returning through your house back to the substation," said Johnson.

In humans, the body's resistance would differ depending upon how wet it is, Johnson added. The wetter the body, the lower the resistance. He said that he used a 470 ohm resister when he took the measurements - typical of the kind of resistance that a human body would have when wet.

"So, if you're wet or sweating or something similar, what we measured was roughly how much current would be flowing through your body," he said.

The levels that Johnson found were anywhere between 0.21 milliamps and 4.49 milliamps.

According to Zipse, men and women experience the effects of electrical shocks at different levels. Women, he said, will feel a shock when exposed to 1.2 milliamps of electric current, though it won't be painful. At 6 milliamps, women will experience a painful shock and will suffer muscular control loss. At exposure to approximately 15 milliamps, women will have trouble breathing.

Dr. Havas said that low-level electrical currents can be more dangerous to the human body than currents at a higher reading.

"Our health agencies have identified that if there's 60 microamps [0.06 milliamps] going through your heart, it can result in death through sudden cardiac arrest," said Dr. Havas.

Dr. Havas said that exposure to electrical currents can damage the body's communications systems, such as the nervous and the hormonal systems. She said that prolonged exposure to electrical currents will also exacerbate any biological weaknesses that already exist in the body.

"What it's doing is causing stress to the body,"  she added. "And the way that it will manifest itself is based on your biochemical and physiological weaknesses. So, if you've got a weak heart, it might show up as heart arrhythmia, for instance."

At the cellular level, said Havas, a specific difference in electrical potential is essential for sustained cell health.

"If you measured the outside and the inside of a cell in your body, it's not the same electrical potential - it has to be different," said Dr. Havas. "It has to be something like minus 70 millivolts. It's complicated, but if that decreases, then the cell might die."

In a sentiment echoed by Kavet, however, Havas admitted to a dearth of medical studies as to the long-term effects of stray currents.

"I think if we understood all of the mechanisms involved, we would be a lot further ahead. We do know that there's a correlation between people who have been exposed and their symptoms, whether they've been exposed to ground current or to a high-voltage transmission line and the electromagnetic fields that that emits," she said.

When I contacted Dr. Hooshmand's clinic in Florida, a representative explained that Hooshmand had retired in 2005 and was currently too ill to give an interview. I was also told that they had been unable to find anyone to continue the work that he had started in connection with the health effects of exposure to electrical current and electromagnetic fields.

According to Moulder, the presence of so many structural problems is an indicator that the electrical wiring within the homes is similarly faulty, and that the homes may be improperly grounded - a problem that he believes could explain many of the underlying issues at Desert Rose.

According to Hooshmand's book, Chronic Pain: Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Prevention and Management, patients who have suffered severe electrical injuries can experience depression, insomnia, akinetic or myoclonic seizures, cardiac arrhythmias and tremors within the first few weeks to months after the accident.

Kavet's own research has identified how 18 microamps (0.018 milliamps) of contact current produces average electric fields in tissue along its path that exceed 1 millivolt per meter. A National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Working Group accepts that, at and above that level, biological effects relevant to cancer have been reported in "numerous well-programmed studies."

Nevertheless, the weight of medical opinion is either ambivalent about the possible health affects of stray current, or else more assured that it's not a problem. Dr. John Moulder, professor and director of Radiation Biology at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a recognized authority on electromagnetic fields, said there's no evidence to suggest that long-term exposure to low-level stray currents is harmful to humans.

"All the hazards that I'm aware of have been proven acute," said Moulder. "There are acute hazards to these ungrounded systems - but the important thing here is the word acute. People and animals have been killed, but only because of acute hazards."

Moulder said that it's difficult to know whether the critical measurement is voltage or amperage: "High voltage and low amps are not dangerous, and high amps and low voltage is not dangerous. It's just a combination of the two. But again, I know of nothing to suggest that [stray current] is dangerous."

Burke agrees with Moulder and insists that any discussion around stray current is effectively redundant.

"Stray current is not considered an issue with the IEEE because it is voltage, not current, that creates the current, and shock, in the human body," said Burke. "The industry is pretty much in agreement as to the acceptable levels of stray voltage for humans and for cows. Stray voltage can come from the utility and from the home itself, and it can be very difficult to find the cause and mitigate the voltage itself."

Crumbling Houses

Desert Rose is a subsidized housing community of cozy dollhouses, generally well-tended-to inside and out, with little postage-stamp lawns, soaked green beneath the withering heat of the desert. The people who live there are on the whole a blue-collar, hard-working bunch, though far from the most affluent. Some who live there chose to do so primarily to help ease financial burdens - of children at college, for instance. For many, it's an opportunity to own their own home without the squeeze of a hefty mortgage. Many of the homes can be bought for a little more than $100,000.

The city of Palm Desert started building Desert Rose in 1994, with assistance from the Palm Desert Redevelopment Agency. In total, there are 161 single-family homes within the development. Their website boasts how demand to live in Desert Rose has always been high - before adding that occasionally, an owner decides to sell and a home becomes available.

But people are leaving Desert Rose more frequently than occasionally, residents report, especially the houses toward the substation end of the community. Within a six-home radius of the substation, at least two houses currently sit unoccupied.

One of the issues that have plagued the community for years is toxic mold. Sherry Kelly, who lives in Desert Rose with her son Kirk Finch, is another who had her home tested, and the results came back positive for toxic mold spores. In some cases, like that of Cassandre Clarke who lives in the house opposite to Kelly, long thin mushrooms up to a few inches in length sprout from the cracks in their baseboards.

"My home has really deteriorated in the last year," said Clarke. "The mushrooms are breaking through the baseboards all the time now. Even when I had the water turned off so that there was no water coming in, the mushrooms were still sprouting up. So there's obviously some kind of moisture beneath the house."

Blueberry Lane in Desert Rose runs parallel to the substation. A disclaimer in a California Association of Realtors draft rental agreement dated February 17, 2014, for one of the homes along Blueberry Lane, lists electromagnetic fields, mold (airborne, toxic or otherwise) and fungus as potential environmental hazards.

A resident at Desert Rose since 1998, Susan Cano has experienced many of the same symptoms as other residents there, including insomnia, tinnitus, memory loss and pain and numbness in her feet and legs. She said that the electrical wiring connecting her home to the garage was laid un-insulated in the soil through her back yard.

"When the people came to install the solar panels, they came across bare wires running from my house to the garage," said Cano. "The wires, they didn't have a conduit. The solar panel guys said that that is extremely dangerous."

Kelly said that in 2010, when Grid Alternatives, the company that installed the first solar panels at Desert Rose, pulled the building permit plans, they discovered that the rafters in the homes weren't in the same place as specified in the plans.

"And the foundations are all falling apart," added Kelly. "When I went into one home that someone had just moved into, as I walked in, I smelled this pungent smell, and then I saw the cracks in the foundations that were going in every which way. I've got a great big crack going through my kitchen. I firmly believe that it's the tiles I've put down that are holding it all together."

According to Moulder, the presence of so many structural problems is an indicator that the electrical wiring within the homes is similarly faulty, and that the homes may be improperly grounded - a problem that he believes could explain many of the underlying issues at Desert Rose.

"That is an indication that there's something wrong with the electrical wiring system in the house," said Moulder. "Small stray currents could indicate the potential of a much bigger electrical problem. But then, even if you weren't convinced that the biology doesn't matter, the presence of ground currents indicate that something is improperly grounded, and that can be trivial or that can be dangerous."

The presence of the Coachella Valley Water District whitewater storm channel, which runs along the north side of Desert Rose, adds yet another layer to the story. The storm channel, while dry for some time, is peppered with lush vegetation, including wetland plants like bulrushes, indicating that underground aquifers lie beneath the outwardly dry wash.

"Electricity can travel through areas where there is high moisture," said Johnson. "That's usually an area of lower resistance, so the current would actually flow through those areas more than they would dry areas."

As uncertainty and fear lingers over Desert Rose, Seacrist's health continues to worsen. Her hands still shake involuntarily as she talks, and she shifts around when seated as though perched upon a hotplate, unable to find a comfortable position.

"My feet turn red, then purple," Seacrist said. "They swell up the size of a balloon. Last week I fell - they had turned completely green. I couldn't feel them. My doctor told me that I will most likely end up in a wheelchair. But it's so strange what's happening to so many healthy people here. So many young healthy people having strokes, seizures."

While Seacrist has grown philosophical about her own condition, the health of her son and granddaughter are at the forefront of her concerns.

"I visit him everyday to make sure that's he's OK," Seacrist said of her son, McDonald, who moved to another house in Palm Desert. "The doctor said that he should have someone with him constantly because he could have a seizure anytime. When he does, he stops breathing, and he breaks bones. He's on a lot of medication - we see a lot of doctors and neurologists."

Seacrist's granddaughter Malia, now 15, still lives with her at Desert Rose. According to Seacrist, Malia also suffers from a number of health-related issues, including chronic headaches, upper respiratory infections and panic attacks.

"She kept it from me for a long time," said Seacrist. "Then she started to stay at home a lot with sickness. She started missing school. She was always an A grade student. So she started being homeschooled. But she's stopped eating. She's lost so much weight."

Malia is angry, frustrated about recent deterioration in her health, said Seacrist.

"She used to play competitive cheer, but she can't do that anymore. My life's almost over, I can accept that. But she's so young - she's got her whole life ahead of her. All I wish now is that I can live long enough to see my granddaughter get married."

Note: I made numerous attempts to speak to someone at Southern California Edison for a response to the findings of my investigation, but they failed to get back to me before deadline.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Daniel Ross

Daniel Ross is an LA based journalist who regularly contributes to the Guardian, Vice Magazine and the Huffington Post, among others.


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Desert Rose and the Story of Stray Currents

Monday, 14 July 2014 10:05 By Daniel Ross, Truthout | Report

A view of the Desert Rose sign at the very entrance of the community. (Photo: Daniel Ross)A view of the Desert Rose sign at the very entrance of the community. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

When Kathy Seacrist looks back over the past eight or so years, 2007 marked the beginning of a long nightmare. It was the year that her son, John McDonald, 37 at the time, started suffering from seizures.

"John was so healthy. Ate healthy. Everything. He was really buff. All my girlfriends fancied him," she said. McDonald, his daughter Malia, and Seacrist all lived together at her home in Desert Rose, a subsidized housing community in Palm Desert, California.

In 2009, Seacrist's own health began to deteriorate rapidly. "It started with terrible sinus infections and got progressively worse. I had slurred speech, my hands couldn't stop shaking," she said. By 2010, Seacrist, naturally slight, almost birdlike, someone always proud of staying trim and fit, thought that she was on the brink of death. "I was down to 82 pounds. For a while, doctors thought that I had MS. I told my mom, 'If it's my time to go, it's my time to go.' "

Tests conducted in her home in 2010 revealed the presence of toxic mold spores. "The whole insides of the walls were covered black with mold," she said. As a result, Seacrist tore out the walls, threw away all of her furniture and conducted ozone shock treatment in her home - a treatment designed to kill all of the toxic mold spores. In April 2011, Seacrist and her son filed a lawsuit against the City of Palm Desert for damages resulting from there being no condensation line connected to the air conditioning unit in her home.

Despite ridding her home of mold, Seacrist's health continued to decline.

The original symptoms didn't fade, and were exacerbated by insomnia. She started getting knifing migraines, heart palpitations and found herself slipping into a slump of depression. She began experiencing stabbing pains in her feet and legs that were so severe that she eventually had to leave her job as a waitress at the nearby Fantasy Springs Casino through disability.

Desert Rose resident Kathy Seacrist. Seacrist said that her doctor has told her that she could soon be wheelchair bound. (Photo: Daniel Ross)Desert Rose resident Kathy Seacrist. Seacrist said that her doctor has told her that she could soon be wheelchair bound. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

"It started getting so bad that by the end of my shift, it felt like all of the bones in both feet were breaking," she said. "Pains shooting up my leg. It was so weird. My hearing became so sensitive, too; the slightest noise felt like knives going in my ears. But on February 27 of last year, I had just finished, clocked out, took off my shoes and sat there. I didn't even think I could make it to my car I was in that much agony. That was my last day at work."

The issue of stray currents is a muddy, complicated one, made all the murkier by an array of differing expert opinions and a lack of comprehensive testing as to the human health effects of long-term exposure to low-level electrical currents.

In December 2013, Seacrist and her son, represented by the law firm of Swanson and Peluso, filed another lawsuit against Southern California Edison. The community of Desert Rose is separated from the Indian Wells electrical substation by the width of a narrow lane, and the lawsuit claims that Seacrist and McDonald's illnesses are the result of electrical current passing via the earth back to the substation - a phenomenon widely called stray current, and one more commonly known to harm dairy cattle.

The narrow lane separating the Indian Wells substation on the left from the Palm Desert community of Desert Rose, on the right. (Photo: Daniel Ross)The narrow lane separating the Indian Wells substation on the left from the Palm Desert community of Desert Rose, on the right. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

But while Seacrist, now 58, and her son are the only plaintiffs in the lawsuit, a significant number of residents, especially those residing toward the substation end of the community, share an array of similar medical symptoms with Seacrist and her son - symptoms that some medical experts believe are associated with prolonged exposure to low-level electrical currents.

Many long-time residents of Desert Rose, like Peter Kulesh, have suffered a laundry list of chronic illnesses. His includes malignant melanoma, prostate cancer, a mini stroke and a massive heart attack. Others, like Kulesh's wife, Dawn, tell of living for years with severe depression, of having hands that constantly tremble, of forgetfulness and slurred speech.

Residents like Annette Guzman, tell of having their life ruined by insomnia. "Everybody that's ever lived in this house can't sleep for nothing. Don't know why, we just can't sleep, not even the dog," Guzman said. Others, like Michele Fisher, describe some of the more common health issues experienced by Desert Rose residents: waking up in the morning riven with painful leg cramps, chronic dental problems, high-blood pressure and ringing in ears.

Resident Sherry Kelly, describes the experience of having a throbbing, burning sensation in their feet and legs when they stand barefoot on the floors within their homes. "And every time I put my right leg in my bathtub, the middle three toes cramp up - they point straight up and the pain shoots up my back," said Kelly. "While the burning sensation is constant pretty much all day, it gets worse when I take a shower."

Desert Rose resident, Sherry Kelly, and her son Kirk Finch. (Photo: Daniel Ross)Desert Rose resident, Sherry Kelly, and her son Kirk Finch. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

The issue of stray currents is, in any number of ways, a muddy, complicated one, made all the murkier by an array of differing expert opinions and a lack of comprehensive testing as to the human health effects of long-term exposure to low-level electrical currents. Even the terminology used to explain the problem differs from expert to expert, with terms like stray voltage, stray current, uncontrolled voltage and uncontrolled current used interchangeably.

For the sake of simplicity, I will stick almost exclusively with the term stray current throughout the piece.

We can define stray current as any continuous current (other than momentary fault current) that flows over the earth, metallic piping, building steel and into houses and farms - a stray electrical current detrimental to the health of humans and animals.

But multiple strands tie the story of Desert Rose into something of a Gordian knot. Many of the homes are beset with structural problems, which lead experts to believe that faulty wiring within the homes could also play a significant part. What testing has been done at Desert Rose to identify stray currents leaves a number of important questions unanswered. What is more, the issue of toxic mold - a problem with chronic health consequences - isn't confined solely to Seacrist's, but exists in multiple homes within the community.

As many see it, stray currents are a growing problem for utility companies keen to downplay their dangers for fear of a mushroom of expensive lawsuits. But are the dangers exaggerated, as others put it, by opportunistic lawyers keen to pounce on the latest health scare? For many within Desert Rose, they feel as though the wheels are moving all too slowly as they wait anxiously to find out.

The Story of Stray Currents

Before plunging headlong into the issue, Jim Burke, an electrical engineer with over 46 years in the industry and the author of over 140 technical papers, said that it's useful to have a basic grasp of the fundamentals of electricity. And these essential principles can be boiled down to the following: Voltage is the amount of impetus pushing current; current is the electrical flow; and resistance is, as the name implies, the resistance that the current meets.

"Voltage equals current multiplied by resistance. That's Ohm's law, the fundamental equation of electrical engineering," Burke told Truthout. "What it means is that you get voltage if you have current and resistance. So, if you have a lot of current and low resistance, you don't get a lot of voltage."

As for stray currents, the roots of the problem stretch back to the 1880s. When the inventor Thomas Edison built the first electrical distribution system for direct current, he used the earth as a pathway for the electricity to return to its source.

"That's how the Brooklyn Dodgers got their name," said Tom Shaughnessy, vice president of the PowerCET Corporation and co-author of a book on power and grounding.

"During the electrification of Downtown Brooklyn, the electricity [passing via the earth] would cause the horses pulling trollies to rear and start, and people would have to dodge the trollies to avoid them. That's how they got to be known as the trolley dodgers - and then, they became the Brooklyn Dodgers," said Shaughnessy.

According to Stetzer, the closer you get to the substation, the amount of electrical current flowing along the ground increases.

To rectify the problem, Edison adopted a three-wire electrical distribution system, said Donald Zipse, Life Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The three-wire system involves two "hot wires" distributing electricity to where needed, and a neutral return wire bringing the electricity back to the source. The three-wire system is the basis of electrical distribution in homes.

Zipse said that modern electrical distribution systems - which use alternating currents - are purposely designed, however, to use the earth as a return path back to the substation in conjunction with the neutral return wire. This is achieved through a multi-grounded neutral return system that provides a pathway for the electricity to pass into the earth at the transformer. The transformer is where voltage is either increased or decreased, and is the last juncture before electricity returns to the substation.

At the transformer, said Zipse, the neutral conductor returning to the substation is connected to a ground conductor into the earth. Therefore, while electricity can return to the substation along the neutral conductor, the ground conductor allows electricity to flow into the earth, providing another pathway back to the substation.

"With the multi-grounded neutral conductor connected to earth at least four times per mile and at each transformer and lightning arrester, there are now multiple paths over and through the earth that the hazardous electric current can flow over continuously, uncontrolled," said Zipse.

We can define stray current, he said, as any continuous current (other than momentary fault current), that flows over the earth, metallic piping, building steel and into houses and farms - a stray electrical current detrimental to the health of humans and animals.

"We have two uncontrolled factors here," said Zipse. "It's uncontrolled in how much current goes into the earth, and uncontrolled where in the earth that current returning to the substation flows."

Problems associated with stray currents are going to increase as modern technology becomes more sophisticated.

A growing number of experts agree that this is a problem. Dave Stetzer is the founder of Stetzer Electric and has been an electrician for well over 30 years. He said that as much as 70 percent of electricity returns to the substation through the earth, rather than along the neutral conductor.

"It would be nice of it all came back on a [neutral return] wire - if it did, we wouldn't be having this conversation," said Stetzer. "But in 1998, there were two independent studies done: one by the Electrical Power Research Institute, and one by the Minnesota Science Advisors. They found that 70 percent of all the current that goes out on the phase [hot] wires returns to the substation through the earth."

According to Stetzer, the closer you get to the substation, the amount of electrical current flowing along the ground increases.

"We all know that it has to return to the substation. So now you have to ask: Where's the highest amount of ground current concentration going to be? And the answer is, next to the substation," said Stetzer. "So, if you build a house next to a substation, or a substation is built next to your house, you're going to have a high amount of ground current going through there."

Dr. Sam Milham, a medical epidemiologist whose primary sphere of expertise is electrical pollution, or dirty electricity, said that stray currents could explain what is happening at Desert Rose. And he said that problems associated with stray currents are going to increase as modern technology becomes more sophisticated.

This is because neutral return wires don't have the capacity to conduct high-frequency electrical currents caused by devices like modern computers and televisions, he said.

"What happens is, the return currents that they make are at high frequencies," said Milham. "High frequencies don't like to run on wires as easily as sixty-cycle, low-frequency electricity. It's called the skin affect. High frequencies like to run on the skin of the wires, so basically you need a thicker wire with greater capacity to carry higher frequency."

Rather than increase the capacity of the return wires, he said, utility companies rely on the earth to conduct the high-frequency return currents back to the substation: "Instead of beefing up the return on the return wires, they dump 70 percent of it now into the earth at the transformers."

Soon after moving into the farm, Carol experienced a number of electric shocks, including a spike of ground current so strong, she was knocked off her feet.

There's far from a consensus as to the dangers surrounding stray current, however. According to Dr. Robert Kavet, senior technical executive at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the multi-grounded return system is designed intentionally to give electricity another pathway back to the substation in case of a distribution system failure.

"You want the [earth] to be available for the current back to the substation," said Kavet. "If you had just one pathway, and that failed, you would have a very serious electrical issue in your home."

"The topic is a very confused topic," said Burke, who added that, while it's true that the vast majority of electrical distribution systems use the earth as a pathway back to the substation, the system was designed this way for reasons of cost, overcurrent protection advantages and customer safety.

"They call it stray current, but it's kind of a misnomer because the current is not really stray, it's supposed to be there - radio waves and home appliances use the earth also," said Burke. "You can't really accurately detect or correct the flow of current in the earth. To the best of my knowledge, having dealt with this topic for over 40 years, there should be no medical reason to be concerned with earth currents unless they create 'stray voltages,' which are easily measured."

Stray Currents and Dairy Herds

The problem of stray current has long been an issue in rural areas of America. As the electrification of America's farms intensified, rural electrical distribution systems weren't always equipped to cope with the increased loads. This has resulted in a vast number of farms and farmers bedeviled by the effects of stray current (or stray voltage, as it is most commonly referred to in relation to farms).

Dairy cows, which are particularly sensitive to the effects of electrical currents and more so than humans, were the primary casualties. In cows that are affected, milk production plummets. In the most extreme instances, cows are killed through electrocution.

Chris Hardie, former local news editor of the La Crosse Tribune, a Wisconsin newspaper, published a series of articles documenting the plight of farmers whose lives were ruined by stray current. Hardie was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for the series.

Hardie told the stories of a number of farming families in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, including that of Carol and Mike Gunner who bought a farm in Clark County in Granton in the fall of 1995. Soon after moving into the farm, Carol experienced a number of electric shocks, including a spike of ground current so strong, she was knocked off her feet. She had been walking barefoot at the time, Hardie reports.

The health effects of stray currents on dairy cattle is relatively clear-cut. In contrast, the human health effects can be far subtler, and much harder to quantify as a result.

Four years later, when the series was first published and after 68 of their cows had died, the Gunners had been driven into bankruptcy. What is more, Mike and Carol Gunner's health had deteriorated to the extent that Carol had been certified disabled, while Mike was in the final process of his disability proceedings.

As the series progressed, however, various state utility companies attempted to strong-arm the LaCrosse Tribune into pulling the rest of the articles from publication.

"Half way through the series, we had a local and state delegation of utility officials requesting a meeting with, at that time, myself, the editor and the publisher of the Tribune," said Hardie. "This was because [the utility officials] had concerns about the series and what was published in the paper."

Hardie said that the utility officials couldn't find anything factually inaccurate with what he had reported. The issues they had centered around the bona fides of the sources he turned to for information.

"What transpired through the course of that meeting was a very specific attack on the credibility of the people I interviewed," said Hardie. "It was pretty obvious from the get-go that they didn't like the stories, and anybody that I interviewed that had a point that was contrary to their view point, they engaged on some credibility issues with those people."

"It is clear that it is the current that causes a reaction in humans, not the voltage. Measuring voltage in and of itself is erroneous. That's what the utilities do - they only measure voltage."

One of those sources targeted, said Hardie, was Dr. Hooshang Hooshmand - a Florida-based neurologist and a specialist in electrical injuries. He's received numerous and notable awards and memberships within the medical community.

Hardie said that, during the meeting, the utility heads produced a document that showed how Hooshmand was convicted of Medicare fraud.

"But he was still a practicing doctor," said Hardie. "His conviction didn't mean that he didn't have any credibility in the medical field. But that was kind of the tone of the meeting."

According to Spark Burmaster, a Wisconsin based electrical engineer who works with farmers to resolve issues of stray current, the health effects of stray currents on dairy cattle is relatively clear-cut. In contrast, the human health effects can be far subtler, and much harder to quantify as a result.

"The farmer has a measurable parameter because a dairy farmer can keep records for their dairy operation. They can see the milk production records go down, and see that they're losing money. Then, they fix their electrical system and see that it gets dramatically better in an instant," said Burmaster. "In humans, you obviously can't gauge it the same way."

Because of these hovering question marks over possible human health effects, conflicting ideas are floated as to what to measure to identify potential risk to humans.

According to Zipse, the current is the most important measurement to take to gauge the human health effects of long-term exposure to low-level electrical currents, as opposed to testing solely for voltage.

"It is clear that it is the current that causes a reaction in humans, not the voltage," Zipse said. "Measuring voltage in and of itself is erroneous. That's what the utilities do - they only measure voltage."

Zipse said that people living in concrete pad-type housing with copper or metallic piping - such as those occupied by the residents of Desert Rose - are subjected to continuous current, regardless of the voltage.

"Current is equal to voltage divided by resistance, so you have to make voltage measurements and resistance measurements at the same time to get current," said Zipse. "The problem is, the resistance of the human body varies depending on what type of body we have. Is it an infant? Is it a young child? Is it a pre-teen? Is it a male or a female? There are so many elements, that to simply measure the voltage and to make an assumption of the resistance of the body is erroneous."

Burke agrees that current rather than voltage is what causes humans harm. However, he believes that voltage should be the pivotal unit of measurement.

 "It doesn't take much current to kill you, that's absolutely true, but in order to get current across your body, then you need voltage across your body. You can't just take current out of the ground and put it though your body."

In order, Burke said, for the current to pass through the body, one part needs to be touching an electrical conductor (like a metal faucet) at one voltage, and another part of the body needs to be touching another conductor (like the floor) at a different voltage - in essence, there needs to be a voltage differential between separate parts of your body for the current to pass through it.

"You have to have one part of your body at one voltage, and another part of your body at another voltage to create current. So, if the showerhead is five volts and the floor is zero volts, those five volts across your body may create a small nonlethal current which you might feel. Stray voltage is generally less than 5 volts," he said.

In September of last year, Southern California Edison (S.C.E.) was ordered to pay Simona Wilson $4 million after she had suffered electrical shocks every time she took a shower in her home.

In contrast, Dr. Magda Havas, associate professor of Environmental & Resource Studies at Trent University, said that a human body can conduct electrical current simply through standing on electrified ground. She said that the direction of the current dictates how it flows through the body.

"If the electricity is flowing east to west, and you're standing facing north, it means that your left leg is further west and your right leg is further east," said Dr. Havas, who has been researching the biological effects of electromagnetic pollution since the mid '90s. "And in that case, there's going to be an electrical difference between both feet. Which means that it will go up one leg and down the other, and it goes right across your groin area."

Stetzer has conducted a number of studies looking into the flow of electrical current through cows. He said that, when a cow stands on electrified ground, he has been able to monitor a current that can travel up one leg, across the udder and down the other leg.

"I've shaved cows legs, put an [electrocardiogram] patch there and hooked them up to an oscilloscope to measure the amount of current flowing through them," said Stetzer. "When they lift their leg up, the circuit is broken."

As for Dr. Milham, he said that it's not enough to simply measure either voltage or current. He believes that an understanding of the frequency of the electrical current is paramount to understanding any potential harm to humans.

"You can have very strong sixty-cycle fields running through your body, and they don't bother you as much as weak high-frequency fields," he said. "Though ultimately, it's the currents induced in the body which do the harm."

From Cattle to Humans

In September of last year, Southern California Edison (S.C.E.) was ordered to pay Simona Wilson $4 million after she had suffered electrical shocks every time she took a shower in her home.

Wilson, now 33, lived in a house built by S.C.E. in Knob Hill in Redondo Beach, California, with her three sons, all younger than 6 at the time. Knob Hill is situated adjacent to S.C.E.'s Topaz electrical substation. When Wilson's father replaced the old porcelain shower tub in her home - the tub was raised 2 feet from the floor - and installed a new shower unit, Wilson immediately started to suffer ill affects every time she used it.

"One of the problems that you have when you have a house or a residential area near a substation, you have these currents like we were measuring returning through your house back to the substation,"

Among the list of immediate health effects that Wilson is reported to have suffered were nausea, chronic headaches and fatigue. Soon after, she experienced numbness in her hands, feet and legs, after which spikes of sharp pain would shoot through them. As her conditioned worsened, there were times when Wilson lost all sensation in her hands and feet, causing her to fall over.

Stray current returning to the Topaz substation electrified her showerhead, and caused a current to flow through her body every time she touched it. Wilson is said to have ordinarily showered three times a day, and would adjust the showerhead during the latter two times daily to deflect the water from her hair. S.C.E. is reported to have known for decades about the stray voltage problem in the vicinity immediately surrounding the Topaz substation.

I tried on numerous occasions to schedule an interview with Wilson, but we were unable to arrange a time to talk before the story deadline.

Other residents of Knob Hill have filed lawsuits against S.C.E. In regards to the Barber /Richmond v. S.C.E. case, the Superior Court has stayed the civil action ruling while the Public Utilities Commission decides whether it has jurisdiction over the matter or whether the Superior Court has jurisdiction. The PUC is unable to award damages to plaintiffs. PUC president, Michael Peevey was formerly president of Edison International and Southern California Edison Company. The next Superior Court hearing is in September.

Tests to identify stray current have been conducted at Desert Rose, though they haven't been extensive. Last year, Don Johnson, a Wyoming based electrical engineer who is also licensed to operate in Colorado, tested 34 homes in Desert Rose. Johnson found stray currents up to just shy of 4.5 milliamps on the grounding systems within the homes.

Dr. Havas said that exposure to electrical currents can damage the body's communications systems, such as the nervous and the hormonal systems. She said that prolonged exposure to electrical currents will also exacerbate any biological weaknesses that already exist in the body.

Johnson said that he took readings with the house breakers on and off, to accurately gauge the currents that existed inside and outside of the homes. And he said that the readings he found weren't surprising given the proximity of the homes in Desert Rose to the Indian Wells substation.

"One of the problems that you have when you have a house or a residential area near a substation, you have these currents like we were measuring returning through your house back to the substation," said Johnson.

In humans, the body's resistance would differ depending upon how wet it is, Johnson added. The wetter the body, the lower the resistance. He said that he used a 470 ohm resister when he took the measurements - typical of the kind of resistance that a human body would have when wet.

"So, if you're wet or sweating or something similar, what we measured was roughly how much current would be flowing through your body," he said.

The levels that Johnson found were anywhere between 0.21 milliamps and 4.49 milliamps.

According to Zipse, men and women experience the effects of electrical shocks at different levels. Women, he said, will feel a shock when exposed to 1.2 milliamps of electric current, though it won't be painful. At 6 milliamps, women will experience a painful shock and will suffer muscular control loss. At exposure to approximately 15 milliamps, women will have trouble breathing.

Dr. Havas said that low-level electrical currents can be more dangerous to the human body than currents at a higher reading.

"Our health agencies have identified that if there's 60 microamps [0.06 milliamps] going through your heart, it can result in death through sudden cardiac arrest," said Dr. Havas.

Dr. Havas said that exposure to electrical currents can damage the body's communications systems, such as the nervous and the hormonal systems. She said that prolonged exposure to electrical currents will also exacerbate any biological weaknesses that already exist in the body.

"What it's doing is causing stress to the body,"  she added. "And the way that it will manifest itself is based on your biochemical and physiological weaknesses. So, if you've got a weak heart, it might show up as heart arrhythmia, for instance."

At the cellular level, said Havas, a specific difference in electrical potential is essential for sustained cell health.

"If you measured the outside and the inside of a cell in your body, it's not the same electrical potential - it has to be different," said Dr. Havas. "It has to be something like minus 70 millivolts. It's complicated, but if that decreases, then the cell might die."

In a sentiment echoed by Kavet, however, Havas admitted to a dearth of medical studies as to the long-term effects of stray currents.

"I think if we understood all of the mechanisms involved, we would be a lot further ahead. We do know that there's a correlation between people who have been exposed and their symptoms, whether they've been exposed to ground current or to a high-voltage transmission line and the electromagnetic fields that that emits," she said.

When I contacted Dr. Hooshmand's clinic in Florida, a representative explained that Hooshmand had retired in 2005 and was currently too ill to give an interview. I was also told that they had been unable to find anyone to continue the work that he had started in connection with the health effects of exposure to electrical current and electromagnetic fields.

According to Moulder, the presence of so many structural problems is an indicator that the electrical wiring within the homes is similarly faulty, and that the homes may be improperly grounded - a problem that he believes could explain many of the underlying issues at Desert Rose.

According to Hooshmand's book, Chronic Pain: Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Prevention and Management, patients who have suffered severe electrical injuries can experience depression, insomnia, akinetic or myoclonic seizures, cardiac arrhythmias and tremors within the first few weeks to months after the accident.

Kavet's own research has identified how 18 microamps (0.018 milliamps) of contact current produces average electric fields in tissue along its path that exceed 1 millivolt per meter. A National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Working Group accepts that, at and above that level, biological effects relevant to cancer have been reported in "numerous well-programmed studies."

Nevertheless, the weight of medical opinion is either ambivalent about the possible health affects of stray current, or else more assured that it's not a problem. Dr. John Moulder, professor and director of Radiation Biology at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a recognized authority on electromagnetic fields, said there's no evidence to suggest that long-term exposure to low-level stray currents is harmful to humans.

"All the hazards that I'm aware of have been proven acute," said Moulder. "There are acute hazards to these ungrounded systems - but the important thing here is the word acute. People and animals have been killed, but only because of acute hazards."

Moulder said that it's difficult to know whether the critical measurement is voltage or amperage: "High voltage and low amps are not dangerous, and high amps and low voltage is not dangerous. It's just a combination of the two. But again, I know of nothing to suggest that [stray current] is dangerous."

Burke agrees with Moulder and insists that any discussion around stray current is effectively redundant.

"Stray current is not considered an issue with the IEEE because it is voltage, not current, that creates the current, and shock, in the human body," said Burke. "The industry is pretty much in agreement as to the acceptable levels of stray voltage for humans and for cows. Stray voltage can come from the utility and from the home itself, and it can be very difficult to find the cause and mitigate the voltage itself."

Crumbling Houses

Desert Rose is a subsidized housing community of cozy dollhouses, generally well-tended-to inside and out, with little postage-stamp lawns, soaked green beneath the withering heat of the desert. The people who live there are on the whole a blue-collar, hard-working bunch, though far from the most affluent. Some who live there chose to do so primarily to help ease financial burdens - of children at college, for instance. For many, it's an opportunity to own their own home without the squeeze of a hefty mortgage. Many of the homes can be bought for a little more than $100,000.

The city of Palm Desert started building Desert Rose in 1994, with assistance from the Palm Desert Redevelopment Agency. In total, there are 161 single-family homes within the development. Their website boasts how demand to live in Desert Rose has always been high - before adding that occasionally, an owner decides to sell and a home becomes available.

But people are leaving Desert Rose more frequently than occasionally, residents report, especially the houses toward the substation end of the community. Within a six-home radius of the substation, at least two houses currently sit unoccupied.

One of the issues that have plagued the community for years is toxic mold. Sherry Kelly, who lives in Desert Rose with her son Kirk Finch, is another who had her home tested, and the results came back positive for toxic mold spores. In some cases, like that of Cassandre Clarke who lives in the house opposite to Kelly, long thin mushrooms up to a few inches in length sprout from the cracks in their baseboards.

"My home has really deteriorated in the last year," said Clarke. "The mushrooms are breaking through the baseboards all the time now. Even when I had the water turned off so that there was no water coming in, the mushrooms were still sprouting up. So there's obviously some kind of moisture beneath the house."

Blueberry Lane in Desert Rose runs parallel to the substation. A disclaimer in a California Association of Realtors draft rental agreement dated February 17, 2014, for one of the homes along Blueberry Lane, lists electromagnetic fields, mold (airborne, toxic or otherwise) and fungus as potential environmental hazards.

A resident at Desert Rose since 1998, Susan Cano has experienced many of the same symptoms as other residents there, including insomnia, tinnitus, memory loss and pain and numbness in her feet and legs. She said that the electrical wiring connecting her home to the garage was laid un-insulated in the soil through her back yard.

"When the people came to install the solar panels, they came across bare wires running from my house to the garage," said Cano. "The wires, they didn't have a conduit. The solar panel guys said that that is extremely dangerous."

Kelly said that in 2010, when Grid Alternatives, the company that installed the first solar panels at Desert Rose, pulled the building permit plans, they discovered that the rafters in the homes weren't in the same place as specified in the plans.

"And the foundations are all falling apart," added Kelly. "When I went into one home that someone had just moved into, as I walked in, I smelled this pungent smell, and then I saw the cracks in the foundations that were going in every which way. I've got a great big crack going through my kitchen. I firmly believe that it's the tiles I've put down that are holding it all together."

According to Moulder, the presence of so many structural problems is an indicator that the electrical wiring within the homes is similarly faulty, and that the homes may be improperly grounded - a problem that he believes could explain many of the underlying issues at Desert Rose.

"That is an indication that there's something wrong with the electrical wiring system in the house," said Moulder. "Small stray currents could indicate the potential of a much bigger electrical problem. But then, even if you weren't convinced that the biology doesn't matter, the presence of ground currents indicate that something is improperly grounded, and that can be trivial or that can be dangerous."

The presence of the Coachella Valley Water District whitewater storm channel, which runs along the north side of Desert Rose, adds yet another layer to the story. The storm channel, while dry for some time, is peppered with lush vegetation, including wetland plants like bulrushes, indicating that underground aquifers lie beneath the outwardly dry wash.

"Electricity can travel through areas where there is high moisture," said Johnson. "That's usually an area of lower resistance, so the current would actually flow through those areas more than they would dry areas."

As uncertainty and fear lingers over Desert Rose, Seacrist's health continues to worsen. Her hands still shake involuntarily as she talks, and she shifts around when seated as though perched upon a hotplate, unable to find a comfortable position.

"My feet turn red, then purple," Seacrist said. "They swell up the size of a balloon. Last week I fell - they had turned completely green. I couldn't feel them. My doctor told me that I will most likely end up in a wheelchair. But it's so strange what's happening to so many healthy people here. So many young healthy people having strokes, seizures."

While Seacrist has grown philosophical about her own condition, the health of her son and granddaughter are at the forefront of her concerns.

"I visit him everyday to make sure that's he's OK," Seacrist said of her son, McDonald, who moved to another house in Palm Desert. "The doctor said that he should have someone with him constantly because he could have a seizure anytime. When he does, he stops breathing, and he breaks bones. He's on a lot of medication - we see a lot of doctors and neurologists."

Seacrist's granddaughter Malia, now 15, still lives with her at Desert Rose. According to Seacrist, Malia also suffers from a number of health-related issues, including chronic headaches, upper respiratory infections and panic attacks.

"She kept it from me for a long time," said Seacrist. "Then she started to stay at home a lot with sickness. She started missing school. She was always an A grade student. So she started being homeschooled. But she's stopped eating. She's lost so much weight."

Malia is angry, frustrated about recent deterioration in her health, said Seacrist.

"She used to play competitive cheer, but she can't do that anymore. My life's almost over, I can accept that. But she's so young - she's got her whole life ahead of her. All I wish now is that I can live long enough to see my granddaughter get married."

Note: I made numerous attempts to speak to someone at Southern California Edison for a response to the findings of my investigation, but they failed to get back to me before deadline.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Daniel Ross

Daniel Ross is an LA based journalist who regularly contributes to the Guardian, Vice Magazine and the Huffington Post, among others.


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