Inspiration from Tragedy

Law student’s loss shapes career goals

On Nov. 26, 2004, my aunt, the late Regina Ann Spears, died of metastatic stage IV breast cancer. She was 37. Though she was my aunt, she was more like an older sister to me. She was my role model, my best friend – the strongest and most beautiful person in the world to me.

My aunt started working for New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority as a conductor and later a tower operator in her early twenties. She had no reason to believe this employment could be detrimental to her health since the subway is powered by electricity and causes neither air nor water pollution. Like many, my aunt considered the use of electricity a savvy environmental improvement that would translate into better health for the citizens of the community.

The third-rail conductor that operates the transit authority’s trains is powered by 625 volts of direct current.(2) This converts into 495,900 kilowatts of electricity radiating through its subway system during peak hours.(3) Annually, the transit system utilizes 1.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity – enough power to light up Buffalo, N.Y., for an entire year.(4) Thus, transit authority employees are continually exposed to immense amounts of electricity.

When power is produced, utilized or transmitted, electrical material and machinery generate electric fields.(5) Certain devices have parts that result in the formation of not only an electrical component, but a magnetic component as well.(6) This type of field is called an electromagnetic field. The strength of the field decreases as the distance from the source increases.(7) A greater electrical force envelopes someone’s body the closer she stands to the source.  

The human body is composed of cells that display electrical properties. Even basic cellular processes in the body rely on the flow of electrons and charged particles. In addition, the cells of the nervous system and the cells of the heart rely on measureable electrical signaling to transmit information to keep the body alive. Is it possible that being exposed to a powerful electrical force may exert some adverse effects on the delicate electrical balance of the human body?

Until recently, this question had not garnered serious public interest. Studies aimed at determining whether humans are adversely affected by electrical fields yielded wildly inconsistent results. Some indicated that electrical fields do exert harmful health effects on humans(8); other studies revealed no such effects.(9)

There are more than 18 epidemiological studies that reveal a statistically significant association between exposure to low frequency electromagnetic fields and breast cancer in both men and women.(10)  One study revealed a 100-fold increase in risk for male breast cancer; the study involved three men who worked in the same office – they all developed breast cancer. It was discovered that their office was located right next to a very powerful electrical switch gear.(11)  A study of Polish women in 2007 revealed that women who were electronic and electric equipment manufacturers had a risk factor of 1.7, which is a 70 percent increase in risk of developing breast cancer.(12)  While epidemiological studies can reveal possible associations, they do not show causation like in vivo studies can. An in vivo study revealed low frequency electromagnetic fields can promote mammary tumors in animals.(13)

The electromagnetic radiation produced by transit rails is likely to have insidious effects on human health. I avidly believe that the electromagnetic radiation that enveloped my aunt for eight hours a day, five days a week over a 13-year period, significantly contributed to her untimely, painful death. My aunt’s death has left me with an acute fear of cancer and a new sense of urgency about our responsibility to establish safe work environments.

Because of my loss, I have gained a passion for practicing environmental law. I aspire to use my law degree to diligently enforce existing environmental laws and to advocate for additional regulations designed to protect the environment and the people within it.



(1) Spears, Class of 2011, wants to practice environmental law upon graduation.
(2) New York City Subway, (last visited April 2010).
(3) Id.
(4) Id.
5. Stephen J. Genuis, Fielding a Current Idea: Exploring the Public Health Impact of Electromagnetic Radiation, JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL INSTITUTE OF PUBLIC HEALTH, April 2, 2007, at 3.
(6) Id. at 3.
(7) Id.
(8) Id.
(9) Magda Havas, Breast Cancer and Occupational Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields, REPORT TO THE WORKPLACE SAFETY AND INSURANCE APPEALS TRIBUNAL, Nov. 18, 2008, at 4, 5.
(10) Id. at 4.
(11) Samuel Milham, A Cluster of Male Breast Cancer in Officer Workers, 46 Am. J. Ind. Med. 86-87 (2004).
(12) Beata Peplonska et al., Occupation and Breast Cancer Risk in Polish Women: A Population-Based Case-Control Study, 50 Am. J. Ind. Med. 97-111 (2007).
(13) Havas at 4.