ALBANY, July 8— A study issued today by the New York State Health Department says that children with leukemia or brain cancer are more likely than healthy children to be living in homes where the exposure to the magnetic fields generated by electric power lines is high.
In addition to the higher incidence of childhood cancer, the study suggests that exposure to a magnetic field causes behavorial changes in laboratory animals.
Researchers were quick to note that they could not explain the higher incidence of cancer and that the study did not establish a direct cause-and-effect link. Other variables not measured by the study could be factors in the development of cancer, for which the incidence among children is 1 in 10,000 each year.
''It is not obvious what a mechanism of inducing cancer might be,'' said Dr. David Carpenter, who oversaw the study. ''That remains a major problem.'' 'Reason for Concern'
The study's findings ''should not be cause for panic,'' said Dr. Carpenter, dean of the School of Public Health Sciences at the State University of New York at Albany. But he added that the conclusions ''indicate some real reason for concern.''
He said the study should prompt further research on the health effects of electromagnetic fields and could lead to standards for human exposure. Only in the Soviet Union, according to the study, do such standards exist.
The study combines the findings of 16 new research projects on the health effects of exposure to electromagnetic fields. It is a result of a decision by the State Public Service Commission, which ruled in 1978 that two high-voltage transmission lines could be built in upstate New York if a research program were established to study the associated health risks.
While the study was prompted by concern about the electric fields produced by high-voltage wires, greater risks of childhood cancer were found to be associated with the magnetic fields produced by wires carrying high currents. No correlation was found among adults.
High-voltage wires are used for transmitting electricity over long distances through rural areas. Ordinary transmission wires found in residential neighborhoods may carry high currents if they are thick enough and close to power substations.
A total of $5 million was contributed for the research program, called the New York State Powerlines Project, by the New York State Power Authority and the state's seven investor-owned utilities. These include Consolidated Edison and the Long Island Lighting Company.
Research contracts were awarded by an advisory panel made up of experts in a variety of fields, including biochemistry, genetics, neurology and engineering. The panel screened applicants not only for their scientific expertise, but also for their lack of financial or professional conflicts of interest.
Dr. Carpenter said many of the scientists who participated in the project were surprised by the results. He said they had expected to find no correlation between exposure to electromagnetic fields and adverse health effects.
The most serious concern raised by the study comes from a research project suggesting that 10 to 15 percent of all childhood cancer cases might be attributable to magnetic fields.
The project, conducted in Denver, replicated an earlier study in that city that also found a correlation between the incidence of childhood cancer and the proximity of homes to the low-frequency magnetic fields produced by power lines. The new study shows the incidence of childhood cancer to be highest in homes closest to transmission wires designed to carry extremely high currents.
Household appliances also generate magnetic fields, but researchers found little correlation between the presence of appliances and the incidence of cancer.
Leonard Sagan, manager of the Radiation Sciences Program at the Electric Power Research Institute, said he had seen a copy of the Denver study in its preliminary form, but would not comment on it.

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