The Case for Safety

Is this a case of an industry policing itself?

Merritt doesn't go so far as to claim that nonionizing radiation is completely risk-free; indeed, the military, represented by Brooks, is currently funding a study at University of Lund in Sweden about the impact of microwaves on the brain. (Another Swedish group reported that low levels of RF negatively affected the barrier of blood in the upper levels of vessels that feed the brain, thereby possibly allowing toxic materials to enter the organ itself. The Lund researchers are attempting to replicate these findings.)

In addition, he doesn't pretend that every mystery regarding brain tumors has been plumbed. "The central dogma in the detection of brain cancer is that nobody really knows what induces it. It's relatively rare, and it apparently takes a very long time to develop, so even though studies that have been done with cell telephones show no evidence that using them causes brain cancer, it may be years before we find out for certain."

A recent ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, stated that these uncertainties weren't enough to undermine the FCC's current standards. The Cellular Phone Task Force, a Brooklyn group supported by several likeminded organizations, had petitioned the court to toss out two FCC orders, 1996's "Guidelines for Evaluating the Environmental Effects of Radio-Frequency Radiation" and 1997's "Procedures for Reviewing Requests for Relief From State and Local Regulations," largely because of safety worries. They complained that the FCC was allowing broadcasters to police themselves (even the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency, griped that the rules allowed "undocumented self-certification of compliance"), and hadn't taken adequately into account studies involving the possible hazards of nonionizing radiation.

But in February, a three-judge panel rejected this line of thinking, with Judge John M. Walker, the decision's author, writing, "The argument that the FCC should create greater safety margins in its guidelines to account for uncertain data is a policy question, not a legal one. As a policy matter, an agency has some leeway...The FCC concluded that requiring exposure to be kept as low as reasonably achievable in the face of scientific uncertainty would be inconsistent with its mandate to 'balance between the need to protect the public and workers from exposure to potentially harmful RF electromagnetic fields and the requirement that the industry be allowed to provide telecommunications services to the public in the most efficient and practical manner possible.'"

John Osepchuk, a Concord, Massachusetts, consultant who's among the country's leading proponents of the no-thermal-effects-no-problem view of RF, sees this decision as absolutely key to the continued growth of the telecom industry. "One of the activists commented that the FCC should be required to practice some type of cautionary principle -- taking the maximum precautions just in case. But the court ruled that the FCC had correctly discarded that type of thinking. They're mandated to deliver and assure telecommunications because of the benefits that accrue to society, and they shouldn't jeopardize those benefits to some speculative what-if theory.

"There was an article in the Wall Street Journal saying that if this kind of thinking had dominated a hundred years ago, the automobile wouldn't have been allowed, because it could have been predicted that people might die in automobile accidents -- and yet we haven't outlawed cars. But by comparison, we're supposed to hesitate to use electromagnetic energy when the worst thing anyone can say is, 'Maybe there's something there, but we haven't found it'? I don't think so. After all, this stuff has been around for fifty years, and no one yet can point to someone who died because of a transmitter."

Maybe so; maybe not. In the late '80s, Beryl Main, the proprietor of a Lookout Mountain square-dancing venue dubbed the Lighted Lantern, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. In a lawsuit he filed on Main's behalf, attorney Bruce DeBoskey charged that his client's cancer was caused by RF emanating from an antenna belonging to KYGO that was located on his property. DeBoskey gathered medical studies and scientific testimony from what he says were "some of the big names in the field" in an effort to demonstrate a link between broadcast radiation and Main's cancer. He also armed himself with the 1986 FCC report that showed KYGO out of compliance with FCC standards.

But before he could test this information in court, the two sides settled for an amount both agreed to keep secret. KYGO subsequently moved its antenna to Squaw Mountain, touted by CARE as an excellent alternative site for all the broadcasters in their neighborhood. In some ways, DeBoskey regrets that the conflict never wound up in court: "It had some very powerful evidence of a causal relationship," he says. But in the end, no legal precedent was established -- and shortly after the ruling, Main died.

The prospect of still more cancer deaths on Lookout Mountain inspired Genesee residents Dr. Cynthia Kelly, a prominent area orthopedic oncologist, and Dr. Michael Weil, a radiation oncologist with a history of treating pediatric brain tumors, to get involved with CARE during its crusade to stop the digital tower.

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