The Case for Safety

Is this a case of an industry policing itself?

When it comes to radio frequencies (RF), safety can be mighty tough to define. Many people who warn about the risks of nonionizing radiation below thermal levels, including B. Blake Levitt, the Connecticut-based author of the award-winning 1995 book Electromagnetic Fields: A Consumer's Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves, hold that the FCC's standards are not nearly as strict as they should be.

"They're allowed to be that high because they're based on engineering models, not biological models," says Levitt, who has consulted with CARE and similar groups around the country. "And that's a significant thing. It means that the standards really parallel what the industry needs to have the equipment function, rather than on the consideration of adverse effects to biological systems in its path."

This is the fox-guarding-the-henhouse argument, and those making it cite plenty of evidence they think bolsters it. A favorite? The federal standard was set not by the FCC, but by an industry group, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and adopted by others like it, including the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

To FCC senior scientist Dr. Robert Cleveland, such assertions fall flat under closer scrutiny. The committees that set standards for the IEEE contain a great many biologists, doctors and others with particular knowledge of the human body, he says. This emotion is seconded by industry consultant Richard A. Tell, the chairman of a working group within the IEEE that is reevaluating current RF safety limits. (He also collaborated with Cleveland in a 1986 report about RF on Lookout Mountain that found only one station on the site, country outlet KYGO, to have elevated readings.)

"The standard is developed out of a subcommittee that includes all kinds of biological researchers and physicians," Tell says. "It's not that it's something hatched out of the minds of a few engineers that don't really understand the biology at all. There's considerable effort to see that these committees are balanced...the result is a standard based objectively on the scientific consensus of what's going on out there. I can't imagine that there'd be any way to put out a standard if it misrepresented what the science has to say." (RF critics frequently note that several other countries, including Russia and China, have RF standards many times stricter than the U.S. version. But Tell says there's no good research to justify these levels, and he expects a global consensus to eventually accept numbers close, if not identical, to the ones used here.)

At the same time, Tell acknowledges that the majority of research currently taking place on the RF question in this country is being financed either by industry concerns such as Motorola or by the military. But he doesn't feel this should call its accuracy into question. "Government folks have a strong interest in protecting their people from RF as well."

Jim Merritt agrees. He's one of the experts overseeing RF research at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, at what he refers to as "the largest facility in the world for examining the biological effects of this kind of radiation."

The reason for the Department of Defense's interest in this subject should be obvious, he says. "The department is the world's largest user of microwave and RF radiation. There are something like 5,000 different types of emitters used by the different branches of the armed services, and tens of thousands of devices ranging from cellular telephones to much more complicated apparatuses. And since these emitters are putting out this type of radiation into the environment, the DOD wants to be sure that there are no health effects on either its own personnel or the general public at large."

To that end, says Larry Farlow, who handles public information chores at Brooks, the base includes "the most advanced laboratory of its type, period. The Navy has even built a platform with a steel plate on it to duplicate the environment of an aircraft carrier -- because when you think about it, the 5,000 guys on a carrier are probably the most concentrated group of human beings exposed to any of this."

"If you're on board a ship, you can't get away from the transmitter or the antennas. There's nowhere else you can go," Merritt adds. "There are actually places on many ships where there are red marks on the deck or the floors to show where there are dangerous levels of radiation, and it's a real problem to keep those spaces clear of personnel." But in terms of RF under the widely accepted limits, "we haven't found any harmful effects -- and we've done an enormous amount of research at universities and other institutions around the world to try and find any that might exist."

For instance, Merritt cites a study done by a group the department funded at King's College in London that failed to provide evidence of DNA damage. "The energy in ionizing radiation, like X rays and gamma rays, has enough energy in it to break chemical bonds, and thereby do things to DNA," he explains. "But the energy in microwaves and RF is millions of times less, and doesn't put off enough energy to break chemical bonds. It's impossible for it to happen. That's the consensus of the scientists involved in this."

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.

But while both believe that the evidence about RF is extremely troubling, they concede that the proof remains weak. Kelly puts stock in studies that suggest a higher rate of miscarriage among women exposed to RF (one Finnish report showed a fourfold increase for women working on computers that put off high EMF levels), and says that other surveys have hinted at sleep disturbances and reduced mental capacities in children under such circumstances. However, she knows that "there are definitely studies that show there are no problems at all. So even though, in my opinion, there are enough things in the literature that suggest there may be problems, and argue to me that we shouldn't take a chance, others might be able to look at it and say, 'This falls into a gray area.'"

Weil shares Kelly's frustrations. In March 1999, he was one of ten staffers from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, where he worked at the time, to sign a letter sent to Jefferson County commissioners opposing the digital tower. But he says that even though "there's a lot of smoke surrounding these emissions, I can't put it with any fire, based on the studies available. The numbers aren't well-understood." As a result, his argument against the tower is based less on clinical verification that the basic tenets of his craft.

"It's real simple," he says. "In medicine, the prime directive is, 'First, do no harm.' So if there appears to be at least a potential for risk, why expose children to it? To me, it's just a no-brainer."

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