Revising the Standards

A potential change in radio-frequency limits heats up a longstanding controversy.

Admittedly, Gordon Hamilton isn't the most objective person when it comes to the debate about the would-be hazards of radio- frequency emissions, known as RF.

Hamilton, a home-remodeling pro with a sideline in auto restoration, has lived on Jefferson County's Lookout Mountain, the location of the metro area's largest and most extensive antenna farm, since 1976. Today his house is so close to Channel 31's tower that it might be in danger were a strong wind to tip over the spindly structure. Therefore, he and his wife, Nancy Hamilton, spent most of the fifteen years they were married immersed in a miasma of television and radio waves that played havoc with their various gadgets. Gordon, for instance, can only get a handful of radio stations on his expensive Bose receiver because the appliance is so flooded with contradictory electronic signals -- and if he doesn't wrap his phone cord around his arm while making a call, assorted broadcasts crackle through the speaker more clearly than the voice of the person he's talking to. "There are also these noises that I hear in my shop," he allows. "The piping must act as an antenna, picking up some frequencies and magnifying them to an audible point."

But these annoyances are infinitesimal compared with what happened to Nancy. In November 2000, when she was in her early fifties, she discovered a lump on the roof of her mouth that grew steadily in size. The following March, she was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a fairly rare and especially deadly form of cancer that has been anecdotally linked to the nonionizing radiation associated with RF exposure. Doctors wanted to treat the tumor with a different type of radiation -- the ionizing sort, whose effects for good or ill are well documented. But Nancy, who'd witnessed the devastating impact of such therapy on a close friend who subsequently perished, decided to try a series of alternative cures instead. These methods didn't work, however, and in June, she began to slip away -- but not before expressing concerns that continue to haunt Gordon to this day.

Gordon Hamilton lives near the Lookout Mountain antenna farm.
John Johnston
Gordon Hamilton lives near the Lookout Mountain antenna farm.

"Some of her dying words were, 'If only you would have gotten me off this mountain...,'" he recalls. And then he breaks down.

Nancy's story provides powerful motivation for Lookout Mountain-area residents who object to the proposed addition of a digital tower to the antenna nest ("Tower Failure," January 24). But even as these protesters argue that nonionizing radiation poses serious health perils (a claim that's yet to be proven definitively), New York's Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is considering whether to relax its rules about radio frequencies -- and since the Federal Communications Commission uses the IEEE guidelines as its own, such a shift might well allow broadcasters like those with towers near the Hamilton abode to legally emit much higher RF levels than are currently permissible.

Predictably, the mere possibility of loosening RF standards has stoked the ire of folks such as Deb Carney, attorney for Canyon Area Residents for the Environment (CARE), a group that opposes new towers on Lookout Mountain. To her, the most important question is, "Are we going to use prudent avoidance of risk, or are we going to wait until there's absolute proof that continued exposure harms or kills before taking any action?"

Las Vegas-based Richard A. Tell, who's been heavily involved in IEEE's national-standards revision process, won't take that bait. He says study after study shows that RF exposure doesn't hurt people unless "the thermal effect" -- the level at which nonionizing radiation heats the body -- is triggered. "Some people don't want to hear that," notes Tell, who served as a consultant to Channel 4 during a previous attempt to put a digital tower on Lookout Mountain. He's presently providing services to Pinnacle Towers Inc., which wants to place a similar device on Eldorado Mountain, south of Boulder. "My simple response to them is 'Please show us where we have erred. Tell us where we're wrong.' And so far, they haven't been able to do that."

Even so, Tell emphasizes that "nothing we've talked about so far is in any sense of the word final." And indeed, the paper that's largely responsible for the latest RF brouhaha -- "IEEE Standard for Safety Levels With Respect to Human Exposure to Radio Frequency Electromagnetic Fields, 3 kHz to 300 GHz," a 31-page manuscript assembled by Tell -- is clearly labeled "Preliminary Draft." Furthermore, each page ends with this straightforward sentence: "This document is a working draft revision and is not intended for general distribution."

That didn't prevent copies from being leaked to Microwave News and RCR News, two specialty publications that printed articles on the subject in recent months. Neither did it stop EMR Network, a Vermont-based watchdog group in which Carney is involved, from posting the document on its Web site, IEEE representatives threatened EMR with legal action unless it removed the text from the site. But after Carney consulted with assorted lawyers, who told her that the previous articles had already pushed the draft into the public domain, Janet Newton, EMR's president, decided to hold her ground. "We try to be a clearinghouse of information," Newton says. "And this is information people need to know."

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