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Revising the Standards

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

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.

"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, emrnetwork.org. 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."

 

The IEEE draft was created as part of an ongoing effort to revise RF limits, which were last updated in 1991-92 and include two separate standards: a higher one for broadcast workers, who are presumably immersed in RF for relatively brief periods of time and can take steps to avoid significant exposure, and a lower one for average folks who may be living in these electromagnetic fields 24 hours a day. EMR's Newton says the two-tiered approach was a compromise between the IEEE, which believed that the levels for workers were safe for everyone, and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, or NCRP, a nonprofit organization that felt separate limits were more sensible.

Even after a decade of work, Tell estimates that the IEEE committee charged with the standards revision is only about halfway finished with its task, owing to the avalanche of materials it must review: over 1,500 studies that touch on all aspects of RF. But in Tell's opinion, the figures analyzed to date suggest that, just as the IEEE asserted a decade ago, the higher RF level allowed for workers would be perfectly acceptable for the general public as well. "We've looked at the scientific evidence," he says, "and so far, there isn't anything there to show that exposure levels associated with employees -- occupational exposure -- aren't safe. And if that's the case, there are people such as myself who can't understand why, when that level is safe, you have to pile on an additional safety factor to get to an even lower level -- something that's safer than safe. That deviates from scientific information; it's not technically logical to do it."

Tell was prepared to present these conclusions at meetings scheduled to take place September 13 and 14 in Washington, D.C., in the hope of speeding up the lengthy revision procedure, but the terrorist attacks days earlier led to the cancellation of the get-together. The subject was finally discussed during a marathon conference call in November and two meetings earlier this month in Fort Lauderdale and San Antonio.

After the Florida gathering, RCR News reported that Tell's preliminary draft had been "scrapped," but the story is more complicated than that. Assorted individuals on the standards committee, including Tell, have been assigned to come up with "rationale statements" in which they'll make a case for or against the switch to a single-tiered system. These reports will be debated at a Washington, D.C., meeting slated for early April. By late June, when the interested parties plan to reunite in Quebec, "We hope that we'll be able to present a more complete draft of what the standard might look like," Tell says. This document won't be final, either, but Tell insists that "we're not putting the cart in front of the horse. We can't claim to know what the final outcome of the review will be, but we can make an educated guess."

A wild card in this game is the impending publication of a study by Dr. Theodore Litovitz, a biophysicist at Catholic University, that reportedly links frequent use of cell phones, which also create electromagnetic fields, with brain cancer and other maladies that hinder DNA repair; many RF activists see it as the first analysis the broadcasting industry won't be able to brush off as less than definitive. But unless the Litovitz study is the smoking gun of all time, there's an awfully good chance the Tell committee will recommend that RF standards for workers be made universal -- a decision that, if adopted by the FCC, could result in what EMR's Newton says would be a fivefold increase in exposure for residents living near communications facilities. She adds that the NCRP, which is largely responsible for the current two-tier approach, will not be serving as a moderating influence this time around, because it has dissolved its committee looking into RF matters.

In this scenario, only citizen groups like EMR and CARE would stand in the way of higher RF limits. Tell, for his part, isn't sold on the data such organizations use to justify their opposition, and feels their effectiveness is based more on how loudly they speak than on what they're actually saying. "We want to develop a standard that is science-based," he maintains, "while there are other people who apparently believe that sociopolitical considerations should play a significant role. But if you start applying sociopolitical considerations in the evolution of standards, is it science-based or not?

 

"If we adhere strictly to science as we understand it, there will be people who won't be happy," he continues. "But if we adopt the arbitrariness that's associated with sociopolitical considerations, there will be a lot of people in the technical realm who'll be very unhappy. So we're damned if we do and damned if we don't."

In Tell's mind, the ongoing tower brawl in Jefferson County illustrates his point. He sat in on numerous hearings about the proposed expansion of the Eldorado Mountain antenna site, and saw firsthand "how passionate people are about certain things. There may be no technical basis to what they're saying; it's purely emotion. But they can really help sway things one way or another. It makes me wish that there was some better way that these kind of things could be addressed."

Jeffco representatives may feel the same way: Earlier this month, county commissioners backed a planning-department idea to modify the Telecommunications Land Use Plan, which came on line in 1985 and was last tweaked in 1994. Nick Morgan, the Jeffco planner who presented the proposition to the commissioners, won't come right out and say that the seemingly endless tower battles are among the biggest reasons why the county is taking this step. But, he concedes, "we recognize there is a need for a comprehensive reexamination of the effectiveness of the governing plan."

Still, changes in this area are apt to be contentious, too. The review will move forward in three phases, and Morgan assumed that the first two -- concerning so-called housekeeping matters and wireless ser-vices, respectively -- would raise relatively few hackles. (Everyone's expecting fireworks during phase three, in which towers will be the main topic.) But CARE's Carney is already concerned about possible regulation alterations for cell-phone towers, which put off the same type of RF as their larger broadcasting cousins. "The telecommunications revisions the county is proposing in phase two call for allowing cell towers anywhere they can be hidden -- homes, schools, churches, public gathering areas," Carney says. "That would mean a person who's concerned about this couldn't go anywhere without a chance of having an antenna close by."

Jeffco's Morgan counters that the cell-tower issue came up in a series of generic queries that were inspired by trends in other parts of the country and shouldn't be interpreted as a new policy initiative. "We expect to get a lot of feedback and input from people that will help determine what the plan will look like," he says.

Despite the death of his wife, Gordon Hamilton may not be one of those weighing in; he's been too busy coming to grips with his loss to get deeply involved in the RF fight. Part of him would like to move off Lookout Mountain, but various circumstances he chooses not to mention make that impossible. So he's concentrated on making his house as safe as possible, installing steel siding that may offer a modicum of protection and putting "radiation block" on all his windows. But each time he coughs or gets a sore throat, he worries that something invisible and insidious is slowly killing him.

"Whether there's a connection with what happened to Nancy, I can't say," Gordon admits. "But it might have been a catalyst her body needed to set off the whole chain of events. I pray it wasn't, but I don't know. I just don't know."

FCC ahoy: "The Making of a Pirate," which appeared in this space on October 4, told the tale of Monk, a thirty-something dude from Boulder who was so fed up with the sorry state of commercial radio that he decided to start a low-power FM station of his own. When his efforts to legally obtain a license were foiled, he went on the air anyhow, providing Boulderites with a welcome alternative until last July, when two Federal Communications Commission representatives ordered that the plug be pulled. Monk complied, but instead of mothballing his equipment, he gave it to Boulder Underground Radio Group (BURG), a band of kindred spirits who sneakily broadcast programming for what they dubbed "Free Boulder Radio" from the back of a van.

All that came to an end on January 18, when the FCC did to BURG what it had done to Monk. According to a BURG spokesman who communicates by e-mail, the group parked its van on the property of a local who "thought we were a HAM setup. So he had plausible denial."

On the day the music died, Jon Sprague, an FCC agent, traced the Free Boulder Radio signal: He told the host that he didn't have a partner with him because "we're working the Olympics and are shorthanded."

 

"The host let him look at everything," the BURG spokesman explains. "We had the transmitter outside in a locked van hooked to an antenna in a tree and power from the building. The host didn't have a key; we leased the space from him. The studio was inside, and we used a 2.4 GHz wireless link to hook into the transmitter, so nothing illegal was actually on his property other than the locked van."

Sprague gave the BURG host a letter warning that "operation of radio transmitting equipment without a valid radio-station authorization" could subject the owner of the operation to penalties "including, but not limited to, a maximum criminal fine of $100,000 and/or one year imprisonment, or arrest of the equipment for the first offense." The gear wasn't seized, though, and the BURG spokesman promises the station will return: "We'll be back after a cooling-down period and finding a new location."

Oh, yeah: The slogan of Free Boulder Radio is "Radio So Good It's Illegal."


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