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The Case for Safety

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."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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