Pick of the Week #14. Proposal for Legislation: Non-ionizing Radiation (1979)

October 10, 2010.  Pick of the Week #14 is based on a thoroughly researched and carefully crafted document (The Challenge of Non-Ionizing Radiation:  A Proposal for Legislation) written by Karen A. Massey (Project Attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council) and published in the Duke Law Journal (Volume 1979, No. 1, 86 pp).  This paper will be of interest to policy analysts, lawyers, member of Congress, and all the agencies that currently have pieces of the electromagnetic puzzle in the United States and elsewhere.

Massey identifies the key departments and agencies that have influence on the science and policy of non-ionizing radiation, including: Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW); Department of Labor (DOL); Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); Department of Defense (DOD); Federal Communication Commission (FCC); Department of Transport (DOT); Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); Department of Energy (DOE); National Regulatory Commission (NRC; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Food and Drug Administration (FDA); Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as well as selected state and municipal authorities. With so many “authorities” involved, one might feel confident that appropriate steps are being take to protect public health and the heath of the environment from the potentially harmful effects of  non-ionizing radiation. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Massey outlines the key issues that need to be addressed from both a scientific and public policy perspective.

She writes, this article “ …makes a plea for a legislative solution and offers some suggestions for dealing with what may be the most complex yet in a line of pollution problems that tax the individual talents of both the scientists and the policymakers, as well as their ability to bridge the gap between their two spheres of action.

What is disturbing is that so little progress has been made in the intervening 30 years.  Indeed, today there is much less research on non-ionizing radiation than there was decades ago despite the fact that we have many more devices emitting microwave radiation and our levels of exposure are increasing exponentially.

One of the key impediments to progress is the ongoing debate about thermal vs non-thermal effects.  This is a red-herring that has received much more attention than it deserves.

This is what Massey writes about thermal vs non-thermal effects.

“It has been said that present physical laws do not account for any ‘nonthermal’ effects and unless new laws are discovered, there can be no possible effects of electromagnetic radiation on biologic systems. This statement is slightly contrary to good science.71

She goes on to say that “It may be more than ‘slightly’ contrary to good science. Knowledge of mechanisms or physical laws explaining phenomena is obviously very important, particularly for its predictive value. But to say that there are no effects when effects are in fact observed, simply because the effects cannot be explained, is like saying no apples fell until Newton discovered the law of gravity. For a long while American scientists could not have observed such effects because, believing only thermal mechanisms had biologic effect, they did not experiment at below-thermal levels. Their Soviet counterparts, believing they had discovered such effects, set their exposure standard accordingly.72

While some things have changed  since 1979, not all of the changes have been for the better.  For example, Section 704 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 bars state and local governments from regulating the placement, construction, and modification of cell phone and other personal wireless service facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions to the extent that such facilities comply with the FCC regulations concerning such emissions.  This certainly can’t be called “progress”!

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