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Harmless, More Or Less?
The debate over potential health risks from electromagnetic fields has raged for years and shows no sign of abating or assuaging public concerns.
Activists are especially worried about the proliferation of wireless technologies and fear that the industry is outpacing research and laws.
The number of gadgets using radio frequencies has rocketed since the mid '90s, when the FCC began to auction off pieces of the electromagnetic spectrum for Personal Communication Systems (PCS). Today, over 129 million Americans own cell phones, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.
And more wireless gizmos and services are rolled out on a daily basis. Take wireless local area networks, which allow users to surf the Internet unplugged. According to market research firm Cahners In-Stat Group, the global market for wireless LANs will jump from $1 billion in 2002 to $4.5 billion in 2004.
"We're living with wireless all around us, and there are a lot of questions that aren't answered yet," said Janet Newton, the president of the Electromagnetic Radiation Network, a nonprofit group that advocates "responsible use" of electromagnetic radiation. "We could be setting ourselves up for a health disaster down the road."
The group believes the FCC's guidelines for radio frequency exposure are too lenient and has launched several legal challenges in an attempt to force the agency to adopt stricter rules. But so far their legal challenges have met with no success.
Studies into the effects of electromagnetic fields -- and there have been oodles of them around the globe -- have turned up conflicting evidence. While some have found that exposure to radio frequencies (RF) may be harmful enough to cause cancer and other afflictions, others show the opposite. One team of researchers even used RF to destroy cancerous tumors.
Nevertheless, fears were serious enough to inspire the World Health Organization to create the international EMF project in 1996. One of the objectives of the project -- which concludes in 2005 -- is to establish international standards for RF exposure.
Until there are definitive answers, anti-wireless activists such as Newton say we should err on the side of caution and use traditional communication devices as much as possible.
"If a drug had as many conflicting results, it would never be licensed for sale," Newton said. "No one's done enough research to know whether wireless is a problem or not."
The FCC has no plans to change its exposure guidelines, which are determined by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.
"There is no conclusive evidence that electromagnetic fields hurt health," said Ed Mantiply, a scientist with the FCC's radio frequency safety program. "We have a standard for exposure, which is essentially like a speed limit --there's no guarantee that you're safe below it or unsafe above it."
As a rule of thumb, the FCC recommends that consumers give themselves an inch of space for every watt of power used by a device. If you're using a 10 watt transmitter, for example, stay 10 inches away from it.
Part of Mantiply's job is answering calls from people who worry that they're being affected by electromagnetic fields. Some of their concerns are legitimate, but some are "UFO-ology," he said.
There are people who call him with a headache and blame the FCC. There are others who say they are "electrically sensitive" and believe they can sense -- and are harmed by -- electromagnetic fields.
Bunk, Mantiply said.
"They may possibly have a psychogenic problem," he said. "I believe a good number of people who complain about these things have trauma or obsessive disorders. There are a lot of sad cases out there."
Swedish researchers found that people who claim they suffer from electrical sensitivity failed to detect the presence of electromagnetic fields in double-blind tests, he added.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that more health studies need to be done.
"We've got a fundamental science we don't understand. We get different results from different laboratories. The issue is not resolved."