RF standards: East vs West

In this article, Don Maisch explores the different approach to setting standards to protect against radiofrequency radiation.

Russian and other Eastern European countries' exposure limits for radio frequency and microwave (RF/MW) radiation have been far stricter than those in either U.S. or Western Europe for over 30 years, mainly due to a fundamental difference between East and West as to exactly what exposure standards should provide protection against.

With the previous "cold war" between East and West now well over and the present push toward "globalisation", an attempt was made to resolve this difference at the 2nd International Conference on Problems of Electromagnetic Safety of the Human Being, held in Moscow, in late 1999. This conference was sponsored by the Russian National Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (RNCNIRP) and other Russian scientific organisations, in conjunction with the World Health Organisation (WHO), the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and the U.S. Air Force.

Despite extensive discussions during this conference, the attempt to "harmonise" RF/MW standards was unsuccessful with little chance of a compromise in the near future. As stated by Professor Yuri Grigoriev, chairman of the RNCNIRP and a senior research scientist in Moscow, "So far we have entirely different approaches to "harmonisation". Western standard setting organisations have emphasised protection from RF/MW thermal effects," Grigoriev said, "while Russia's more restrictive standard also reflects a concern over non thermal effects and subjective symptoms."

Grigoriev emphasised the need to take into account possible cumulative effects from repeated exposure to relatively low levels of radiation as well as the potential bioeffects of specific modulated patterns.

During the second world war concerns began to be raised from military personnel that there may be health hazards from working with radar equipment. Servicemen standing in front of the radar antenna soon discovered it was a great way to keep warm on a cold night but rumours began to circulate that it could also cause temporary sterility. In the 1940s various US military and government agencies investigated the possibilities of health hazards. They all found no evidence of hazards but recommended avoiding prolonged exposure as a precautionary measure.

After the war in the late 1940s several studies came to light that indicated that there were possible hazards involved with the use of microwaves. In 1948 two U.S. studies reported a possible link with cataracts and testicular degeneration in dogs. These studies were largely ignored, simply because the companies that had developed microwave technology for the military saw an opportunity for wide commercial use of microwaves, such as Diathermy equipment and later microwave ovens. So there was no interest in funding research that may put a damper on this expanding business opportunity. This was the start of the Cold War between the East and West and military uses of radar and other new equipment were seen as paramount to the national interest.

However in 1953 a study of workers at Hughes Aircraft Corp. found excessive amounts of internal bleeding, leukemia, cataracts, headaches, brain tumours, heart conditions, etc. in those employees working with radar. This study resulted in the US military initiating the first investigation into the biological effects of microwaves with the aim of developing "tolerance levels" for both single and repeated exposures. Since little relevant research data existed at that time, it was decided that the known ability of microwaves to heat up tissue (thermal effects) would be the main criteria used in developing limits. This decision, based more on a lack of scientific data than anything else, quickly gained favour with both the military and industry as it avoided the complicated issue of possible non-thermal health effects.

The "thermal school of thought" quickly became the accepted norm with Western standard setting organisations and the vast majority of research in the West was directed at short term, high level exposures, with the aim of gaining a better understanding of thermal effects and refining exposure standards to give adequate protection against body heating. Research that may have been directed towards health effects other than thermal ones was not favored and any findings, especially epidemiological, that indicated that low level biological effects may exist were criticised and not followed up on. It simply was bad for business!

This situation was well described by Dr. Rochelle Medici, a researcher on animal behaviour, who said, "It is as though scientists had retreated from doing challenging, frontier studies because such work engendered too much controversy or elicited too much criticism. We are left with "Safe" but meaningless experiments. The results of such experiments are a foregone conclusion".

Now, almost 50 years after the first enquiry into setting an exposure standard in the USA, the arbitrary decision to consider thermal effects only has become a paradigm in the West.

Today the ICNIRP exposure guidelines (thermal only) are being promoted as “the best that science has to offer” for an "international" standard, and many countries are now being urged to incorporate its levels in their national standards.

In Russia, however, a vastly different political, economic and social situation resulted, paradoxically, in giving their scientists far more democratic and academic freedom (and funding) than their Western counterparts in choosing the focus of their research efforts without interference from vested interests. This has resulted in a Russian RF/MW exposure standard with a different viewpoint on what "protection" should mean in regards to ensuring people's health.

While thermal effects are accepted by both Western and Russian scientists, it was the Russians that expanded their own research to include extensive studies with human workers exposed to non-thermal electromagnetic fields because:

(i) socialist philosophy protected the "worker".

(ii) the military was exempt from the public/occupational standard. As such, Russian (USSR) research into developing a non-thermal standard that considered low level prolonged exposures was not seen as a possible threat to the military's developing and deploying new technology the way it was in the U.S.A., for instance.

(iii) the absence of large capitalist private corporations who were investing in microwave technology purely for future corporate profit, and would view research into low level hazards as itself a risk for "the bottom line".

Now that East and West are talking about the standard setting process, it is only rational that the large body of Russian medical research into non-thermal biological effects should now be included in standard setting. Unfortunately, however, it appears that the current attitude of ICNIRP is that the process of harmonisation means total acceptance of the existing ICNIRP guidelines (thermal effects only) - without alteration.

Now that the large body of Russian literature is becoming available to the west, which convincingly shows that the ICNIRP voluntary standards to not provide adequate protection for workers and the public, how will our standard setting bodies handle that?

If it turns out that ICNIRP still insists that only high level thermal effects can be considered in standard setting then the question must be raised, just whom does ICNIRP actually protect?

EMRAA News Mar 2000, Vol 5 No 1