NRK Meny

The Radiation Exposure War

We are constantly being exposed to radiation. The scientific community is split concerning the possible health hazards. “The Norwegian Radiation Protection Agency often receives reports warning of possible hazards connected to electromagnetic radiation, and we acknowledge the uncertainty surrounding the issue,” says section manager Merete Hannevik.

Foto: NRK

The telecom business and U.S. Department of Defence have had considerable influence on radiation safety exposure limits. The maximum limits are higher in Norway than in many other countries.

You cannot see, taste or smell it, but the continued increase in so-called electromagnetic frequency radiation has had a significant environmental impact on industrialised nations. New antennae pop up daily, not least in Norway, and this happens against a backdrop of wrangling between research communities and the industry about how much radiation is safe for humans.

When concerns are voiced or possible side effects reported, the Radiation Protection Agency, usually after performing surveys in the area, often produces a standardised reply: According to current internationally recommended guidelines, the exposure is within limits not proven to be harmful to humans. We trust the Radiation Protection Agency, and the international guidelines, even though most people have no idea who set them.

Uncertain authorities

“The Norwegian Radiation Protection Agency often receives reports warning of possible hazards connected to electromagnetic radiation, and we acknowledge the uncertainty surrounding the issue,” says section manager Merete Hannevik in an interview with Aftenposten earlier this year. She does not hide the fact that staying updated on the flood of new research results is demanding, and highlights the need for Norwegian research communities to do more, among other things in terms of electrosensitivity. She said more or less the same thing when Dagbladet ran a series of articles on radiation in 2005. Then as now, her conclusion was that too little research has been done in the field, but that most people have little reason for concern.

Awkward results neglected

Many researchers claim that important scientific results are disregarded when international radiation exposure guidelines are decided. Norway abides by the exposure limits decided by the international body IRPA (International Radiation Protection Association), which the WHO also uses as a reference. The IRPA contains a sub-committee called ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-ionising Radiation Protection). ICNIRP focuses exclusively on heating effects as a potential health hazard, and base their maximum values on this. But a large number of international researchers believe that radiation which does not have any heating effect on organic materials may still have negative health effects. So far ICNIRP has disregarded this. An incident at a WHO meeting in Zagreb in 1999 may serve as an illustration, when Dr. Jürgen Bernhardt from ICNIRP received a question from a fellow participant, who asked whether the ICNIRP shouldn’t update their radiation norms more often, as it turned out that many new mobile phones emitted radiation at close to maximum levels. Dr. Bernhardt’s reply was that no parts of the skull were heated by more than 0.1 to 0.2 °C, and that there was no evidence of health hazards other than those caused by heating effects. Consequently there was no reason for ICNIRP to update their radiation norms more often.

Entrenched positions

An increasing number of scientists are reporting various negative health effects of non-ionizing radiation, even at strengths and frequencies which produce no heating effect or so-called thermal interactions. The positions are entrenched, and there are two schools among physicians: those who exclusively relate to the heating effect, and those who see indications of influences far more extensive than this. The conflict surrounding radiation exposure guidelines and possible health hazards has been going on since the 1950s. The Russian scientist Igor Belyaev, connected to the University of Stockholm, is among those who have spent years researching radiation effects on cell tissue and DNA. In 2005, he wrote a long letter to the Swedish Parliament and concerned ministers, where he issued a strong warning against basing political decisions on what he believes are incomplete consequence reports on radiation guidelines from the Swedish Research Council and Radiation Safety Agency. He never received any reply. In the letter he points out that the health of entire generations may be at risk. He requested specifically that research was initiated with funds not provided by the industry or via ICNIRP. The result was that he, at that point, had his own applications for research grants rejected. ICNIRP has not changed its standpoint, but their Russian sister organisation, RNCNIRP, recognises without reservations that exposure to electromagnetic frequency radiation may produce a wide variety of negative biological effects, including serious illness.

Strong forces behind the scenes

The world's most powerful federation of engineers, the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers), has been one of the strongest protagonists of the current exposure limits. As early as 1966, the organisation became a player in contributing to decide radiation exposure limits. The majority of those taking part in these efforts have been IEEE members who are or have been employed in companies or organisations who are producers or users of technologies that depend on these radiation frequencies, whether it be power companies, the telecoms industry or military interests. ICNIRP and WHO, both formally independent of the industry, have worked in close cooperation with the IEEE Committee on Man and Radiation (COMAR).

A review of minutes from meetings and documents from COMAR shows that the IEEE has prioritised international lobbying efforts for decades. Their efforts have specially been aimed at the WHO and ICNIRP. Among the frequently used international liaisons we find Michael Murphy from the Human Effectiveness Directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Texas. The U.S. Air Force is one of the world's largest consumers of technology emitting or based on non-ionising radiation.

CIA involvement

Ever since the beginning of the Cold War, there has been conflict between researchers in the East and the West about how much non-ionising radiation humans can handle. In the Soviet Union, exposure limits for civilians were 1000 times stricter than in the West. They could also present astonishing research results, including evidence for something they called “microwave sickness”, a diagnosis Western researchers rejected outright as having no scientific basis whatsoever, then as now. The Russian “microwave sickness” diagnosis is very similar to so-called electrosensitivity, which is being increasingly reported in the West. At the time, the issue culminated with a top secret scientific cooperation project over many years between Russian and American scientists, where the Americans consistently rejected the Russian findings from 1958 onwards. Then the Russians set up a microwave signal just below the “safe” limit, and aimed it at the American Embassy in Moscow. The signal marked the start of the research project “Pandora”, and a large number of cases where employees at the Moscow embassy reported various afflictions. The signal was not turned off until 1988.

Spillover into Europe

The Americans’ greatest fear was that the Russian exposure limits would “spill over” to Europe. CIA got involved, and in a memo to president Jimmy Carter, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, George Bush senior, warned that more stringent norms would represent both a financial burden and a hindrance to military, industrial and commercial users of this technology. Lobbyists for Russian research results and exposure limits created a risk that IRPA (the parent organisation of ICNIRP) would introduce stricter norms, contrary to the interests of the United States.

Following the end of the Cold War, the IEEE worked to harmonise the former East European radiation norms with the American limits. It seems hardly surprising that the USAF financed and provided foundation data for efforts toward new electromagnetic frequency radiation exposure guidelines in the former Soviet Union. The USAF has also provided financial assistance to criteria for deciding regulation for radio frequency emissions in certain East European countries such as Bulgaria.

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