IBEW: Radio Frequency Radiation: Problem & Solution

Source: IBEW
Date: 09/15/2009
You cannot see it, you cannot hear it, you cannot smell it - but exposure to radio frequency (RF) hazards can be harmful to humans. New cellular antennas and other RF emitting devices are being installed as quickly as possible. There are currently over 500,000 operating devices in the United States alone. That number is expected to double in the very near future as the demand intensifies for more powerful wireless devices.

Most third party workers are not trained in the proper procedures for working in the vicinity of RF emitting devices. With “stealth sites” becoming something of the norm, most workers do not even know the devices are present in their work area, because the devices are hidden from the public. Will this be the next occupational disaster similar to asbestos exposure?

RF Radiation Defined

Radio waves and microwaves are forms of electromagnetic energy that are collectively described by the term "radiofrequency," or "RF." RF emissions and associated phenomena can be discussed in terms of "energy," "radiation" or "fields." Radiation is defined as the propagation of energy through space in the form of waves or particles. Electromagnetic radiation can best be described as waves of electric and magnetic energy moving together (i.e., radiating) through space. These waves are generated by the movement of electrical charges through a substance such as a conductive metal object or antenna. For example, the alternating movement of charge (i.e., the "current") in an antenna used in a cellular base station antenna generates electromagnetic waves that radiate away from the "transmit" antenna and are then intercepted by a "receive" antenna integrated into a hand-held device such as a cellular telephone. The term "electromagnetic field" is used to indicate the presence of electromagnetic energy at a given location. The RF field can be described in terms of the electric and/or magnetic field strength at that location.

Biological Effects of RF Radiation

There are many published reports in the scientific literature concerning possible biological effects resulting from animal or human exposure to RF energy. Biological effects that result from heating of tissue by RF energy are often referred to as "thermal" effects. It has been known for many years that exposure to high levels of RF radiation can be harmful due to the ability of RF energy to heat biological tissue rapidly. This is the principle by which microwave ovens cook food, and exposure to very high RF power densities can clearly result in heating of biological tissue and an increase in body temperature. Tissue damage in humans could occur during exposure to high RF levels because of the body’s inability to cope with or dissipate the excessive heat that could be generated. Under certain conditions, exposure to RF energy at power density levels of 1-10 mW/cm2 and above can result in measurable heating of biological tissue (but not necessarily tissue damage). The extent of this heating would depend on several factors including: radiation frequency; size, shape, and orientation of the exposed object; duration of exposure; environmental conditions; and efficiency of heat dissipation.

Two areas of the body – the eyes and the testes – are known to be particularly vulnerable to heating by RF energy because of the relative lack of available blood flow to dissipate the excessive heat load (blood circulation is one of the body’s major mechanisms for coping with excessive heat). Laboratory experiments have shown that short-term exposure (e.g., 30 minutes to one hour) to very high levels of RF radiation (100-200 mW/cm2) can cause cataracts in rabbits. Temporary sterility, caused by such effects as changes in sperm count and in sperm motility, is possible after exposure of the testes to high-level RF radiation (or to other forms of energy that produce comparable increases in temperature).

There are situations, particularly workplace environments near high-powered RF sources, where recommended limits for safe exposure of human beings to RF energy could be exceeded. In such cases, restrictive measures or actions may be necessary to ensure the safe use of RF energy.

The Problem

The proliferation of wireless antennas across the United States has created a human health hazard for third-party workers, including our IBEW membership. On a daily basis, our members are compelled to work in close proximity to RF radiation transmitting antennas without knowledge or understanding of the health risks. RF emissions can extend from one foot to more than 20 feet from the face of an antenna. There is no "rule-of-thumb" regarding exposure distances; each antenna system is unique. RF radiation is tasteless, odorless and invisible – and in all but a few instances, our membership is not aware of their potential for RF overexposure injuries. Many times, our members do not even know the RF radiation transmitting antenna is present because the installation is “hidden” behind panels or walls, out of public sight.

The Solution

Currently, no comprehensive method of RF radiation safety has been implemented to prevent RF radiation overexposure to our membership. However, that is all about to change.

The only way to protect third-party workers, including our IBEW membership and the public, is through the use of a comprehensive RF radiation safety solution that involves all parties that transmit RF, those that host antennas and those that can be affected either physically or financially from RF radiation overexposure. RF CHECK Inc. will implement a National RF Radiation Safety protocol to ensure that our membership has the necessary training, certification and site specific safety information to protect themselves from RF overexposures.

The RF CHECK solution – similar to our nation’s underground utility locating system, commonly known as Miss Utility, “Call Before You Dig” or the 811 program – is funded by an insignificant pass-through surcharge on each wireless subscriber’s monthly bill. This is a no-cost solution for our IBEW membership.

RF CHECK’s patented, site specific RF safety solution allows our IBEW membership to download the RF Safety Summary Sheet prior to working at the site. The information will be available online or through 24/7 call centers. The RF Safety Summary Sheet is designed to be an integral tool in establishing a National RF Radiation Safety Protocol to ensure that no one is overexposed to RF radiation while working near wireless antennas. The information is updated as changes are made at the site, and annual site audits are performed to ensure the safety procedures are being followed. RF CHECK’s solution is supported by regulatory and legislative leadership, state and local municipalities, professional associations, members of the insurance industry and FCC Licensees’ Health & Safety professionals and national and international labor unions.

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