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Next asbestos could be in air

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Could radio frequency-producing antennas that are essential for the wireless world be the next asbestos for the insurance industry? They could, writes Gloria Vogel, managing director of New York-based Vogel Capital Management. The insurance industry must reassess its risk management tools and beef up loss control operations—especially its application of risk management to worker safety within the wireless ecosystem to avoid potentially huge claims in the future, she says.

Could wireless antennas be the next asbestos?

Throughout the years, insurers have been concerned that an issue similar to asbestos would create a new round of endless losses for the industry. Lead paint, toxic mold, silica and other harmful substances have caught the interest of the plaintiffs bar, but nothing has come close to asbestos.

However, an issue that mimics asbestos and is being ignored by insurers could soon hit their pocketbooks. Simply stated, everyone's favorite form of wireless communication and commerce depends on radio frequency-producing base station antennas, which emit radio waves and microwaves that can harm humans.

Few insurance claims have been filed to date; but in all respects, RF radiation closely tracks with the early development of asbestos claims.

As of July, there were more than 500,000 governmental and commercial antenna systems in the United States, according to the CTIA, the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry, and the National Academies of Sciences. As demand for everything wireless grows, more wireless antenna systems are needed. Correspondingly, greater numbers of property owners are leasing access to their properties to install such antennas.

The debate about public safety has distorted who really is in harm's way from RF radiation—the third-party worker.

Roofers, electricians, painters, plasterers, firefighters, etc. must perform their tasks in close proximity to RF antennas as part of their job. Such workers are clearly being put in harm's way on a daily basis, as they are routinely overexposed to RF radiation in violation of the Federal Communications Commission's RF human exposure limits. The FCC limits the whole-body specific absorption rate to 0.4 watts per kilogram for controlled environments and 0.08 W/kg for uncontrolled environments. Other limits are in place for partial body exposures and unusual emissions, such as short pulses of high intensity.

How long does someone need to be next to an antenna to be overexposed? The severity of a potential RF radiation exposure depends on the power, channels, frequency, proximity to the RF emission source, type of antenna and the duration of the exposure. Without knowing all of these factors, it is impossible to safely and confidently work near an RF transmitter.

Based upon data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau, it is estimated that as many as 250,000 workers a year are compelled to work in close proximity and in front of RF transmitting antennas. When combined with the 15 years this issue has been in existence, the pool of potential claimants could be staggering.

The plaintiffs bar is always in search of the “next asbestos” and this issue of third-party worker overexposure to RF radiation could prove to be just that. All it will take is an awareness campaign to educate workers on the symptoms of RF radiation overexposure, and the plaintiffs bar will have successfully tapped into a new and rich vein—the wireless ecosystem. This, of course, would place insurers in a precarious position.

The wireless ecosystem should not be confused with the much smaller commercial telecom industry. The wireless ecosystem encompasses all FCC licensees (federal, state, local and commercial), site owners, property managers, contractors, third-party workers, the utility industry, hospitals, schools and universities, church organizations, banks/financial institutions, and the insurance industry. It involves every person or entity that may be physically or financially harmed by RF radiation.

The insurance industry seems oblivious to this emerging risk, as it long ago added exclusionary clauses, installed aggregate limits, or carved out RF radiation risk, but only from telecom coverage. Insurers have never considered RF radiation as it relates to the properties that host RF-transmitting antennas. The real risk to insurers lies in those third-party workers who are being overexposed to RF radiation at such properties.

The significance of this topic is overlooked by insurers because of confusion between the harmful effects of cell phones and the damage caused by wireless antennas. Because there is no proven link yet established between cell phones and cancer, insurers see little exposure from this risk.

However, there is a marked difference between radiation exposure from cell phones and exposure from wireless antenna systems: The antennas are hundreds of times more powerful. More importantly, there already is peer-reviewed science from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers linking RF radiation exposure to cognitive injuries.

In addition, legal precedent has been established for such claims in AT&T Alascom and Ward North America Inc. vs. John Orchitt; State of Alaska, Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Division of Workers' Compensation. The July 2007 ruling affirmed a 100% disability award to a worker exposed to RF radiation that only slightly exceeded the FCC human exposure limits.

By doing so, the Alaska Supreme Court established a legal precedent that recognizes the causal link between an RF radiation exposure and cognitive or psychological injuries including reduced brain function, memory loss, sleep disorders, mood disorders and depression. This holding reaffirms the scientific basis of the FCC RF radiation human exposure limits.

The insurance industry thus needs to find a solution to this problem now, before claims become a significant hit to income. Insurers need to embrace a comprehensive RF safety protocol that will give workers the necessary tools to protect themselves from RF radiation. Such a safety system should have the ability to monitor FCC licensees, site owners, contractors, etc. for the enforcement of these safety protocols to protect the interests of those who may be physically or financially harmed.

While legislation already exists on the subject, private enterprise may provide the ultimate solution. A promising example of private enterprise is from RF Check Inc. at www.rfcheck.com.

Furthermore, insurers must re-examine their exclusionary clauses and limits for exposure to those potential third-party worker claims. The industry needs to reassess its risk management tools and to beef up its loss control operations, especially its application of risk management to worker safety within the wireless ecosystem.

The insurance industry tends to look backwards at historical claims to project future losses. In cases of emerging risk such as the issue of third-party worker overexposure to RF radiation, it would be far better for the industry to be anticipatory rather than reactive, as claims could develop quickly. It would be in the industry's best interests to pre-empt the plaintiffs' bar on this issue and secure a safe workplace for those third-party workers.

Gloria Vogel is managing director of New York-based investment and consulting firm Vogel Capital Management and a financial analyst and consultant to the insurance industry.