Safety First: The IEEE EMBS Committee on Man and Radiation (COMAR)

As a Technical Committee of EMBS, the primary focus of the Committee on Man and Radiation (COMAR) is in the area of biological effects of nonionizing electromagnetic energy, from power line through microwave frequency ranges. The main goal of the committee is to help educate the public about issues related to the safety of nonionizing electromagnetic fields.

COMAR’s chief product is a series of Technical Information Statements on topics within its range of interest. The most recent of these (completed in September 2013) is a report on health and safety issues of Smart Meters, which are utility meters with advanced communications capabilities that are usually based on wireless networking technologies. Recently, Smart Meters have provoked public controversy in part because of health concerns about their radio frequency (RF) emissions.

The report, titled “Radiofrequency Safety and Utility Smart Meters,” describes Smart Meter technology as used with modern electric power metering systems and focuses on the RF emissions associated with their operation relative to human RF exposure limits. Smart Meters typically employ low power (~1 W or less) transmitters that wirelessly send electric energy usage data to the utility company several times per day in the form of brief, pulsed emissions in the unlicensed frequency bands of 902-928 MHz and 2.4-2.48 GHz or on other nearby frequencies. Most Smart Meters operate as wireless mesh networks where each Smart Meter can communicate with other neighboring meters to relay data to a data collection point in the region. This communication process includes RF emissions from Smart Meters representing energy usage as well as the relaying of data from other meters and emissions associated with maintaining the meter’s hierarchy within the wireless network.

As a consequence, most Smart Meters emit RF pulses throughout the day, more at certain times and less at others. However, the duty cycle associated with all of these emissions is very small, typically less than 1%, and most of the time far less than 1%, meaning that most Smart Meters actually transmit RF fields for only a few minutes per day at most. The low peak power of Smart Meters and the very low duty cycles lead to the fact that RF fields in accessible areas near Smart Meters are far below both U.S. and international RF safety limits whether judged on the basis of instantaneous peak power densities or time-averaged exposures. The report concludes that such exposures are typically below levels of RF exposure from a multitude of RF emitting appliances found in modern homes.

The full report, as well as other Technical Information Statements, can be found on COMAR’s website, along with a list of membership. Its meetings, which are usually held in association with meetings of the IEEE International Committee on Electromagnetic Safety (ICES, are open to the public and IEEE EMBS members are cordially invited to attend.

Presently, COMAR is chaired by Richard A. Tell, an IEEE Fellow with many years of experience in government and as a consultant in the measurement of radiofrequency radiation in the environment. COMAR consists of approximately 25 members, most of whom are also IEEE members, including many IEEE Fellows. These individuals are from diverse fields such as engineering, physics, medicine, and biology. While COMAR has many members who are active in IEEE Standards Association committees that develop exposure limits for electromagnetic fields, COMAR itself does not develop safety standards.

COMAR is a Technical Committee of the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and operates in accordance with IEEE Policies and Procedures – Section 15 – IEEE Position Papers, Technical Information Statements and Testimony before Government Bodies in the development of documents premised on the work of the Committee. It reports to the EMBS Vice President for Publications and Technical Activities, through the Technical Activities Committee.