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Interview of Howard Bassen by David Zierler on May 12, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
This is an interview with Howard Bassen, Research Engineer in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, Division of Biomedical and Physical Sciences. Bassen recounts his childhood in Rochester and then suburban Washington DC. He describes his early interests in science and electronics, and discusses the impact of Sputnik on his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at the University of Maryland. Bassen describes his post-college work at Harry Diamond Labs, where he designed radio frequency transmitters, and he explains how his opposition to the Vietnam War compelled him to move to the U.S. Postal Research Labs in Rockville, where he worked on surveillance and package security with X-ray systems. Bassen discusses his first encounter with the Bureau of Radiological Health and his first job in the Microwave Radiation Branch, where his main project was testing home microwave ovens for radiation levels. He describes his work measuring radiation and tissue implantable probes in the human body, and he explains his motivation for taking a job as branch chief of the Microwave Research Branch at Walter Reed, where he studied the effects of very high power microwaves emanating from missile-jamming technology. Bassen explains the absorption of the Bureau of Radiological Health by the FDA, and he describes his decision to return to work on electromagnetic compatibility and cell phone safety. He explains the importance of ensuring electromagnetic compatibility of medical devices so that, for example, an implanted pacemaker does not malfunction when exposed to a cell phone or an MRI machine. At the end of the interview Bassen reflects on his career and singles out his work in determining the safety of electromagnetic fields as the most impactful aspect of his career.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is May 12th, 2020. It's my great pleasure to be here with Mr. Howard Bassen. Howard, thank you so much for being with me today.
All right, so let's start. Please tell me your title and institutional affiliation.
My title is research engineer for the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Devices and Radiological Health in the Office of Science and Engineering Labs. And to break it down further, it's the Division of Physical Sciences. The Division of Biomedical and Physical Sciences. They've changed the name several times.
Right. Okay good. Now let's take it back to the beginning. Tell me a little bit about your birthplace and your family background.
Well, I was born in Buffalo, New York in 1944, and moved with my family to Rochester, New York because my father was a Food and Drug inspector for a regional inspector.
A regional inspector for the FDA?
Yes, for foods and... Mainly foods, I believe. And he covered the whole Rochester and Lake areas of New York state.
Did he have a science background, your father?
He had a master’s in biology from Cornell. Which was pretty good, since he had a fairly poor childhood, but they worked everything out. He was the head of the family. His father died very early.
Mmhmm. And what about your mom? Did your mom work outside the home?
She started, got a masters in French literature, or something of that sort, in Brooklyn. And then when she got married, she was a housewife. There was not much working out of the home for women, but when the children were older she worked later for the US government as an assistant to an administrator, when my family moved to Washington DC.
Now, you were in Rochester through the 12th grade?
Did you go to public schools in Rochester?
I went to elementary school in Rochester.
And then where did you go to high school?
Then we moved to Washington, D.C. area when my father got promoted for his good work with the FDA, from a field inspector to a headquarters administrator. And we lived in Arlington, Virginia for a couple of years. For junior high I lived and went to school there. Then we moved to Silver Spring, Maryland where I went to Montgomery Blair High School.
Oh. That's right around the corner from me, Montgomery Blair.
The one off Four Corners.
Oh. It used to be in Wayne Avenue, Silver Spring, where I--
Right. Right. So Howard, in high school, when did you start getting interested in science?
Well, my father encouraged me to do projects when I was a child. We built our first project, I remember, was maybe an electric motor kit. And then, we set up a long wire antenna horizontally from the house to the garage for a crystal set radio. That was because transistors were not invented yet. That was in Rochester.
And then in high school, and even before that, I was interested in electronics. For my project for a science fair, I built a Geiger counter. And surveyed the nearby woods for radioactive rocks.
Did you find any?
I think so. But they were not that radioactive.
Right. I hope not.
For the Geiger counter I got, I was tied for first place in the science fair In Montgomery Blair High School.
Mmhmm. Now, when you went to the University of Maryland, did you know at the beginning that you wanted to pursue a degree in science?
Well, yes. I was all set on electrical engineering in high school. So, in high school I did not excel in anything except, like I said, the science fair.
So... I started at Maryland, and it was when Sputnik caused a big super demand for engineers.
And so my first semester, the University of Maryland electrical engineering department, their main goal was to fail as many students as they could.
There were so many applicants for EE, but I was able to survive that pretty well.
Now, did you take physics courses at Maryland at all?
Yeah. We took physics, but it was for electrical engineering majors, so we took physics. I didn't take biology. I took chemistry. But then we started all the electrical engineering courses.
Yeah. Now, did you pursue any relevant summer internships, given your, you were in the D.C. area during college?
Well, we didn't have any leads, so we went down with a friend of mine, to stand on the corner with the laborers, to become pickup workers for construction. And construction hiring people… they ignored us, because we didn't have the same build and background as the people who worked as their career.
So instead, we went to the Washington D.C. Department of Buildings and Grounds government. And they saw "engineer" on my application, so they assigned me to be a draftsman in a construction engineering design group. And then the next two summers, I was a building construction inspector's assistant. And I basically stood around and watched the laborers work without doing any work since they didn't assign me any duties, so it was strictly a job to get some money.
Mmhmm. And then what were your ideas upon graduating from Maryland? What kind of job did you want to pursue?
Electronics, and I got an offer from Boeing, and they were a defense contractor. They weren't very stable. And I got an offer from the US Army. Harry Diamond Labs, in DC. It is now called the Army Electronics Laboratory. It's now next door to where I work. It's a huge facility in White Oak, Maryland.
And what job offer did you accept?
Electrical engineer at the Harry diamond labs. They put me on a project designing radio frequency transmitters, very simple ones, that could be put into missile-- not missiles, into artillery rounds., It was a very simple, one transistor plus an antenna, an integrated strip line antenna. And I got my first patent for that.
This was the quarter wavelength ring antenna patent?
Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Did it occur to you to apply for a patent or did somebody say, you know, "Hey, this, you should patent this"?
I don't recall. I don't recall. I know I wrote a report on it, and then the next project, I moved from what was called the telemetry branch, where we made transmitters that would relay information from artillery or whatever. I didn't care for the mission very much, so I moved to the advanced research lab of Harry Diamond Labs. There I developed some simple but effective range gating radar systems using just a couple of transistors and pulsed RF (radio frequency).
Yeah. And then what was your next project?
Well, the pulsed radio frequency system was very popular with my boss, so he sent me to West Point Army Science Conference to present a paper on it. And then we started to work on things that were related to the Vietnam War. Mainly anti-personnel or personnel detection, I should say, not anti-personnel, but personnel sensing. Radio frequency sensing.
You mean to be deployed on the battlefront in Vietnam?
Yes. In the jungle, I guess. And so I was very unhappy about the war, so I went up with some people at Harry Diamond who were like-minded, and we moved to the US Postal Service Research Labs in Rockville, Maryland.
Uh-huh. So just to be clear, you were a civilian employee of the Army?
Right. I got an occupational deferment when I took the job with the Army. Not that I knew what it was used for, because there wasn't a draft when I signed up at Harry Diamond Laboratories.
Yeah. So you and some of your like-minded colleagues just sort of moved en masse to the Postal Service?
Well, I wouldn't say "en masse," there were two. (both laugh) Two of them.
Two that went to the Postal Service, or maybe three.
Did you make it clear to your superiors what your motivations were in moving?
My immediate boss was very anti-war, and he was marked as a loser by the management. I don't know what happened to him.
So what year would this have been when you moved over to the Postal Service?
1970 or '72. I'd have to look. '72 I joined the Postal Service.
Now, I'm curious, the work, the electronics work that you had done for the Army, were its applications strictly limited for military purposes, or was there…did you share this technology for commercial applications?
No, it was all classified or if it wasn't classified, it was for mortar shells and other weapon or personnel detection systems.
Right. (laughs) Good. And so what was the host office at the Postal Service? What division did you work in?
I don't recall the name of it, but it was the security branch. We dealt with the postal inspectors, the FBI, the CIA, to detect contraband and bombs and weapons.
Right, because during those days, bombs in the mail was a significant issue, if I recall.
Not that much, but evidently, I guess it was, because they were interested in contraband detection in packages. It was more geared towards the FAA, our group collaborated with the FAA.
But we made package inspection, we had contracts for x-ray systems. The kind you put a box through a conveyor belt, and it x-rays it. And that was a very sophisticated system built by a contractor. And I worked on some of the display, getting it set up, testing it and developing a color display for black and white data.
And how long were you with the Postal Service?
I was there just for two years, because they were going to shut down. So while I was doing this work with x-rays, and x-ray safety, from these post office scanners, I met up with the director of the Division of Electronic Products in the Bureau of Radiological Health, down the road, about a half mile. And he was interested and tutored me on some of the x-ray, dosimetry measurements. And then I applied for a job there when I heard the postal service was phasing down. And I got something right away in the so-called Microwave Radiation Branch.
And what were some of the projects in that branch that you were working on?
Well, everything was geared towards determining if microwave ovens were safe, and similar radio frequency energy. And there was a group of 40 people studying this at that bureau. Biology, the compliance with the regulations, the testing of ovens, to see if they leaked microwaves. If they leaked too much, they couldn't sell them. And my job was more the calibration of microwave field strength, in an anechoic chamber, developing a very precise field strength level in an anechoic chamber to trace all of the measurements that the field inspectors made back to our primary certification.
Now, Howard, what was your sense of where the original source of concern came from, with regard to microwaves? Where did that start in terms of people saying, you know, I'm not sure if these are safe for domestic use?
Well, the very first concern was with the military, because personnel were exposed to radars and were being killed or injured by the heat by the--
You mean a temperature heat, or a radioactive heat?
Temperature. Microwaves just heat the body tissue by vibrating water molecules. And some of these radars, in the dew line, up in Alaska looking for Soviet things, missiles coming or something like that. And people would stand in the beam to get warm, and then get cooked on the inside.
Oh so you mean, to the touch, it was bearable, but it was on the inside that it was damaging them?
No, you would feel it on the outside.
But not so much that you would recoil?
That's a whole new project of this, that's later.
Okay. And what was your sense, who made the connection between the dangers posed by radar, and the dangers of home microwave ovens?
I don't know.
I mean, is it simply that the technology is the same?
Well, the Bureau of Radiological Health got involved with microwaves. They were formed to study protection of the public from ionizing radiation, x-rays, non-ionizing, like ultrasound, and microwaves, and light. So it was a couple hundred people involved with research and measurement.
And how did your project on microwaves play out? What were the results of your finding, and what did that mean for policy?
My findings on what?
For microwave ovens.
We didn't, all we did was develop an accurate measurement and calibrate instruments and new types of instruments to see if they were in compliance with the already-existing standard.
And what did you find? Were they in compliance or not?
Well, a few were outlying, and there was a big case where General Electric made a new type of oven, and it leaked slightly over the limit, and they had to recall or retrofit in the home. These were like stove, microwave stoves, and combination stove and microwave. They had to go in the home and retrofit them with a protective seal.
Now, did you ever work directly with the manufacturers in terms of technology to mitigate these effects?
No. No, that was other people in the industry. They had patents and all kinds of things already going on, once the microwave radiation standard came into effect.
Now, what year would this have been, when you were working on this project?
The calibration and instrumentation?
'72 to '78, perhaps.
And then I started... Actually, the first day I got there, I had interviewed with the chief and he had developed this tissue implantable probe to see what, what the level of microwave electric fields were in the body when you exposed outside the body. Because it isn't what's outside the body that is a concern. It's the dose in the tissue, and that varies with the body structure, whether it's bone or tissue, and the size of the wavelength of the radiation. So he was working on this implantable probe that did not work, and I took the project over and redesigned it, and got it to work. And I presented a paper very early on when I joined.
Now, what was the redesign? How were you able to get the probe to succeed?
I'm just looking at my notes. Well, the problem they had was they put all the antennas connected together, x-y-z, and that doesn't work. What I did was separate the x, the y, and the z by a millimeter, a couple millimeters, and put them on separate substrates. And then each one was an active, I mean an effective, dipole antenna. Miniature, micro miniature antenna.
And did you receive a patent for this technology?
No, NBS, which is now called NIST, had developed a probe for our group, the Bureau of Radiological Health, for use in the air. It was bigger, it couldn't be implanted, so they pretty much had the patent.
But I made it both implantable and then the problem is, how do you calibrate it in different tissues? How do you know what the reading is multiplied by a tissue constant?
By different tissues, you mean if the probe was located in different parts of the body?
Well, basically, it turns out if it's in the body at all in soft tissue, there's just a simple calibration factor. But I made it so that it was independent of the tissue properties.
Now, at what point did you move to Walter Reed Army Institute?
At the Bureau I worked more as a manager, technical manager, but I was promised a promotion, and the FDA personnel system would not give it to me. And I saw an ad in the IEEE Spectrum, big quarter page ad for a chief electrical engineer for microwave dosimetry, which was exactly what I was. So I was able to get that job with a promotion around 1985.
I became a branch chief of that group the “microwave research branch” at Walter Reed. I Worked there for a number of years.
Now, were you on rotation? Were you still employed by the FDA, or this was a proper transfer?
No, I left the Bureau of radiological health.
When I was at Walter Reed, I was the chief engineer of the group that I joined.
And what were you doing in that capacity?
Where, at Walter Reed?
I was the chief engineer of this lab of about 20 people and I had this facility with lots of big anechoic chambers and animal studies and we did research on the effects of very high power microwave. They had contractors come in and use our facilities. And I was overseeing the engineering calibration and measurement and all the engineering designs that were being performed there.
And the work was on a secret area called Directive Energy Warfare. Where you use one gigawatt of pulsed power to jam incoming missiles or anything else. But they were, that group was addressing the fear that the people who operated these jammers, would be exposed to harmful levels, and there would be biological effects from these unknown, huge short pulses.
Now, were these short pulses ever actually deployed in a military context as far as you know?
I believe so. I know that they are deployed now, but they're not short pulses. They're just continuous high-power millimeter waves. And there's a lot of public literature on that now. Back then, it was top-secret.
Now, what were your findings in terms of the safety of these systems to the personnel operating them?
Well, all the different biological researchers who came in to use, to study the facilities. They found subtle effects on behavior, but nothing that was relevant or repeatable. Because there was so little energy, even though it was a high, huge high peak power, there was very little energy. So it would not heat, I don't think. We had this giant transmitter, or generator, shielded with lead that shot out x-rays as well as the millimeter wave radiation.
So that was all shielded with lead, but it was at like a 50-foot long tank of water, with a strip line, a wire going through it. And some sort of way to use that length to generate a pulse. The transit time of the energy along that water-filled wire was produced by a delay line that allowed pulses to be formed. And these were megawatt pulses.
Now, you left that group, I believe, in 1990. What did you do afterwards?
Well, that group was a very satisfying group to work with, but the military was going to combine forces and move them down to another base in Texas. That, there were three groups working on that. The Army, Navy, and Air Force. So I didn't want to move, and just fortuitously, my ex-boss from Bureau of Radiological Health asked me to come back as a branch chief. From the same place I left. I guess the person who took over my spot didn't get along with my boss, or something.
So you took this opportunity?
And what was some of the work you were engaged in as branch chief?
The Bureau of radiological health had been absorbed by the Food and Drug Administration when I was there I was supervising work on electromagnetic compatibility, but not so much for microwave dosimetry. Ovens weren't of a concern after that, but there was a big panic when cell phones were accused by a neurology doctor who went on TV claiming that his brain cancer was due to the use of a cell phone. And so the cell phone industry panicked and came to the FDA and wanted us to sponsor or oversee the research they were doing to prove that it wasn't a problem.
Now Howard, what was your sense of the amount of research that had been done on the potential health impacts of cell phone use prior to this matter? Was there any consideration? I mean, what kind of authorizations would the FDA have had to give the cell phone manufacturers prior to this?
It was the FCC that took over that authorization.
For some reason. But... what was the first part of your question?
So, I'm asking, you know, when this doctor came on television and said his brain cancer is due to cell phone use, right? It sort of begs the question, wouldn't there have been some prior partnership between the FDA and the cell phone industry to ensure, to some degree, that cell phones were emitting an acceptable amount of radiation or no? Really, this is the first time that the FDA got involved in this question?
Well, we had been studying, and I had been involved with, we had this sort of "head phantom." Model of a head filled with soft tissues simulating material. And we would use the probe that I invented to scan through the head and see how much energy was deposited in different regions. And we published that. There were all kinds of biological effects research at the FDA, but I don't recall if there was much on microwave energy back then. Not as far as cell phones.
Was your sense that cell phones, compared with today, were emitting different levels of radiation? In other words, were cell phones more powerful back then? Were they more--
Well, there were certainly some of those big brick phones that put out two watts instead of the 600 milliwatts. But the antenna was farther away from the head, so. We were looking at that, though. That's what we used. We didn't use a cell phone, we used a walkie talkies or I forget what device we used that worked at 900 megahertz or so.
And what were your findings when you were looking at the potential health risks of cell phone use back then?
Well, we only found the levels. We did not find the bio effects. We did not study the biological effects. So the levels were not very high, if in matter of fact they were 100 times lower than anything that would cause heating. But there was suspect that there were non-thermal effects such as cancer. Just due to hypotheses.
So anecdotally, what was your impression of the claims of this particular neurologist who went on TV? Did you accept any possibility that he could have been correct?
Well, we just laughed it off. We knew it was a publicity stunt. Because our research, biological effects people, had looked at levels of that strength that would get into the head from a cell phone, and did not see any effects. And there were dozens of papers elsewhere that did not see effects.
So in terms of, did you think, was it your sense that when the cell-- You used the word "panicked," right? That when the cell phone industry came to the FDA, they were panicked. What kind of assurance would the FDA have been able to give them based on the findings of you and your collaborators in the biological effects field?
Well, it wasn't that. It was FDA was going to validate the studies of ten or more outside contractors that the cell phone industry hired. The government, to my knowledge, didn't do much in the way of research. It was these outside researchers that published and some of them were hired by the cell phone industry, some were forbidden by the cell phone industry because they claimed there were effects. So we had to validate the work that was being done.
Now, did you work directly with these contractors at all, or were you just examining their findings?
I wasn't involved at all with that. I was... There was one or two other biologists who went to every meeting for five years and every lab, visiting and finding out the studies' results. What I was doing was, I chaired an IEEE group, but that dealt with the measurement of cell phone radiation to come up with a standard method, which is used today. And it relies on a standardized head model filled with a standardized tissue simulating material to measure the fields. Inside the head and... One of the researchers found that, oh, the ear gets more radiation than the inside of the head.
And the industry people who dominated my committee said, "Well, the ear is a rugged organ and it's not going to get cancer, so don't, we'll leave that out of the model." The physical model that you use for testing. And there were years of fighting between two factions in that committee. And it wound up that they adopted the one without the ear being measured.
Was your personal view that that was a reasonable conclusion to make? To leave the ear out?
Well, the levels were so low that the ear or the skin next to the head isn't going to be that much different. So I didn't think it was that much different, but I did not like that approach of excluding the ear. But it would have been very difficult to make something that thin that you could measure fields in.
Now I'm curious just, you know, anecdotally, I appreciate that you're not an epidemiologist, but if cell phones actually caused cancer in the head and the ear and the neck, right? Or if there was any concern. Given the amount of cell phone use that happens, wouldn't we see a massive uptick in cancer cases in these areas of the body? If that was the case, beginning in the 1990s when cell phones were starting to become widely adopted?
Yes, that was always what reported to be the case, that the actual number of cancers in the head dropped, even though there were a billion users. So the levels are so low that I never was convinced there was a problem.
Now in terms of your own analysis of these things, how would you work with biologists to sort of come to that overall conclusion, right? Because the research depends on that partnership of, you know, electrical engineering and radio frequency background plus a biological and an oncological background, right? So how would you work with your partners on the biological side of things to come to these conclusions?
Oh, this probe that I developed? This implantable probe.
I traveled around the country and even went to Russia making measurements of their setup in a tissue phantom. And so that's how we supported those people. And those people were not the government and not the cell phone industry grantees. They were the FDA's grantees. Back then, the FDA had a lot of money for extramural funds to hire contractors, so we had about 20 or maybe 10, I don't recall.
Right. Now, in the Electrophysics Branch, right, that you served as chief of during these years. What were some of the other major projects that were going on during that time?
You mean when I came back from Walter Reed?
Yeah, from '91 to 2003, when you were chief of the Electrophysics Branch.
Well, that was mainly involved with electromagnetic compatibility of medical devices like pacemakers. We studied whether cell phones or other forms of radiation, microwave radiation, could inhibit the electronics. I participated in that. We looked at whether the pacemaker could be affected by this huge Army or Navy developed electromagnetic pulse simulator that was so big that they were testing B52 bombers under the antenna. The antenna was that large that they could generate huge pulsed fields under it. So we looked at some things like pacemakers.
And what did you find there?
For these big military electromagnetic pulse sources we just measured the dose in the body. We didn't extrapolate that to a biological effect or a medical device failure. But I'd take that back, that was during my time at Walter Reed just before I went back to the FDA. When I went back to FDA and I was chief, we had a similar study with pacemakers, where we went to the same place and exposed pacemakers to a frequency that was similar to cell phones, but a very... Not just a point of exposure like holding something to your head, but a whole-body exposure. And I don't believe we found any effects on the pacemakers.
Now, when you say "compatibility of medical devices," compatible to what? What's the pairing that's of concern here?
It's the ability of a medical device to function properly in the presence of strong electromagnetic fields. Or if they do fail, they should fail safe so that they turn off in a non-life threatening situation, where someone's dependent on the implant. So we spent a lot of time in that group looking at medical implants like neurostimulators or pacemakers and the effects of all kinds of things like RFID, Radio Frequency Identification, that's used in stores and hospitals to monitor goods if they have a tag on there.
And we looked at effects of cell phones on hearing aids, and we determined that the FCC demanded that all hearing aids be tested to a standard that one of our people helped develop. Meaning the hearing aid wouldn't hear a buzzing or crackling when they used their cell phone.
Now I'll share with you just an anecdote that I remember. My wife's grandmother would famously, she had a pacemaker. And whenever somebody would turn on the microwave in the kitchen, she would run out of the kitchen out of concern that something bad would happen. So this would have been, you know, in the 90s. Was, in your view, was she being overly cautious or was this a legitimate concern?
I don't think there's any basis for fear. We couldn't generate interference until we got... Well, certain cell phones were placed over the electronic pulse generator part of the pacemaker. Might cause it to inhibit. But I don't recall the details. I know that radio frequency identification did affect neurostimulators and pacemakers. If you got too close.
And our group developed a standard for radio frequency identification testing of medical devices before they could get approved.
Now in 2003, you became leader of the Electromagnetics and Wireless Laboratory at the FDA. Was that a significant shift, in terms of the kinds of research you were involved in?
No, that was just an organizational change. We got a new office director, and he abolished the branches. There were three branches. The electrophysics, and then I guess the biological sciences, life sciences, and mechanical. He abolished that and made them "laboratories." So it was just a name change. But it reduced the number of managers, but not the in the lab-- So I became a lab leader, not a branch chief. But it was the same thing –
--except I did not have as much authority as far as personnel matters and non-technical matters.
I see. And what were some of the major research projects that you were involved in during those years? From 2003 to 2015?
We worked on electromagnetic compatibility, we started work on the safety of MRI for people who had implants. And that was a big project because MRI, we found, could heat the tip of a pacemaker lead, (a long wire that goes into the heart at the base of the myocardium). And we found that the tip of that lead in the heart would heat up 20 degrees or 30 degrees, but just in a millimeter, it was in a cubic millimeter. After that, it didn't heat much. But just very close to the tissue interface with the tip of the lead.
Now, were there specific cases of people who had undergone MRIs who had pacemakers that led to these concerns, or it was more a theoretical concern?
No, there might have been one case, but it was more of a theoretical concern. That was needed to be studied to prove that that was correct. So we spent a lot of time performing computer modeling and experiments in an MRI coil that we had at our lab, and not the imaging system. And did a lot of work in that area of MRI safety of implants of different types. Both electronic and passive, like passive hip implants or that kind of part. But we also worked with NIH to develop a imaging technique that could measure temperature without any kind of probe, just by using phase shift thermometry.
Now, I'm curious with a compatibility issue like MRIs and pacemakers, if you found a problem-- I mean, I'm asking generally. How would you determine which of the technologies needed to be modified? In other words, if there was a problem, would it be more likely that you'd go to the MRI manufacturers or that you'd go to the pacemaker manufacturers or both? How would you make those determinations?
Every pacemaker manufacturer that wanted to claim that it was safe to use their device in an MRI scanner had to be very rigorous and prove it through computational modeling and animal studies. So we just audited that, but we also in parallel developed our own computational modeling of MRI coils with wire leads. So basically, from that time on, our group evolved into just electromagnetic compatibility testing of all types of devices and you got all kinds sources like walk-through metal detectors, we studied that. Or anti-theft gates.
And then there was another group dealing with MRI safety looking at heating, not just of the medical device, but of the body. And then there was an optics group that looked at other things for non-ionizing radiation. And they spun off into therapeutics of optical due to tomography. Which I didn't get involved with at all.
And so from 2015, when you began your service as research engineer, was this also an organizational shift? In the--
Yes. Yeah, they just decided they didn't need laboratory leaders anymore. We got a new director, and he said, "Oh, we don't need that." So he formed some sort of strange reorganization with advisors or something like that, that I... It never came to fruition. But we still have deputy division directors. (laughs) That just mirrors the old branch chief structure.
Well, Howard, now that I think we've gone up to the present, I want to ask you a few sort of broader questions. Retrospective questions. In reflecting on your membership in professional and honorary societies, you know, the common theme there is your work on basically radiation safety, right? And so what would you say some of your primary contributions are in terms of insuring on a day-to-day basis that people are exposed to acceptable levels of radiation?
Well, I served as the chairman of two IEEE committees. One to measure electromagnetic radiation, and the other was the cellular phone measurement technique committee. And I received the IEEE Fellow rank for that work. Plus, my background, and where I did my own original work.
And so, Howard, I think, looking forward, for my last question. What are new technologies coming online? Or if you could imagine, you know, into the future, what are some technologies that might pose new kinds of radiation risks for which current means of measuring them might not be adequate?
Well, we had a big project with the TSA. Transportation Safety Administration. To look at these whole-body millimeter wave airport scanners that you go through and hold up your hands and get an image through your clothing. Anyway, we looked at the safety of those, various different models for 50 different kinds of medical devices. So that was a big project.
And now, with 5G coming out, that uses the same millimeter wave frequencies. But I mean, airport scanners were designed so that we found and we knew ahead of time they weren't going to do anything, they were so weak that there's no concern. But 5G, I'm not too worried about that either, because there are a few watts of power that will be delivered from your telephone pole to the neighborhood.
And that's not that much. So then Howard, I guess for my last question, if you could just reflect on your time at the FDA? What are some things that you've felt like you were really able to accomplish as a result of being, you know, a member, a part of the FDA research team?
Well, two things. One would be the leadership of a group that was highly productive, of the electromagnetic area. And the second would be my different contributions that lead to some patents and 80 or so papers. But as far as my overall opinion and that of the Center, Center for Devices and Radiological Health, is that cell phones and most electromagnetic fields are not a problem.
Right, right. Well, that's certainly a good thing, because we use a lot of it.
There's similar probability that millimeter wave, phones, and the transmitters in your neighborhood on your light poles will be insignificant in terms of body and field effects. But they could be, because they tend to scan these new transmitters, sweep around and focus the beam where your phone is. So that might be a problem.
Well, I certainly hope not, because the last thing we need right now is another thing to worry about. Howard, it's been great talking with you and I really appreciate your time joining in on this project for the FDA.
All right, well I'm glad I got to tell someone my life story.
There you go. Okay, thank you very much.