TR Daily Draft FCC Item Would Maintain Current RF Exposure Limits
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Thursday, August 8, 2019

Draft FCC Item Would Maintain Current RF Exposure Limits

The FCC would maintain its existing radio frequency (RF) exposure limits under a long-awaited draft item circulated to FCC Commissioners today, the agency announced. The Commission launched its RF standards proceeding in 2013.

“The proposal would also establish a uniform set of guidelines for ensuring compliance with the limits regardless of the service or technology, replacing the Commission’s current inconsistent patchwork of service-specific rules,” according to a news release. “In addition, Chairman [Ajit] Pai is proposing that the Commission seek comment on establishing rules formalizing its existing methods of determining compliance with the RF exposure standard for high-frequency devices.”

“The FCC sets radiofrequency limits in close consultation with the FDA and other health agencies. After a thorough review of the record and consultation with these agencies, we find it appropriate to maintain the existing radiofrequency limits, which are among the most stringent in the world for cell phones,” said Office of Engineering and Technology Chief Julie Knapp.

The news release said the draft item would (1) “maintain the existing RF exposure limits and thus resolve the Commission’s 2013 Notice of Inquiry that sought public input on whether to strengthen or relax its existing RF exposure limits”; (2) “establish a uniform set of guidelines, agnostic to the service or technology, using science-based metrics around frequency, distance, and power, to determine how entities assess whether they are in compliance with RF standards”; and (3) “seek comment on establishing a rule to formalize the Commission’s existing methods of determining compliance with the RF exposure standard for devices operating at high frequencies.”

The news release quotes Jeffrey Shuren, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, who told the FCC in a letter that “[t]he available scientific evidence to date does not support adverse health effects in humans due to exposures at or under the current limits…” and “[n]o changes to the current standards are warranted at this time.”

But the FDA says on its website that “there is consensus that additional research is warranted to address gaps in knowledge, such as the effects of cell phone use over the long-term and on pediatric populations.”

In 2013, the FCC opened a proceeding to explore whether it should modify its RF exposure standards, the first such review since the standards were adopted in 1996 (TR Daily, March 29, 2013).

The FCC then released a report and order, further notice of proposed rulemaking, and notice of inquiry in ET dockets 13-84 and 03-13.

The document circulated today includes an item resolving the NOI from 2013, a second report and order addressing the FNPRM from 2013, an NPRM in a new docket addressing different issues from 2013, and a memorandum opinion and order dealing with a few small reconsideration issues, according to FCC officials.

The news release and FCC officials who spoke to reporters this afternoon during a background call stressed that the U.S. has “among the most stringent” RF exposure limits of any country in the world.

The FCC requires wireless phones to have an SAR (specific absorption rate) of no more than 1.6 watts per kilogram averaged over 1 gram of tissue, while much of the rest of the world adheres to an IEEE standard of 2.0 watts per kilogram averaged over 10 grams of tissue, the FCC officials noted.

One official also stressed that the FCC’s rules apply equally regardless of the technology such as 5G.

But advocates for tougher RF standards have urged the FCC to require the wireless industry to pause its deployment of 5G services, saying that more research is needed on the impact to human health of small cells and higher frequencies. They point to developments in recent years that have raised concerns among many about the potential health effects of wireless technology.

For example, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) last year accepted the recommendations of an expert peer-review panel and upgraded the confidence levels of carcinogenic activity in rats from exposure to 2G and 3G radiofrequency radiation (TR Daily, Nov. 1, 2018). However, the NTP and others cautioned that the results cannot be extrapolated to predict the impacts of human cellphone use.

Also, in 2011 a working group of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that RF emissions from mobile phones are “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (TR Daily, May 31, 2011). But the working group stressed the need for additional research.

In comments filed with the FCC in 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) expressed concern about the impact of RF emissions on children.

“Children are not little adults and are disproportionately impacted by all environmental exposures, including cell phone radiation,” the AAP said in its filing (TR Daily, Sept. 4, 2013). “Current FCC standards do not account for the unique vulnerability and use patterns specific to pregnant women and children. It is essential that any new standard for cell phones or other wireless devices be based on protecting the youngest and most vulnerable populations to ensure they are safeguarded throughout their lifetimes.”

“These more than two-decade old RF standards are outdated, outmoded and do not protect public health or the environment, as I and many scientists have demonstrated,” Environmental Health Trust President Devra Davis told TR Daily today. “In this decision, the FCC shows a reckless disregard for science and is moving backward. Having neither expertise in meteorology nor public health, the agency is acting unilaterally, ignoring a growing body of independent scientific research indicating serious potential harms to the atmosphere and to public health.”

The mention of meteorology refers to criticism from the meteorology community that the FCC’s 24 gigahertz band rules fail to protect weather forecasting operations in the 23 GHz band.

Local officials have also pressed the FCC to complete its RF standards proceeding, citing 5G concerns expressed by their communities. Members of Congress also have cited health concerns about the impact of 5G deployment.

Joe Van Eaton, a partner at Best, Best & Krieger LLP who represents local governments, said in a statement to TR Daily today, “The Commission began the reexamination of its RF policies in 2003, and in 2013 started a further proceeding to determine whether ‘the current rules and policies should remain unchanged, or should be relaxed or tightened.’ It is time to bring those proceedings to a close, [as] our clients have been asking the Commission to do so for some time. We’ll wait and see whether the Commission’s decision does that, and whether it is justified or not, and whether it is based on the latest data.

“But the issues in the proceeding go beyond RF exposure limits themselves. We know that the small cells being placed in rights of way and on rooftops do have emissions that exceed the FCC limits within a certain distance of the antenna, and the proceedings were designed to more definitively address what wireless providers must do to prevent exposures in excess of FCC limits,” Mr. Van Eaton added. “This is of particular concern since under the FCC’s new wireless rules, under which we are receiving applications for facilities so close to private property lines that a portion of the property is exposed to RF in excess of FCC limits.”

For their part, wireless and consumer electronics entities have urged the FCC to relax and harmonize its RF rules with regulations in place around the world.

In a statement, a CTIA spokesperson said today, “We are pleased that the FCC continues to follow the guidance of expert scientific organizations and health agencies such as the FDA when it comes to RF and health. The scientific consensus is that there are no known health risks from all forms of RF energy at the low levels approved for every day consumer use.” —Paul Kirby, [email protected]

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