The FCC released an item today maintaining its existing radio frequency (RF) exposure limits despite arguments that they are unsafe and should be tightened. The agency also took other actions that advocates for stricter RF standards protested.

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel concurred in the item, which was circulated in August (TR Daily, Aug. 8), but she did not release a statement explaining why.

“Modern communications technologies are an ever-increasingly critical part of our everyday lives and play a vital role in the execution of our businesses and daily affairs. The number and types of radiofrequency (RF) devices have proliferated, and the ways we interact with them are continuously changing. As a result, our environment is populated with RF sources, at times located in close proximity to humans. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) requires the Commission to evaluate the effects of our actions on the quality of the human environment, including human exposure to RF energy emitted by Commission-regulated transmitters and facilities,” the Commission noted in an item that resolves a notice of inquiry adopted in 2013 and also includes a second report and order, notice of proposed rulemaking, and memorandum opinion and order in ET dockets 03-137, 13-84, and 19-226. The item was adopted on Nov. 27.

“The Commission has accordingly promulgated rules that set limits for RF exposure and, through the years, has created a framework to ensure compliance with these limits. Today, we take a number of steps regarding these limits to ensure the health and safety of workers and consumers of wireless technology, while also clarifying and streamlining rules to reduce regulatory burdens on licensees,” the item added.

“First, we resolve a Notice of Inquiry that sought public input on, among other issues, whether the Commission should amend its existing RF emission exposure limits. After reviewing the extensive record submitted in response to that inquiry, we find no appropriate basis for and thus decline to propose amendments to our existing limits at this time. We take to heart the findings of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), an expert agency regarding the health impacts of consumer products, that ‘[t]he weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems.’ Despite requests from some to increase and others to decrease the existing limits, we believe they reflect the best available information concerning safe levels of RF exposure for workers and members of the general public, including inputs from our sister federal agencies charged with regulating safety and health and from well-established international standards,” the FCC said.

“Second, based on our existing limits, we revise our implementing rules to reflect modern technology and today’s uses. We streamline our criteria for determining when a licensee is exempt from our RF exposure evaluation criteria, replacing our prior regime of service-based exemptions with a set of formulas for situations in which the risk of excessive RF exposure is minimal. For those licensees who do not qualify for an exemption, we provide more flexibility for licensees to establish compliance with our RF exposure limits. And we specify methods that RF equipment operators can use to mitigate the risk of excess exposure, both to members of the public and trained workers (such as training, supervision, and signage),” the item added.

“Third, we notice further targeted proposals on the application of our RF emission exposure limits for future uses of wireless technologies. Specifically, we propose to formalize … an additional limit for localized RF exposure and the associated methodology for compliance for portable devices operating at high frequencies (gigahertz (GHz) frequencies) … on top of our already existing limits that apply at these frequencies, and propose to extend this to terahertz (THz) frequencies as well. We also propose to allow wireless power transfer (WPT) equipment under Part 15 and 18 of the Commission’s rules and propose specific exposure limits for such operations,” the FCC said.

“Fourth, and finally, we deny a pending petition for reconsideration and affirm our prior finding that the pinnae (outer ears) should be treated like other extremities for purposes of determining compliance with our RF emission exposure limits,” the item said.

Regarding the FCC’s decision to terminate its inquiry into whether it should modify its RF exposure standards, the FCC said that its “decision is supported by our expert sister agencies, and the lack of data in the record to support modifying our existing exposure limits. Specifically, no expert health agency expressed concern about the Commission’s RF exposure limits. Rather, agencies’ public statements continue to support the current limits. The Director of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health advised the Commission, as recently as April 2019, that ‘no changes to the current standards are warranted at this time.’ The record does not demonstrate that the science underpinning the current RF exposure limits is outdated or insufficient to protect human safety. Nor does the record include actionable alternatives or modifications to the current RF limits supported by scientifically rigorous data or analysis. For all these reasons, we terminate the inquiry, but will continue to study and review publicly available science and collaborate with other federal agencies and the international community to ensure our limits continue to reflect the latest science. If an appropriate basis for launching a new Commission proceeding arises, we are confident that the Commission will undertake further evaluation of our rules in light of that review.”

“We also decline to revisit our RF exposure evaluation procedures for consumer portable devices, especially phones,” the FCC said. “Current evaluation procedures require consumer portable devices to be tested at maximum power under normal use conditions. For phones testing is performed against the head, representing normal use during a phone call, and at a separation distance of up to 2.5 centimeters (about one inch) from the body to represent phone use in other ways. Even though some parties claim that the RF exposure evaluation procedures for phones should require testing with a ‘zero’ spacing – against the body – this is unnecessary. First, phones are tested against the head without any separation distance to represent normal use conditions during a phone call. Second, at maximum power, even though they are not consistently operated at such power levels. This means that testing is performed under more extreme conditions than a user would normally encounter, so any potential dangers at zero-space would be mitigated. Third, actual testing separation distances tend to be less than the 2.5 cm prescribed for many devices.”

The FCC also declined “to revisit our RF exposure policy as it pertains to children. Under IEEE Std 1528-2003 — the standard for determining the compliance of devices such as cell phones — the measurement test setup that is used was designed to test for effects on children as well as adults. Similarly the FDA maintains that ‘[t]he scientific evidence does not show a danger to any users of cell phones from RF exposure, including children and teenagers.’ Since the inquiry, scientific debate has continued about whether either dosimetric (e.g., higher conductivity of skull and brain tissues in children’s heads) or anatomical differences (e.g., characteristically smaller sized heads and outer ears) in children could result in unacceptably high exposures depending on use conditions. While we agree that there are differences in actual exposure in real human heads, and acknowledge that possible age-related differences in absorption of RF energy in the heads of mobile phone users could result in differences in exposure to the head, these considerations were appropriately taken into account and incorporated into the measurement standards. Therefore, based on the evidentiary record, we see no reason to revisit our equipment authorization procedures as a result.”

In comments filed with the FCC in 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) expressed concern about the impact of RF emissions on children and said that the existing standards fail to “account for the unique vulnerability and use patterns specific to pregnant women and children.”

In the MO&O, the FCC rejected a petition for reconsideration filed by the American Association for Justice (AAJ) regarding the treatment of the outer ears.

“AAJ argues that treating the pinnae as extremities is likely to lead to greater exposure to the head, which it contends is a health risk. It devotes much of its Petition to discussing potential health risks to children and adults, arguing that there is a nexus between RF exposure to the pinnae and adverse health effects due to its proximity to the brain,” the item said. “AAJ’s Petition contains no new information or arguments that specifically address the effects of RF exposure on the pinnae themselves and otherwise relies on arguments that have been fully considered and rejected. While the AAJ suggests that the pinnae are fundamentally different from other extremities due to its proximity to the brain, the AAJ has not demonstrated scientifically or quantitatively why that proximity is material for SAR [specific absorption rate] limits that are based solely on localized thermal effects.”

In the NPRM, the FCC seeks “comment on expanding the range of frequencies for which the RF exposure limits apply; (noting that exposure limits are already in effect from 100 kHz to 100 GHz) on incorporating into our rules localized exposure limits above 6 GHz in parallel to the localized exposure limits already established below 6 GHz; on specifying the conditions under which and the methods by which the limits are averaged, in both time and area, during evaluation for compliance with the rules; and on addressing new issues raised by WPT devices. Although we terminated the Inquiry noticed in ET Docket No. 13-84 above, there are some proposals on which we seek comment in this NPRM that stem from matters discussed in that proceeding, some of which overlap with the issues identified immediately above.

“This NPRM proposes methods and seeks comment on how to best incorporate new RF technologies, new methods and techniques for RF transmission, and new usages for a variety of RF spectrum bands into our preexisting exposure framework,” the item added. “In particular, on the topic of body-worn spacing during testing of cell phones, we continue to strive to ensure that such spacing represents realistic values for present-day technology and common usage.”

Comments on the NPRM are due 30 days after “Federal Register” publication and replies are due 30 days after that in ET docket 19-226.

The FCC requires wireless phones to have an SAR 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, FCC officials have noted.

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 at the time released a report and order, further NPRM, and NOI.

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.

Meanwhile, an international appeal seeking more protective guidelines for RF emissions was resubmitted to the United Nations this year (TR Daily, July 22). The appeal is now signed by 224 scientists from 42 nations. The original appeal in May 2015 to the U.N., its member states, and the World Health Organization was signed by 190 scientists from 39 nations (TR Daily, May 11, 2015).

In 2011, a working group of the WHO’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.

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.

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.

“We appreciate the FCC’s ongoing oversight as well as its careful review of the science and the findings of expert organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration, which has stated that ‘the weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems,’” CTIA said in a statement today. “As the FCC states, ‘no scientific evidence establishes a causal link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses.’”

But advocates for tougher RF standards criticized the FCC’s item.

“The FCC has no health expertise and relies upon Federal health agencies, especially the FDA, for advice about RF exposure limits. However, these agencies have lacked the requisite expertise to provide this guidance as their radiofrequency (RF) health experts retired or took industry jobs,” said Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health in the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health and creator of the website. “In the past decade, these agencies have failed to monitor the vast and growing body of peer-reviewed research that documents adverse health effects from low-intensity exposure to radiofrequency radiation. Rather, the Federal government has increasingly relied upon advice from engineers and scientists with conflicts of interest and industry lobbyists.”

“Clearly the FCC should update their safety guidelines. Other countries have guidelines that are up to 1,000 times lower than ours (Austria etc). The guidelines are based on research and agency analysis before 1996. I do not understand what the FCC is basing their recommendation on,” said Kevin Mottus, outreach director for the California Brain Tumor Association. “I do know that the FCC is a highly industry captured agency and they do not have a health department or expertise to properly assess this issue. The FCC cites advice from other agencies including the FDA who do not have programs to actively investigate and carefully assess this issue. I think the public and companies that rely on wireless technology should take action to take authority over this question away from the FCC because we have clear evidence that wireless RF radiation all along the spectrum is bioactive and has non-thermal biological effects which are not being taken into account by our current FCC guidelines.”

“There are numerous incorrect assumptions about the nature of millimeter-wave exposure from 5G. Chief among these misconceptions is the notion that because the signal only gets 1/64th of an inch into the skin the signal is unlikely to have any major biological impact,” said Environmental Health Trust President Devra Davis. She also bemoaned other portions of the item released today, including the affirmation regarding treatment of the outer ears and its rejection of the need for tougher standards to protect children from RF emissions.

TR Daily: FCC Maintains Existing RF Exposure Limits