FCC Formally Begins Process of Reviewing Radio Frequency Exposure Standards

By Paul Barbagallo  

The Federal Communications Commission has released a more-than 200-page document that officially launches a new proceeding to reassess whether the agency should modify the current allowable limit for cellphone radiation emissions.

In issuing the report and order, further notice of proposed rulemaking, and notice of inquiry late March 29, the FCC will formally reexamine its radio-frequency exposure standards for the first time since they were adopted in 1996.

The commission review will focus on three elements: the propriety of existing standards and policies, possible options for precautionary exposure reduction, and possible improvements to the agency's equipment-authorization process and policies relating to radio-frequency exposure.

The FCC adopted the current exposure limits in 1996 based on guidance from federal safety, health, and environmental agencies using recommendations published separately by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. Since then, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection has developed recommendations supported by the World Health Organization, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has revised its recommendations several times, while the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements has continued to support its recommendation as we use it in our current rules, the agency noted.

As part of the inquiry, the commission will now ask whether the current exposure limits “remain appropriate” given the differences and recognizing the progress made in research since 1996.

FCC rules require wireless phones to have what is known as a “specific absorption rate” of no more than 1.6 watts per kilogram. As the FCC explained on its website, in the case of cellular and Personal Communications Service, or PCS, cell site transmitters, the agency's radio-frequency exposure guidelines recommend a maximum permissible exposure level to the general public of 580 microwatts per square centimeter. This limit is many times greater than the radio-frequency levels found near the base of cellular or PCS cell site towers or in the vicinity of other, lower-powered cell site transmitters, it points out.

And while the commission is now planning to review its standards, it maintains that “currently no scientific evidence establishes a causal link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses.”

Environmental and health activists have long called for an update of the FCC's standards, arguing that the current standards grossly underestimate the degree of radio-frequency emission exposure to most of the U.S. population, including children. Some recent studies have suggested a link between cellphone use and cancer, lower bone density, and even infertility in men. But other studies have found no measurable effect at all.

As part of the effort, the FCC is proposing to “broadly revise and harmonize the criteria for determining whether single or multiple fixed, mobile, or portable radio-frequency sources are subject to routine evaluation for compliance with the radio-frequency exposure limits or are exempted from such evaluations.”

The items have been under consideration by the FCC commissioners since June 2012. Several months later, the Government Accountability Office said the FCC should reassess the allowable limit for radiation emissions, as research is still “ongoing” and may “increase understanding of any possible effects”.

The FCC document can be found at http://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-review-rf-exposure-policies.