FCC Releases Long-Awaited Item On RF Exposure Standards

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Posted with permission of TRDaily

The FCC this afternoon released its long-awaited item opening a proceeding to explore whether it should modify its radio frequency exposure standards.  The review will be the first time the FCC has considered whether to reexamine its RF standards since they were adopted in 1996.

 In 2003, the FCC adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking proposing changes to regulations governing human exposure to RF energy as part of an “action plan” designed to streamline the siting of communications towers (TRDaily, June 26, 2003).  But the item was not meant to consider the actual RF exposure limits, only the procedures for complying with them.

 The FCC requires wireless phones to have an SAR (specific absorption rate) of no more than 1.6 watts per kilogram.

 Environmental activists and some in the medical community have called on the FCC for years to update its RF emission standards, saying they don’t adequately protect users of wireless devices, especially children and pregnant women.  Some of these critics also contend that enough research has shown a connection between mobile phone use and brain tumors and other ill health effects. They also have pushed for greater labeling of SAR values – including at the point of sale.  And they have raised concerns about the health impact of living near cell sites and to workers who are near antennas every day.

 The first report and order, further notice of proposed rulemaking, and notice of inquiry adopted March 27 and released today in ET dockets 13-84 and 03-137 was first circulated in June 2012 (TRDaily, June 15, 2012).  An FCC official told TRDaily today that it took a long time for FCC officials to comb through the item due to its heft – it runs 201 pages with appendices – as well as its complex technical details.

 The long pleading cycle reflects the complexity.  Comments are due 90 days after “Federal Register” publication and replies are due 60 days after that.

 The FCC said that it continues “to have confidence in the current exposure limits,” adding “that more recent international standards have a similar basis. At the same time, given the fact that much time has passed since the Commission last sought comment on exposure limits, as a matter of good government, we wish to develop a current record by opening a new docket with this Notice of Inquiry (Inquiry).”

The FCC said that the order portion of the item resolves “several issues regarding compliance with our regulations for conducting environmental reviews under NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] as they relate to the guidelines for human exposure to RF electromagnetic fields. More specifically, we clarify evaluation procedures and references to determine compliance with our limits, including specific absorption rate (SAR) as a primary metric for compliance, consideration of the pinna (outer ear) as an extremity, and measurement of medical implant exposure. We also elaborate on mitigation procedures to ensure compliance with our limits, including labeling and other requirements for occupational exposure classification, clarification of compliance responsibility at multiple transmitter sites, and labeling of fixed consumer transmitters. …  We defer some decisions on topics initiated by the Notice and make new proposals in the Further Notice, which extends the Notice’s scope to encompass specific items that either were raised in comments for the first time or have evolved significantly since the Notice was issued, including the categorical exclusion of fixed transmitters.”

The further notice seeks “comment on new proposals developed in the course of this proceeding regarding compliance with our guidelines for human exposure to RF electromagnetic fields,” the FCC said.  “Our proposals reflect an effort to provide more efficient, practical, and consistent application of evaluation procedures to ensure compliance with our guidelines limiting human exposure to RF energy from Commission-regulated transmitters and devices. We are proposing to broadly revise and harmonize the criteria for determining whether single or multiple fixed, mobile, or portable RF sources are subject to routine evaluation for compliance with the RF exposure limits or are exempted from such evaluations. Additionally, we propose clarifications of evaluation requirements for portable and medical implant devices. We also propose to adopt specific new requirements for signs and barriers at fixed transmitter sites to ensure compliance with public and occupational exposure limits. Further, we propose a clarification of the definition of transient exposure for non-workers exposed at levels up to occupational limits.”

 The FCC added that in the further notice, it makes “proposals by which we seek to streamline and harmonize many procedures to achieve equal treatment of RF-emitting sources based on their physical properties rather than service categories. Thus, we propose establishing general exemptions from evaluation to determine compliance in place of existing service-specific ‘categorical exclusions.’ These proposed exemptions involve simple calculations to establish whether any further determination of compliance is necessary.”

 The purpose of the NOI is “to determine whether there is a need for reassessment of the Commission radiofrequency (RF) exposure limits and policies,” the FCC said.  “The Inquiry focuses on three elements: the propriety of our existing standards and policies, possible options for precautionary exposure reduction, and possible improvements to our equipment authorization process and policies as they relate to RF exposure. We adopted our present 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 (NCRP) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE). Since 1996, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has developed a recommendation supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), and the IEEE has revised its recommendations several times, while the NCRP has continued to support its recommendation as we use it in our current rules. In the Inquiry, we ask whether our exposure limits remain appropriate given the differences in the various recommendations that have developed and recognizing additional progress in research subsequent to the adoption of our existing exposure limits.”

The Commission added that because it “is not a health and safety agency, we defer to other organizations and agencies with respect to interpreting the biological research necessary to determine what levels are safe. As such, the Commission invites health and safety agencies and the public to comment on the propriety of our general present limits and whether additional precautions may be appropriate in some cases, for example with respect to children. We recognize our responsibility to both protect the public from established adverse effects due to exposure to RF energy and allow industry to provide telecommunications services to the public in the most efficient and practical manner possible. In the Inquiry we ask whether any precautionary action would be either useful or counterproductive, given that there is a lack of scientific consensus about the possibility of adverse health effects at exposure levels at or below our existing limits. Further, if any action is found to be useful, we inquire whether it could be efficient and practical.”

Specifically, the FCC seeks views “on the feasibility of evaluating portable RF sources without a separation distance when worn on the body to ensure compliance with our limits under present-day usage conditions. We ask whether the Commission should consistently require either disclosure of the maximum SAR value or other more reliable exposure data in a standard format – perhaps in manuals, at point-of-sale, or on a website. Additionally, we seek comment on appropriate education and outreach to the public on low-level exposure to RF energy from fixed transmitters in the environment. We also inquire about aspects of evaluation procedures to establish whether the standardization process can be improved considering the fast pace at which technology changes.”

The FCC proposes “that any NEPA evaluation is premature at this time with respect to the Inquiry, which merely seeks to determine whether there is a basis to reevaluate the Commission’s RF exposure limits and policies. Such impact will be considered and the need for an environmental assessment (EA) will be evaluated at that time if we decide in the future to adopt new rules in the course of the new docket initiated by the Inquiry.”

In the NOI, the FCC said, “As an initial matter, while there has been increasing public discussion about the safety of wireless devices, to date organizations with expertise in the health field such as the FDA have not suggested that there is a basis for changing our standards or similar standards applied in other parts of the world. As stated above, our purpose in opening this proceeding is to provide a forum for a full and transparent discussion to determine whether any action may be appropriate.  Accordingly, we ask generally whether our current standards should be modified in any way, notwithstanding the detailed discussion below. We specifically solicit information on the scientific basis for such changes as well as the advantages and disadvantages and the associated costs of doing so.

“ In addition to seeking input from federal health and safety agencies and institutes, we solicit comment from national and international standards organizations (specifically including NCRP [National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements] and IEEE) on the currency of their exposure limits and supporting documents in light of recent research and IARC’s [International Agency for Research on Cancer] announcement on its classification of RF fields,” the NOI added.  “We note that IARC’s detailed monograph on this classification is not yet available, but may become available to inform our consideration during the course of this proceeding, and we invite parties to comment on this monograph if it is released during the comment period established for this Inquiry. Although IEEE Std 1528-2003, which we use to determine the compliance of devices such as cell phones intended to be used against the head, states that the mannequin in its measurement test setup represents a conservative case for men, women, and children’ alike, we specifically seek comment as to whether our current limits are appropriate as they relate to device use by children.”

In response to the NOI, John Walls, CTIA’s vice president-public affairs said in a statement that the trade group “welcomes the FCC’s focus on cellphones and health effects. In establishing RF emission requirements for wireless devices, the FCC has always been guided by science and the evidence produced by impartial health organizations and the scientific community. As the GAO stated in its July 2012 report, ‘Scientific research to date has not demonstrated adverse human health effects of exposure to radio-frequency energy from mobile phone use, but research is ongoing that may increase understanding of any possible effects.’ The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health have reached similar conclusions about the state of the science.” 

Environmental and health activists said today they are pleased they the FCC is looking at updating its rules, but they criticized numerous portions of the document.  They also questioned whether the Commission is even qualified to undertake the task given its lack of knowledge in public health matters.

 “We have a serious public health risk that is not being addressed by people who aren’t experts in public health,” Devra Davis, founder and president of the Environmental Health Trust, told TRDaily.

 She suggested that Congress should reconsider whether the Commission should even have the authority to issue RF safety rules, saying there is a “glaring contradiction” to have the agency do this when it is charged with helping increase the deployment of technology to Americans.

As for specifics in the item released today, Ms. Davis complained that the FCC was classifying the outer ear as an extremity even though it is close to the brain.

She also took issue with the agency’s placing reliance on the determinations of some health authorities while apparently discounting others.  “They select the experts they want to listen to,” she said, saying the agency cited a 2010 World Health Organization expert opinion while ignoring one issued a year later.

Ms. Davis also said that the FCC’s statement that its “exposure limits are set at a level on the order of 50 times below the level at which adverse biological effects have been observed in laboratory animals as a result of tissue heating resulting from RF exposure” has been disproven.

 But Ms. Davis said she is pleased that the FCC acknowledges that some devices, such as tablets, are built to be used at least 20 centimeters from users, which in practice often does not occur.  But she said the FCC knows that advisory labels are likely to be ignored, particularly by parents and their children who use the devices for school.

 In a footnote in the NOI, the FCC says that “[f]or mobile consumer devices where … a separation distance of at least 20 cm is normally maintained, we will continue to allow awareness of exposure from devices to be accomplished by the use of advisory labels and by providing users with information concerning minimum separation distances from transmitting structures and proper installation of antennas, as established in the Order adopted supra, in ET Docket 03-137.”

But Ms. Davis said she was pleased that the item cites various ways to mitigate RF emissions from wireless devices, some steps that Ms. Davis noted that her group has suggested for years.

 “Several general strategies are available for users of portable devices that want to reduce their exposure. While increasing distance from the device and decreasing time of use are obvious actions to reduce exposure, the benefits of other strategies are not immediately obvious and could be subject to significant research to determine whether they may be effective,” the NOI said.  “For example, factors such as power control (e.g., the relationships of indicated signal level (‘bars’), geographic location, and network technologies to SAR), modulation, low frequency fields, headset use, texting instead of talking, device antenna location, etc., could all affect exposure, but whether exposure awareness and control of these factors can reduce exposure may depend on many variables.”

 Janet Newton, president of the EMRadiation Policy Institute, said the FCC’s current RF standards are based on research conducted decades ago that didn’t include the health impact of digital wireless devices.  The SAR limits also assume that users of devices are men who weigh about 200 pounds, not women and children and not people using their devices for hours each day.

“There’s so much more for them to consider this time around given the proliferation” of devices, Ms. Newton said.  “Are they really taking a serious look at how things have changed?”

Ms. Newton said she would look to whether the FCC’s item seeks to address RF exposure to workers who are near antennas as part of their jobs.  Her group says that hundreds of industry-operated antennas it has had tested have violated the FCC’s exposure limits by, in some cases, more than six-fold.

“The fundamental purpose of our rules regarding occupational/controlled exposure is to require that workers at the higher permitted levels of exposure have the appropriate level of awareness and control to ensure that they are not exposed above the occupational/controlled limits,” the FCC said in the order.  “We agree with commenters that argue that flexibility is needed with respect to how such information is provided to adapt to the needs of various sites and circumstances. Therefore, we are specifying that for individuals exposed as a consequence of their employment, using the occupational/controlled limits, written and/or verbal (orally-communicated) information must be provided, at the discretion of the responsible party as is necessary to ensure compliance with the occupational/controlled limits.”- Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

 

Paul Kirby

Senior Editor

TRDaily

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