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Frequently asked questions about the safety of radiofrequency (RF) and microwave emissions from transmitters and facilities regulated by the FCC

For further information on these (and other) topics please refer to OET Bulletin 56.  You may also contact the FCC's RF Safety Program at rfsafety@fcc.gov or 1-888-225-5322

Index (click on topic below)

 

WHAT ARE "RADIOFREQUENCY" AND MICROWAVE RADIATION?

Electromagnetic radiation consists of waves of electric and magnetic energy moving together (i.e., radiating) through space at the speed of light.  Taken together, all forms of electromagnetic energy are referred to as the electromagnetic "spectrum."  Radio waves and microwaves emitted by transmitting antennas are one form of electromagnetic energy.  They are collectively referred to as "radiofrequency" or "RF" energy or radiation.  Note that the term “radiation” does not mean “radioactive.”  Often, the terms "electromagnetic field" or "radiofrequency field" may be used to indicate the presence of electromagnetic or RF energy.

The RF waves emanating from an antenna are generated by the movement of electrical charges in the antenna.  Electromagnetic waves can be characterized by a wavelength and a frequency.  The wavelength is the distance covered by one complete cycle of the electromagnetic wave, while the frequency is the number of electromagnetic waves passing a given point in one second.  The frequency of an RF signal is usually expressed in terms of a unit called the "hertz" (abbreviated "Hz").  One Hz equals one cycle per second.  One megahertz ("MHz") equals one million cycles per second.

Different forms of electromagnetic energy are categorized by their wavelengths and frequencies.  The RF part of the electromagnetic spectrum is generally defined as that part of the spectrum where electromagnetic waves have frequencies in the range of about 3 kilohertz (3 kHz) to 300 gigahertz (300 GHz).  Microwaves are a specific category of radio waves that can be loosely defined as radiofrequency energy at frequencies ranging from about 1 GHz upward. (Back to Index)

WHAT IS NON-IONIZING RADIATION?

"Ionization" is a process by which electrons are stripped from atoms and molecules.  This process can produce molecular changes that can lead to damage in biological tissue, including effects on DNA, the genetic material of living organisms.  This process requires interaction with high levels of electromagnetic energy.  Those types of electromagnetic radiation with enough energy to ionize biological material include X-radiation and gamma radiation.  Therefore, X-rays and gamma rays are examples of ionizing radiation.

The energy levels associated with RF and microwave radiation, on the other hand, are not great enough to cause the ionization of atoms and molecules, and RF energy is, therefore, is a type of non-ionizing radiation.  Other types of non-ionizing radiation include visible and infrared light.  Often the term "radiation" is used, colloquially, to imply that ionizing radiation (radioactivity), such as that associated with nuclear power plants, is present.  Ionizing radiation should not be confused with the lower-energy, non-ionizing radiation with respect to possible biological effects, since the mechanisms of action are quite different. (Back to Index)

HOW IS RADIOFREQUENCY ENERGY USED?

Probably the most important use for RF energy is in providing telecommunications services.  Radio and television broadcasting, cellular telephones, personal communications services (PCS), pagers, cordless telephones, business radio, radio communications for police and fire departments, amateur radio, microwave point-to-point links and satellite communications are just a few of the many telecommunications applications of RF energy.  Microwave ovens are an example of a non-communication use of RF energy.  Radiofrequency radiation, especially at microwave frequencies, can transfer energy to water molecules.  High levels of microwave energy will generate heat in water-rich materials such as most foods.  This efficient absorption of microwave energy via water molecules results in rapid heating throughout an object, thus allowing food to be cooked more quickly in a microwave oven than in a conventional oven.  Other important non-communication uses of RF energy include radar and industrial heating and sealing.  Radar is a valuable tool used in many applications range from traffic speed enforcement to air traffic control and military surveillance.  Industrial heaters and sealers generate intense levels of RF radiation that rapidly heats the material being processed in the same way that a microwave oven cooks food.  These devices have many uses in industry, including molding plastic materials, gluing wood products, sealing items such as shoes and pocketbooks, and processing food products.  There are also a number of medical applications of RF energy, such as diathermy and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). (Back to Index)

HOW IS RADIOFREQUENCY RADIATION MEASURED?

An RF electromagnetic wave has both an electric and a magnetic component (electric field and magnetic field), and it is often convenient to express the intensity of the RF environment at a given location in terms of units specific to each component. For example, the unit "volts per meter" (V/m) is used to express the strength of the electric field (electric "field strength"), and the unit "amperes per meter" (A/m) is used to express the strength of the magnetic field (magnetic "field strength").  Another commonly used unit for characterizing the total electromagnetic field is "power density."  Power density is most appropriately used when the point of measurement is far enough away from an antenna to be located in the "far-field" zone of the antenna.

Power density is defined as power per unit area.  For example, power density is commonly expressed in terms of watts per square meter (W/m2), milliwatts per square centimeter (mW/cm2), or microwatts per square centimeter (µW/cm2).  One mW/cm2 equals 10 W/m2, and 100 µW/cm2 equal one W/m2. With respect to frequencies in the microwave range, power density is usually used to express intensity of exposure.

The quantity used to measure the rate at which RF energy is actually absorbed in a body is called the "Specific Absorption Rate" or "SAR."  It is usually expressed in units of watts per kilogram (W/kg) or milliwatts per gram (mW/g).  In the case of exposure of the whole body, a standing ungrounded human adult absorbs RF energy at a maximum rate when the frequency of the RF radiation is in the range of about 70 MHz.  This means that the "whole-body" SAR is at a maximum under these conditions.  Because of this "resonance" phenomenon and consideration of children and grounded adults, RF safety standards are generally most restrictive in the frequency range of about 30 to 300 MHz.  For exposure of parts of the body, such as the exposure from hand-held mobile phones, "partial-body" SAR limits are used in the safety standards to control absorption of RF energy (see later questions on mobile phones).  (Back to Index)

WHAT BIOLOGICAL EFFECTS CAN BE CAUSED BY RF ENERGY?

Biological effects can result from exposure to RF energy.  Biological effects that result from heating of tissue by RF energy are often referred to as "thermal" effects.  It has been known for many years that exposure to very high levels of RF radiation can be harmful due to the ability of RF energy to heat biological tissue rapidly.  This is the principle by which microwave ovens cook food.  Exposure to very high RF intensities can result in heating of biological tissue and an increase in body temperature.  Tissue damage in humans could occur during exposure to high RF levels because of the body's inability to cope with or dissipate the excessive heat that could be generated.  Two areas of the body, the eyes and the testes, are particularly vulnerable to RF heating because of the relative lack of available blood flow to dissipate the excess heat load.

At relatively low levels of exposure to RF radiation, i.e., levels lower than those that would produce significant heating; the evidence for production of harmful biological effects is ambiguous and unproven.  Such effects, if they exist, have been referred to as "non-thermal" effects.  A number of reports have appeared in the scientific literature describing the observation of a range of biological effects resulting from exposure to low-levels of RF energy.  However, in most cases, further experimental research has been unable to reproduce these effects.  Furthermore, since much of the research is not done on whole bodies (in vivo), there has been no determination that such effects constitute a human health hazard.  It is generally agreed that further research is needed to determine the generality of such effects and their possible relevance, if any, to human health.  In the meantime, standards-setting organizations and government agencies continue to monitor the latest experimental findings to confirm their validity and determine whether changes in safety limits are needed to protect human health. (Back to Index)

CAN PEOPLE BE EXPOSED TO LEVELS OF RADIOFREQUENCY RADIATION THAT COULD BE HARMFUL?

Studies have shown that environmental levels of RF energy routinely encountered by the general public are typically far below levels necessary to produce significant heating and increased body temperature.  However, there may be situations, particularly in workplace environments near high-powered RF sources, where the recommended limits for safe exposure of human beings to RF energy could be exceeded.  In such cases, restrictive measures or mitigation actions may be necessary to ensure the safe use of RF energy. (Back to Index)

CAN RADIOFREQUENCY RADIATION CAUSE CANCER?

Some studies have also examined the possibility of a link between RF exposure and cancer.  Results to date have been inconclusive.  While some experimental data have suggested a possible link between exposure and tumor formation in animals exposed under certain specific conditions, the results have not been independently replicated.  Many other studies have failed to find evidence for a link to cancer or any related condition.  The Food and Drug Administration has further information on this topic with respect to RF exposure from mobile phones at the following Web site: FDA Radiation-Emitting Products Page . (Back to Index)

WHAT RESEARCH IS BEING DONE ON RF BIOLOGICAL EFFECTS?

For many years, research into the possible biological effects of RF energy has been carried out in laboratories around the world, and such research is continuing.  Past research has resulted in a large number of peer-reviewed scientific publications on this topic.  For many years the U.S. Government has sponsored research into the biological effects of RF energy.  The majority of this work has been funded by the Department of Defense, due in part, to the extensive military interest in using RF equipment such as radar and other relatively high-powered radio transmitters for routine military operations.  In addition, some U.S. civilian federal agencies responsible for health and safety, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have sponsored and conducted research in this area.  At the present time, most of the non-military research on biological effects of RF energy in the U.S. is being funded by industry organizations, although relatively more research by government agencies is being carried out overseas, particularly in Europe.

In 1996, the World Health Organization (WHO) established a program called the International EMF Project,  which is designed to review the scientific literature concerning biological effects of electromagnetic fields, identify gaps in knowledge about such effects, recommend research needs, and work towards international resolution of health concerns over the use of RF technology.  The WHO maintains a Web site that provides extensive information on this project and about RF biological effects and research (www.who.ch/peh-emf).

The FDA, the EPA and other federal agencies responsible for public health and safety have worked together and in connection with the WHO to monitor developments and identify research needs related to RF biological effects.  More information about this can be obtained at the FDA Web site: FDA Radiation-Emitting Products Page. (Back to Index)

WHAT LEVELS ARE SAFE FOR EXPOSURE TO RF ENERGY?

Exposure standards for radiofrequency energy have been developed by various organizations and countries.  These standards recommend safe levels of exposure for both the general public and for workers.  In the United States, the FCC has adopted and used recognized safety guidelines for evaluating RF environmental exposure since 1985.  Federal health and safety agencies, such as the EPA, FDA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have also been involved in monitoring and investigating issues related to RF exposure.

The FCC guidelines for human exposure to RF electromagnetic fields were derived from the recommendations of two expert organizations, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).  Both the NCRP exposure criteria and the IEEE standard were developed by expert scientists and engineers after extensive reviews of the scientific literature related to RF biological effects.  The exposure guidelines are based on thresholds for known adverse effects, and they incorporate prudent margins of safety.  In adopting the most recent RF exposure guidelines, the FCC consulted with the EPA, FDA, OSHA and NIOSH, and obtained their support for the guidelines that the FCC is using.

Many countries in Europe and elsewhere use exposure guidelines developed by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).  The ICNIRP safety limits are generally similar to those of the NCRP and IEEE, with a few exceptions.  For example, ICNIRP recommends somewhat different exposure levels in the lower and upper frequency ranges and for localized exposure due to such devices as hand-held cellular telephones.  One of the goals of the WHO EMF Project (see above) is to provide a framework for international harmonization of RF safety standards.  The NCRP, IEEE and ICNIRP exposure guidelines identify the same threshold level at which harmful biological effects may occur, and the values for Maximum Permissible Exposure (MPE) recommended for electric and magnetic field strength and power density in both documents are based on this level.  The threshold level is a Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) value for the whole body of 4 watts per kilogram (4 W/kg).  

In addition, the NCRP, IEEE and ICNIRP guidelines for maximum permissible exposure are different for different transmitting frequencies.  This is due to the finding (discussed above) that whole-body human absorption of RF energy varies with the frequency of the RF signal.  The most restrictive limits on whole-body exposure are in the frequency range of 30-300 MHz where the human body absorbs RF energy most efficiently when the whole body is exposed.  For devices that only expose part of the body, such as mobile phones, different exposure limits are specified (see below).

The exposure limits used by the FCC are expressed in terms of SAR, electric and magnetic field strength and power density for transmitters operating at frequencies from 300 kHz to 100 GHz.  The actual values can be found in either of two informational bulletins available at this Web site (OET Bulletin 56 or OET Bulletin 65), see listing for "OET Safety Bulletins." (Back to Index)

WHY HAS THE FCC ADOPTED GUIDELINES FOR RF EXPOSURE?

The FCC authorizes and licenses devices, transmitters and facilities that generate RF radiation.  It has jurisdiction over all transmitting services in the U.S. except those specifically operated by the Federal Government.  However, the FCC's primary jurisdiction does not lie in the health and safety area, and it must rely on other agencies and organizations for guidance in these matters.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), all Federal agencies are required to implement procedures to make environmental consideration a necessary part of an agency's decision-making process.  Therefore, FCC approval and licensing of transmitters and facilities must be evaluated for significant impact on the environment.  Human exposure to RF radiation emitted by FCC-regulated transmitters is one of several factors that must be considered in such environmental evaluations.  In 1996, the FCC revised its guidelines for RF exposure as a result of a multi-year proceeding and as required by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Facilities under the jurisdiction of the FCC having a high potential for creating significant RF exposure to humans, such as radio and television broadcast stations, satellite-earth stations, experimental radio stations and certain cellular, PCS and paging facilities are required to undergo routine evaluation for compliance with RF exposure guidelines whenever an application is submitted to the FCC for construction or modification of a transmitting facility or renewal of a license.  Failure to show compliance with the FCC's RF exposure guidelines in the application process could lead to the preparation of a formal Environmental Assessment, possible Environmental Impact Statement and eventual rejection of an application.  Technical guidelines for evaluating compliance with the FCC RF safety requirements can be found in the FCC's OET Bulletin 65 (see "OET Safety Bulletins" listing elsewhere at this Web site).

Low-powered, intermittent, or inaccessible RF transmitters and facilities are normally "categorically excluded" from the requirement of routine evaluation for RF exposure.  These exclusions are based on calculations and measurement data indicating that such transmitting stations or devices are unlikely to cause exposures in excess of the guidelines under normal conditions of use.  The FCC's policies on RF exposure and categorical exclusion can be found in Section 1.1307(b) of the FCC's Rules and Regulations [47 CFR 1.1307(b)].  It should be emphasized, however, that these exclusions are not exclusions from compliance, but, rather, only exclusions from routine evaluation.  Transmitters or facilities that are otherwise categorically excluded from evaluation may be required, on a case-by-case basis, to demonstrate compliance when evidence of potential non-compliance of the transmitter or facility is brought to the Commission's attention [see 47 CFR 1.1307(c) and (d)]. (Back to Index)

HOW SAFE ARE MOBILE AND PORTABLE PHONES?

In recent years, publicity, speculation, and concern over claims of possible health effects due to RF emissions from hand-held wireless telephones prompted various research programs to investigate whether there is any risk to users of these devices  There is no scientific evidence to date that proves that wireless phone usage can lead to cancer or a variety of other health effects, including headaches, dizziness or memory loss.  However, studies are ongoing and key government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continue to monitor the results of the latest scientific research on these topics.  Also, as noted above, the World Health Organization has established an ongoing program to monitor research in this area and make recommendations related to the safety of mobile phones.

The FDA, which has primary jurisdiction for investigating mobile phone safety, has stated that it cannot rule out the possibility of risk, but if such a risk exists, "it is probably small."  Further, it has stated that, while there is no proof that cellular telephones can be harmful, concerned individuals can take various precautionary actions, including limiting conversations on hand-held cellular telephones and making greater use of telephones with hands-free kits where there is a greater separation distance between the user and the radiating antenna.  The Web site for the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health provides further information on mobile phone safety: FDA Radiation-Emitting Products Page.

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) prepared a report of its investigation into safety concerns related to mobile phones.  The report concluded that further research is needed to confirm whether mobile phones are completely safe for the user, and the report recommended that the FDA take the lead in monitoring the latest research results.

The FCC's exposure guidelines specify limits for human exposure to RF emissions from hand-held mobile phones in terms of Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), a measure of the rate of absorption of RF energy by the body.  The safe limit for a mobile phone user is an SAR of 1.6 watts per kg (1.6 W/kg), averaged over one gram of tissue, and compliance with this limit must be demonstrated before FCC approval is granted for marketing of a phone in the United States.  Somewhat less restrictive limits, e.g., 2 W/kg averaged over 10 grams of tissue, are specified by the ICNIRP guidelines used in Europe and most other countries.

Measurements and analysis of SAR in models of the human head have shown that the 1.6 W/kg limit is unlikely to be exceeded under normal conditions of use of cellular and PCS hand-held phones.  The same can be said for cordless telephones used in the home.  Testing of hand-held phones is normally done under conditions of maximum power usage, thus providing an additional margin of safety, since most phone usage is not at maximum power.  Information on SAR levels for many phones is available electronically through the FCC's Web site and database (see next question). (Back to Index)

HOW CAN I OBTAIN THE SPECIFIC ABSORPTION RATE (SAR) VALUE FOR MY MOBILE PHONE?

As explained above, the Specific Absorption Rate, or SAR, is the unit used to determine compliance of cellular and PCS phones with safety limits adopted by the FCC.  The SAR is a value that corresponds to the rate at which RF energy absorbed in the head of a user of a wireless handset.  The FCC requires mobile phone manufacturers to demonstrate compliance with an SAR level of 1.6 watts per kilogram (averaged over one gram of tissue).

Information on SAR for a specific cell phone model can be obtained for almost all cellular telephones by using the FCC identification (ID) number for that model.  The FCC ID number is usually printed somewhere on the case of the phone or device.  In many cases, you will have to remove the battery pack to find the number.  Once you have the number proceed as follows. Go to the following website: Equipment Authorization. Click on the link for “FCC ID Search”.  Once you are there you will see instructions for inserting the FCC ID number.  Enter the FCC ID number (in two parts as indicated: "Grantee Code" is comprised of the first three characters, the "Equipment Product Code" is the remainder of the FCC ID).  Then click on "Start Search."  The grant(s) of equipment authorization for this particular ID number should then be available.  Click on a check under "Display Grant" and the grant should appear.  Look through the grant for the section on SAR compliance, certification of compliance with FCC rules for RF exposure or similar language.  This section should contain the value(s) for typical or maximum SAR for your phone.

For portable phones and devices authorized since June 2, 2000, maximum SAR levels should be noted on the grant of equipment authorization.  For phones and devices authorized between about mid-1998 and June 2000, detailed information on SAR levels is typically found in one of the "exhibits" associated with the grant.  Therefore, once the grant is accessed in the FCC database, the exhibits can be viewed by clicking on the appropriate entry labeled "View Exhibit."  Electronic records for FCC equipment authorization grants were initiated in 1998, so devices manufactured prior to this date may not be included in our electronic database.

Although the FCC database does not list phones by model number, there are certain non-government Web sites such as www.cnet.com that provide information on SAR from specific models of mobile phones.  However, the FCC has not reviewed these sites for accuracy and makes no guarantees with respect to them.  In addition to these sites, some mobile phone manufacturers make this information available at their own Web sites.  Also, phones certified by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) are now required to provide this information to consumers in the instructional materials that come with the phones.

If you want additional consumer information on safety of cell phones and other transmitting devices please consult the information available below at this Web site.  In particular, you may wish to read or download our OET Bulletin 56 (see "OET RF Safety Bulletins" listing) entitled: "Questions and Answers about Biological Effects and Potential Hazards of Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields."  If you have any problems or additional questions you may contact us at: rfsafety@fcc.gov or you may call: 1-888-225-5322.  You may also wish to consult a consumer update on mobile phone safety published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that can be found at: FDA Radiation-Emitting Products Page. (Back to Index)

DO "HANDS-FREE" EAR PIECES FOR MOBILE PHONES REDUCE EXPOSURE TO RF EMISSIONS?  WHAT ABOUT MOBILE PHONE ACCESSORIES THAT CLAIM TO SHIELD THE HEAD FROM RF RADIATION?

"Hands-free" kits with ear pieces can be used with cell phones for convenience and comfort.  In addition, because the phone, which is the source of the RF emissions, will not be placed against the head, absorption of RF energy in the head will be reduced.  Therefore, it is true that use of an ear piece connected to a mobile phone will significantly reduce the rate of energy absorption (or "SAR") in the user's head.  On the other hand, if the phone is mounted against the waist or other part of the body during use, then that part of the body will absorb RF energy.  Even so, mobile phones marketed in the U.S. are required to meet safety limit requirements regardless of whether they are used against the head or against the body.  So either configuration should result in compliance with the safety limit.  Note that hands-free devices using “Bluetooth” technology also include a wireless transmitter; however, the Bluetooth transmitter operates at a much lower power than the cell phone. 

A number of devices have been marketed that claim to "shield" or otherwise reduce RF absorption in the body of the user.  Some of these devices incorporate shielded phone cases, while others involve nothing more than a metallic accessory attached to the phone.  Studies have shown that these devices generally do not work as advertised.  In fact, they may actually increase RF absorption in the head due to their potential to interfere with proper operation of the phone, thus forcing it to increase power to compensate.(Back to Index)

CAN MOBILE PHONES BE USED SAFELY IN HOSPITALS AND NEAR MEDICAL TELEMETRY EQUIPMENT?

The FCC does not normally investigate problems of electromagnetic interference from RF transmitters to medical devices.  Some hospitals have policies, which limit the use of cell phones, due to concerns that sensitive medical equipment could be affected.  The FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) has primary jurisdiction for medical device regulation. FDA staff provide more information at their Web site:  http://www.fda.gov/Radiation-EmittingProducts/RadiationEmittingProductsandProcedures/HomeBusinessandEntertainment/default.htm.
(Back to Index)

ARE CELLULAR AND PCS TOWERS AND ANTENNAS SAFE?

Cellular radio services transmit using frequencies between 824 and 894 megahertz (MHz).  Transmitters in the Personal Communications Service (PCS) use frequencies in the range of 1850-1990 MHz.  Antennas used for cellular and PCS transmissions are typically located on towers, water tanks or other elevated structures including rooftops and the sides of buildings.  The combination of antennas and associated electronic equipment is referred to as a cellular or PCS "base station" or "cell site."  Typical heights for free-standing base station towers or structures are 50-200 feet.  A cellular base station may utilize several "omni-directional" antennas that look like poles, 10 to 15 feet in length, although these types of antennas are less common in urbanized areas.

In urban and suburban areas, cellular and PCS service providers commonly use "sector" antennas for their base stations.  These antennas are rectangular panels, e.g., about 1 by 4 feet in size, typically mounted on a rooftop or other structure, but they are also mounted on towers or poles.  Panel antennas are usually arranged in three groups of three each.  It is common that not all antennas are used for the transmission of RF energy; some antennas may be receive-only.

At a given cell site, the total RF power that could be radiated by the antennas depends on the number of radio channels (transmitters) installed, the power of each transmitter, and the type of antenna.  While it is theoretically possible for cell sites to radiate at very high power levels, the maximum power radiated in any direction usually does not exceed 50 watts. 

The RF emissions from cellular or PCS base station antennas are generally directed toward the horizon in a relatively narrow pattern in the vertical plane.  In the case of sector (panel) antennas, the pattern is fan-shaped, like a wedge cut from a pie.  As with all forms of electromagnetic energy, the power density from the antenna decreases rapidly as one moves away from the antenna.  Consequently, ground-level exposures are much less than exposures if one were at the same height and directly in front of the antenna.

Measurements made near typical cellular and PCS installations, especially those with tower-mounted antennas, have shown that ground-level power densities are thousands of times less than the FCC's limits for safe exposure.   This makes it extremely unlikely that a member of the general public could be exposed to RF levels in excess of FCC guidelines due solely to cellular or PCS base station antennas located on towers or monopoles.

When cellular and PCS antennas are mounted at rooftop locations it is possible that a person could encounter RF levels greater than those typically encountered on the ground.  However, once again, exposures approaching or exceeding the safety guidelines are only likely to be encountered very close to and directly in front of the antennas.  For sector-type antennas, RF levels to rear are usually very low. (Back to Index)

For further information on cellular services go to http://wireless.fcc.gov/services/index.htm?job=service_home&id=cellular

ARE CELLULAR AND OTHER RADIO TOWERS LOCATED NEAR HOMES OR SCHOOLS SAFE FOR RESIDENTS AND STUDENTS?

As discussed above, radiofrequency emissions from antennas used for cellular and PCS transmissions result in exposure levels on the ground that are typically thousands of times below safety limits.  These safety limits were adopted by the FCC based on the recommendations of expert organizations and endorsed by agencies of the Federal Government responsible for health and safety.  Therefore, there is no reason to believe that such towers could constitute a potential health hazard to nearby residents or students.

Other antennas, such as those used for radio and television broadcast transmissions, use power levels that are generally much higher than those used for cellular and PCS antennas.  Therefore, in some cases there could be a potential for higher levels of exposure to persons on the ground.  However, all broadcast stations are required to demonstrate compliance with FCC safety guidelines, and ambient exposures to nearby persons from such stations are typically well below FCC safety limits. (Back to Index)

ARE EMISSIONS FROM RADIO AND TELEVISION BROADCAST ANTENNAS SAFE?

Radio and television broadcast stations transmit their signals via RF electromagnetic waves.  There are thousands of radio and TV stations on the air in the United States.  Broadcast stations transmit at various RF frequencies, depending on the channel, ranging from about 540 kHz for AM radio up to about 800 MHz for UHF television stations.  Frequencies for FM radio and VHF television lie in between these two extremes.  Broadcast transmitter power levels range from a few watts to more than 100,000 watts.  Some of these transmission systems can be a significant source of RF energy in the local environment, so the FCC requires that broadcast stations submit evidence of compliance with FCC RF guidelines.

The amount of RF energy to which the public or workers might be exposed as a result of broadcast antennas depends on several factors, including the type of station, design characteristics of the antenna being used, power transmitted to the antenna, height of the antenna and distance from the antenna.  Note that the power normally quoted for FM and TV broadcast transmitters is the "effective radiated power" or ERP not the actual transmitter power mentioned above.  ERP is the transmitter power delivered to the antenna multiplied by the directivity or gain of the antenna.  Since high gain antennas direct most of the RF energy toward the horizon and not toward the ground, high ERP transmission systems such as used for UHF-TV broadcast tend to have less ground level field intensity near the station than FM radio broadcast systems with lower ERP and gain values.  Also, since energy at some frequencies is absorbed by the human body more readily than at other frequencies, both the frequency of the transmitted signal and its intensity is important.  Calculations can be performed to predict what field intensity levels would exist at various distances from an antenna.

Public access to broadcasting antennas is normally restricted so that individuals cannot be exposed to high-level fields that might exist near antennas.  Measurements made by the FCC, EPA and others have shown that ambient RF radiation levels in inhabited areas near broadcasting facilities are typically well below the exposure levels recommended by current standards and guidelines.  There have been a few situations around the country where RF levels in publicly accessible areas have been found to be higher than those recommended in applicable safety standards.  As they have been identified, the FCC has required that stations at those facilities promptly bring their combined operations into compliance with our guidelines.  Thus, despite the relatively high operating powers of many broadcast stations, such cases are unusual, and members of the general public are unlikely to be exposed to RF levels from broadcast towers that exceed FCC limits

Antenna maintenance workers are occasionally required to climb antenna structures for such purposes as painting, repairs, or lamp replacement.  Both the EPA and OSHA have reported that in such cases it is possible for a worker to be exposed to high levels of RF energy if work is performed on an active tower or in areas immediately surrounding a radiating antenna.  Therefore, precautions should be taken to ensure that maintenance personnel are not exposed to unsafe RF fields. (Back to Index)

HOW SAFE ARE RADIO ANTENNAS USED FOR PAGING AND "TWO-WAY" COMMUNICATIONS?  WHAT ABOUT "PUSH-TO-TALK" RADIOS SUCH AS "WALKIE-TALKIES?"

"Land-mobile" communications include a variety of communications systems, which require the use of portable and mobile RF transmitting sources.  These systems operate in several frequency bands between about 30 and 1000 MHz.  Radio systems used by the police and fire departments, radio paging services and business radio are a few examples of these communications systems.  They have the advantage of providing communications links between various fixed and mobile locations.

There are essentially three types of RF transmitters associated with land-mobile systems:  base-station transmitters, vehicle-mounted transmitters, and hand-held transmitters.  The antennas and power levels used for these various transmitters are adapted for their specific purpose.  For example, a base-station antenna must radiate its signal to a relatively large area, and therefore, its transmitter generally has to use higher power levels than a vehicle-mounted or hand-held radio transmitter.  Although base-station antennas usually operate with higher power levels than other types of land-mobile antennas, they are normally inaccessible to the public since they must be mounted at significant heights above ground to provide for adequate signal coverage.  Also, many of these antennas transmit only intermittently.  For these reasons, base-station antennas are generally not of concern with regard to possible hazardous exposure of the public to RF radiation.  Studies at rooftop locations have indicated that high-powered paging antennas may increase the potential for exposure to workers or others with access to such sites, e.g., maintenance personnel.  This could be a concern especially when multiple transmitters are present.  In such cases, restriction of access or other mitigation actions may be necessary.

Transmitting power levels for vehicle-mounted land-mobile antennas are generally less than those used by base-station antennas but higher than those used for hand-held units.  Some manufacturers recommend that users and other nearby individuals maintain some minimum distance (e.g., 1 to 2 feet) from a vehicle-mounted antenna during transmission or mount the antenna in such a way as to provide maximum shielding for vehicle occupants.  Studies have shown that this is probably a conservative precaution, particularly when the percentage of time an antenna is actually radiating is considered.  Unlike cellular telephones, which transmit continuously during a call, two-way radios normally transmit only when the "push-to-talk" button is depressed.  This significantly reduces exposure, and there is no evidence that there would be a safety hazard associated with exposure from vehicle-mounted, two-way antennas when the manufacturer's recommendations are followed.

Hand-held "two-way" portable radios such as walkie-talkies are low-powered devices used to transmit and receive messages over relatively short distances.  Because of the low power levels used, the intermittency of these transmissions ("push-to-talk"), and due to the fact that these radios are held away from the head, they should not expose users to RF energy in excess of safe limits.  Although FCC rules do not require routine documentation of compliance with safety limits for push-to-talk two-way radios as it does for cellular and PCS phones (which transmit continuously during use and which are held against the head), most of these radios are tested and the resulting SAR data are available from the FCC’s Equipment Authorization database.  Click on the link for “FCC ID Search <imbed hypertext link>.”. (Back to Index)

HOW SAFE ARE MICROWAVE AND SATELLITE ANTENNAS?

Point-to-point microwave antennas transmit and receive microwave signals across relatively short distances (from a few tenths of a mile to 30 miles or more).  These antennas are usually circular (“dish”) or rectangular in shape and are normally mounted on a supporting tower, rooftop, sides of buildings or on similar structures that provide clear and unobstructed line-of-sight paths between both ends of a transmission path.  These antennas have a variety of uses, such as relaying long-distance telephone calls, and serving as links between broadcast studios and transmitting sites.

The RF signals from these antennas travel in a directed beam from a transmitting antenna to the receiving antenna, and dispersion of microwave energy outside of this narrow beam is minimal or insignificant.  In addition, these antennas transmit using very low power levels, usually on the order of a few watts or less.  Measurements have shown that ground-level power densities due to microwave directional antennas are normally thousands of times or more below recommended safety limits.  Moreover, microwave tower sites are normally inaccessible to the general public.  Significant exposures from these antennas could only occur in the unlikely event that an individual were to stand directly in front of and very close to an antenna for a period of time.

Ground-based antennas used for satellite-earth communications typically are parabolic "dish" antennas, some as large as 10 to 30 meters in diameter, that are used to transmit ("uplink") or receive ("downlink") microwave signals to or from satellites in orbit around the earth.  These signals allow delivery of a variety of communications services, including television network programming, electronic newsgathering and point-of-sale credit card transactions.   Some satellite-earth station antennas are used only to receive RF signals (i.e., like the satellite television antenna used at a residence), and because they do not transmit, RF exposure is not an issue for those antennas.

Since satellite-earth station antennas are directed toward satellites above the earth, transmitted beams point skyward at various angles of inclination, depending on the particular satellite being used.  Because of the longer distances involved, power levels used to transmit these signals are relatively large when compared, for example, to those used by the terrestrial microwave point-to-point antennas discussed above.  However, as with microwave antennas, the beams used for transmitting earth-to-satellite signals are concentrated and highly directional, similar to the beam from a flashlight.  In addition, public access would normally be restricted at uplink sites where exposure levels could approach or exceed safe limits.

Although many satellite-earth stations are "fixed" sites, portable uplink antennas are also used, e.g., for electronic news gathering.  These antennas can be deployed in various locations.  Therefore, precautions may be necessary, such as temporarily restricting access in the vicinity of the antenna, to avoid exposure to the main transmitted beam.  In general, however, it is unlikely that a transmitting earth station antenna would routinely expose members of the public to potentially harmful levels of RF energy. (Back to Index)

ARE RF EMISSIONS FROM AMATEUR RADIO STATIONS HARMFUL?

There are hundreds of thousands of amateur radio operators ("hams") worldwide.  Amateur radio operators in the United States are licensed by the FCC.  The Amateur Radio Service provides its members with the opportunity to communicate with persons all over the world and to provide valuable public service functions, such as making communications services available during disasters and emergencies.  Like all FCC licensees, amateur radio operators are required to comply with the FCC's guidelines for safe human exposure to RF fields.  Under the FCC's rules, amateur operators can transmit with power levels of up to 1500 watts.  However, most operators use considerably less power than this maximum.  Studies by the FCC and others have shown that most amateur radio transmitters would not normally expose persons to RF levels in excess of safety limits.  This is primarily due to the relatively low operating powers used by most amateurs, the intermittent transmission characteristics typically used and the relative inaccessibility of most amateur antennas.  As long as appropriate distances are maintained from amateur antennas, exposure of nearby persons should be well below safety limits.

To help ensure compliance of amateur radio facilities with RF exposure guidelines, both the FCC and American Radio Relay League (ARRL) have issued publications to assist operators in evaluating compliance for their stations.  The FCC's publication (Supplement B to OET Bulletin 65 can be viewed and downloaded elsewhere at this Web site (see "OET RF Safety Bulletins"). (Back to Index)

WHAT IS THE FCC'S POLICY ON RADIOFREQUENCY WARNING SIGNS?  FOR EXAMPLE, WHEN SHOULD SIGNS BE POSTED, WHERE SHOULD THEY BE LOCATED AND WHAT SHOULD THEY SAY?

Radiofrequency warning or "alerting" signs should be used to provide information on the presence of RF radiation or to control exposure to RF radiation within a given area.  Standard radiofrequency hazard warning signs are commercially available from several vendors.  Appropriate signs should incorporate the format recommended by the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and as specified in the IEEE standard: IEEE C95.2-1999 (Web address: www.ieee.org).  Guidance concerning the placement of signs can be found in IEEE Standard C95.7-2005.  When signs are used, meaningful information should be placed on the sign advising affected persons of:  (1) the nature of the potential hazard (i.e., high RF fields), (2) how to avoid the potential hazard, and (3) whom to contact for additional information.  In some cases, it may be appropriate to also provide instructions to direct individuals as to how to work safely in the RF environment of concern.  Signs should be located prominently in areas that will be readily seen by those persons who may have access to an area where high RF fields are present. (Back to Index)

CAN IMPLANTED ELECTRONIC CARDIAC PACEMAKERS BE AFFECTED BY NEARBY RF DEVICES SUCH AS MICROWAVE OVENS OR CELLULAR TELEPHONES?

Over the past several years there has been concern that signals from some RF devices could interfere with the operation of implanted electronic pacemakers and other medical devices.  Because pacemakers are electronic devices, they could be susceptible to electromagnetic signals that could cause them to malfunction.  Some anecdotal claims of such effects in the past involved emissions from microwave ovens.  However, it has never been shown that the RF energy from a properly operating microwave oven is strong enough to cause such interference.

Some studies have shown that mobile phones can interfere with implanted cardiac pacemakers if a phone is used in close proximity (within about 8 inches) of a pacemaker.  It appears that such interference is limited to older pacemakers, which may no longer be in use.  Nonetheless, to avoid this potential problem, pacemaker patients can avoid placing a phone in a pocket close to the location of their pacemaker or otherwise place the phone near the pacemaker location during phone use.  Patients with pacemakers should consult with their physician or the FDA if they believe that they may have a problem related to RF interference.  Further information on this is available from the FDA website for Radiation-Emitting Products. (Back to Index)

DOES THE FCC REGULATE EXPOSURE TO THE ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION FROM MICROWAVE OVENS, TELEVISION SETS AND COMPUTER MONITORS?

The Commission does not regulate exposure to emissions from these devices.  Protecting the public from harmful radiation emissions from these consumer products is the responsibility of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Inquires should be directed to the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), and, specifically, to the CDRH Office of Compliance at (301) 594-4654. (Back to Index)

DOES THE FCC ROUTINELY MONITOR RADIOFREQUENCY RADIATION FROM ANTENNAS?

The FCC does not have the resources or the personnel to routinely monitor the emissions for all of the thousands of transmitters that are subject to FCC jurisdiction.  However, the FCC does have measurement instrumentation for evaluating RF levels in areas that may be accessible to the public or to workers.  If there is evidence of potential non-compliance with FCC exposure guidelines for an FCC-regulated facility, staff from the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology or the Enforcement Bureau can conduct an investigation, and, if appropriate, perform actual measurements.  It should be emphasized that the FCC does not perform RF exposure investigations unless there is a reasonable expectation that the FCC exposure limits may be exceeded.  Potential exposure problems should be brought to the FCC's attention by contacting the FCC at: 1-888-225-5322 or by e-mailing: rfsafety@fcc.gov. (Back to Index)

DOES THE FCC MAINTAIN A DATABASE THAT INCLUDES INFORMATION ON THE LOCATION AND TECHNICAL PARAMETERS OF ALL OF THE TRANSMITTER SITES IT REGULATES?

The Commission does not have a comprehensive, transmitter-specific database for all of the services it regulates.  The Commission has information for some services such as radio and television broadcast stations, and many larger antenna towers are required to register with the FCC if they meet certain criteria.  In those cases, location information is generally specified in terms of degrees, minutes, and seconds of latitude and longitude.  In some services, licenses are allowed to utilize additional transmitters or to increase power without notifying the Commission.  Other services are licensed by geographic area, such that the Commission has no knowledge concerning the actual number or location of transmitters within that geographic area.  

The FCC General Menu Reports (GenMen) search engine unites most of the Commission's licensing databases under a single umbrella.  Databases included are the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau's ULS, the Media Bureau's CDBS, COALS (cable data) and BLS, and the International Bureau's IBFS.  Entry points or search options in the various databases include frequency, state/county, latitude/longitude, call sign and licensee name.

The FCC also publishes, generally on a weekly basis, bulk extracts of the various Commission licensing databases.  Each licensing database has it own unique file structure.  These extracts consist of multiple, very large files.  OET maintains an index to these databases.

OET has developed a Spectrum Utilization Study Software tool-set that can be used to create a Microsoft Access version of the individual exported licensing databases and then create MapInfo "mid" and "mif" files so that radio assignments can be plotted.  This experimental software is used to conduct internal spectrum utilization studies needed in the rulemaking process.  While the FCC makes this software available to the public, no technical support is provided.

For further information on the Commission's existing databases, please contact Donald Campbell at donald.campbell@fcc.gov or 202-418-2405. (Back to Index)

WHICH OTHER FEDERAL AGENCIES HAVE RESPONSIBILITIES RELATED TO POTENTIAL RF HEALTH EFFECTS?

Certain agencies in the Federal Government have been involved in monitoring, researching or regulating issues related to human exposure to RF radiation.  These agencies include the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Defense (DOD).

By authority of the Radiation Control for Health and Safety Act of 1968, the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) of the FDA develops performance standards for the emission of radiation from electronic products including X-ray equipment, other medical devices, television sets, microwave ovens, laser products and sunlamps.  The CDRH established a product performance standard for microwave ovens in 1971 limiting the amount of RF leakage from ovens.  However, the CDRH has not adopted performance standards for other RF-emitting products.  The FDA is, however, the lead federal health agency in monitoring the latest research developments and advising other agencies with respect to the safety of RF-emitting products used by the public, such as cellular and PCS phones.

The FDA's microwave oven standard is an emission standard (as opposed to an exposure standard) that allows specific levels of microwave energy leakage (measured at five centimeters from the oven surface).  The standard also requires ovens to have two independent interlock systems that prevent the oven from generating microwaves if the latch is released or if the door of the oven is opened.  The FDA has stated that ovens that meet its standards and are used according to the manufacturer's recommendations are safe for consumer and industrial use.  More information is available from: FDA's website for Radiation-Emitting Products.

The EPA has, in the past, considered developing federal guidelines for public exposure to RF radiation.  However, EPA activities related to RF safety and health are presently limited to advisory functions.  For example, the EPA chairs an Inter-agency Radiofrequency Working Group, which coordinates RF health-related activities among the various federal agencies with health or regulatory responsibilities in this area.

OSHA is part of the U.S. Department of Labor, and is responsible for protecting workers from exposure to hazardous chemical and physical agents.  In 1971, OSHA issued a protection guide for exposure of workers to RF radiation [29 CFR 1910.97].  However, this guide was later ruled to be only advisory and not mandatory. Moreover, it was based on an earlier RF exposure standard that has now been revised.  At the present time, OSHA uses the IEEE and/or FCC exposure guidelines for enforcement purposes under OSHA's "general duty clause" (for more information see: www.osha.gov/SLTC/radiofrequencyradiation/).

NIOSH is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  It conducts research and investigations into issues related to occupational exposure to chemical and physical agents.  NIOSH has, in the past, undertaken to develop RF exposure guidelines for workers, but final guidelines were never adopted by the agency.  NIOSH conducts safety-related RF studies through its Physical Agents Effects Branch in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The NTIA is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce and is responsible for authorizing Federal Government use of the RF electromagnetic spectrum.  Like the FCC, the NTIA also has NEPA responsibilities and has considered adopting guidelines for evaluating RF exposure from U.S. Government transmitters such as radar and military facilities. (Back to Index)

CAN LOCAL AND STATE GOVERNMENTAL BODIES ESTABLISH LIMITS FOR RF EXPOSURE?

In the United States, some local and state jurisdictions have also enacted rules and regulations pertaining to human exposure to RF energy.  However, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 contained provisions relating to federal jurisdiction to regulate human exposure to RF emissions from certain transmitting devices.  In particular, Section 704 of the Act states that, "No State or local government or instrumentality thereof may regulate the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions to the extent that such facilities comply with the Commission's regulations concerning such emissions."  Further information on FCC policy with respect to facilities siting is available from the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau (see http://wireless.fcc.gov/siting/). (Back to Index)

WHERE CAN I OBTAIN MORE INFORMATION ON POTENTIAL HEALTH EFFECTS OF RADIOFREQUENCY ENERGY?

Although relatively few offices or agencies within the Federal Government routinely deal with the issue of human exposure to RF fields, it is possible to obtain information and assistance on certain topics from the following federal agencies, all of which also have Internet Web sites.

FDA: For information about radiation from microwave ovens and other consumer and industrial products contact: Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), Food and Drug Administration. [FDA website for Radiation-Emitting Products]

EPA: The Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Radiation Programs is responsible for monitoring potential health effects due to public exposure to RF fields. Contact: Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Radiation and Indoor Air, Washington, D.C. 20460, (202) 564-9235. [EPA Non-Ionizing Radiation Web Page]

OSHA: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) Health Response Team has been involved in studies related to occupational exposure to RF radiation. [http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/radiation_nonionizing/index.html]

NIOSH: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducts research on RF-related safety issues in workplaces and recommends measures to protect worker health. Contact: NIOSH, Engineering and Physical Hazards Branch, Mail Stop R-5, 4676 Columbia Parkway, Cincinnati, Ohio 45226, or phone 1-513-841-4221. Toll-free public inquiries: 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636), or by email: cdcinfo@cdc.gov.  Internet information on workplace RF safety: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/emf/#rffields.

NCI: The National Cancer Institute, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, conducts and supports research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs with respect to the cause, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of cancer.  Contact:   NCI Public Inquiries Office, 6116 Executive Boulevard, Room 3036A, Bethesda, MD 20892-8322. [http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/cellphones

Toll-free number: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

FCC: Questions regarding potential RF hazards from FCC-regulated transmitters can be directed to the Federal Communications Commission, Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau, 445 12th Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20554; Phone: 1-888-225-5322; E-mail: rfsafety@fcc.gov; or go to: www.fcc.gov/oet/rfsafety.

In addition to federal government agencies, there are other sources of information regarding RF energy and health effects.  Some states and localities maintain non-ionizing radiation programs or, at least, some expertise in this field, usually in a department of public health or environmental control.  The following table lists some representative Internet Web sites that provide information on this topic.  However, the FCC neither endorses nor verifies the accuracy of any information provided at these sites.  They are being provided for information only. (Back to Index)

For more information on this topic please note:

OET Bulletin 56: Questions and Answers About the Biological Effects and Potential Hazards of Radiofrequency Radiation.

 

Any questions regarding this subject matter should be addressed to: The RF Safety Program

 



last reviewed/updated 6/25/12


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