Rules & Regulations About Electricity, Electronics, Wireless Devices, Electric & Telecom Infrastructure: A Study Guide

c 2015 by Katie Singer

What are regulations, and why do we need them?

When we instruct children to look both ways before crossing the street, we introduce them to a safety regulation.

As cars become common, we required manufacturers to install windshield wipers, seat belts and air bags to make them safer. We required special seats for children. On roads, we set speed limits and created intersections with stop signs and stop lights.

Indeed, whenever a product or service is introduced to society, what do people concerned about their health and our environment want to know:

1. How was the product’s safety determined?

2. Did regulators notice any hazards that occur from exposure to the device at a certain distance, over a certain length of time, or if exposure occurs in combination with another product or service?

3. Do pregnant women, infants, children, the infirm, people with medical implants, workers or wildlife require different protection when exposed to the product or service?

4. If we don’t want a product or service in our environment or municipality, what choices do we have?

When have regulations around hazardous products changed?

Several decades after people became aware of harm caused by cigarette smoke, including second-hand smoke, FDA regulations began to prevent cigarette manufacturers from advertising to children. Restaurants and other areas of public accommodation created non-smoking areas and eventually banned smoking altogether.

After people learned that pesticides and herbicides can harm, they banned their use on soccer fields.

Federal agencies began creating regulations in the 19th century at the instigation of railroad tycoons, whose motives weren’t exactly motivated by public health concerns. For a fascinating history, check out anthropologist Jane Anne Morris’s ” Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing.”

How do federal agencies regulate electronics and wireless devices?

Here are a few key ways:

1. In 1934, Congress passed The Broadcasting Act and established our Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC encouraged entrepreneurs to invent and market electronics and appliances–as long as they did not create “harmful interference.” The FCC defined harmful interference as anything that interferes with existing radio or TV broadcasts. More recently, “harmful interference” includes cellular and Internet services: new products and services may not interfere with existing radio or TV broadcasts or cellular or Internet services.

The FCC’s definition of “harmful interference” has never included biological harm.

2. In the mid-90s, the FCC conducted a test to determine whether mobile devices are safe for human use, Engineers filled the head of a standard anthropomorphic man (SAM) with salty fluid and took his temperature. (SAM’s size is similar to that of a 200-pound man.) Engineers gave the dummy a cell phone for six minutes, then they took his temperature again. Because SAM’s temperature did not change by two degrees in those six minutes, the FCC determined that mobile devices are safe to market.

In other words, the FCC determined mobile device safety solely by the immediate, thermal effects of EMR-exposure. (For thousands of studies about the non-thermal effects of exposure, visit or

3. The FCC established Specific Absorption Rates (SARs) in 1996. A SAR measures exposure of tissue to electromagnetic radiation (EMR). A SAR is the ratio of power to weight (Watt/kilogram) at a given frequency above 100 kHz for a given period of time. In ’96, the FCC determined that the head and trunk can safely absorb 1.6 w/kg of radiation over one gram of tissue. Extremities such as the hands and feet can absorb 4.0 w/kg of radiation over ten grams of tissue. Exposures may be averaged over a time period not to exceed 30 minutes.

The FCC’s SAR limit does not account for differences in exposure experienced by fetuses, infants, children, people with medical implants and adults, nor for exposure to multiple transmitters at the same time. Some medical implant manufacturers recommend exposure limits of no more than 0.25 W/kg for fifteen minutes (

In 2013, the FCC reclassified the pinna (outer part) of our ears as extremities, effectively allowing the head nearly three times as much SAR as it had been allowed before this reclassification.

Why don’t FCC’s Mobile Phone Safety Guidelines Consider Children?

In IEEE’s June 23, 2015 Spectrum, Dr. Om Gandhi, prof. of electrical engineering at the University of Utah, co-chair of IEEE’s Subcommittee on RF Safety Standards (1988-97) and Chair of IEEE’s Committee on Man and Radiation (COMAR) 1981-82 published a paper about this question. In his paper, “Yes the children are more exposed to radio-frequency energy from mobile telephones than adults,” Dr. Gandhi wrote that “it is very hard to understand why” the FCC’s safety guidelines only consider the head of a mannequin whose size is in the 90th percentage of US military recruits. bit/y/1CWO1od

How does our federal government regulate telecommunications facilities, i.e. antennas and towers that provide mobile phone and Internet services?

In 1996, Congress updated the Broadcasting Act with passage of the Telecommunications Act (TCA). The TCA’s Section 704 prohibits municipalities from regulating “wireless service facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radiofrequency emissions.” In other words, environmental and health concerns may not interfere with the installation of cell towers. Plainly, Section 704 values corporate and engineering needs above human health and our environment.

The 2012 Middle Class Tax Relief and Jobs Creation Act includes a section that allows corporations to extend existing cell towers (that are at least 30 feet tall) vertically or horizontally without a permit. This means that once a cell tower is at least 30 feet tall, your municipality has no control over the antennas that go on it.

New “green,” “sustainable” ordinances are being passed around the country that allow telecom corporations to build new cell towers without a permit. With such ordinances, if a telecom corporation wants to erect a tower on a floodplain at a gas station at a major intersection near a school or residential neighborhood, your town may have no recourse.

Does any agency protect workers exposed to EMR?

A.M. Best Co. estimates that 250,000 workers come into close contact with cellular antennas every year. It warns other insurers that at close range, cellular antennas act (essentially as open microwave ovens;” and that exposed workers’ health effects “can include eye damage, sterility and cognitive impairments.”

In September, 2015, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) wrote FCC Chair Tom Wheeler “even though the FCC recommends that wireless carriers control exposure to harmful RF radiation using safety protocols such as signs, barricades and training…these recommendations have not consistently been implemented to protect workers.” The senators added that because cellular antennas are now found atop apartments, schools, hospitals, churches and fire stations, “RF technicians but also roofers, water proofers, electricians, carpenters, building maintenance personnel, HVAC technicians, painters, firefighters” and others are at risk of EMR exposure. While the FCC has made deploying wireless broadband a priority, including easing tower citing, these legislators don’t want that to come at the expense of safety.

This is wonderful news when legislators step up to protect workers’ rights and press the FCC to obey their own standards.

For more info, see John Eggerton’s piece with MultiChannel News, Sept. 17, 2015; click here; click here

Other key rules and regulations

No federal law clearly states that FCC standards do not preempt the ability of injured citizens to go to court and recover damages caused by the trespass of electromagnetic radiation into their bodies (

Underwriters, including A.M. Best and Lloyds of London, advise insurance companies not to ensure against damages to health caused by wireless devices, including cellular antennas. Swiss RE rates man-made electromagnetic fields higher than any other emerging risk. click here

In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Section?? granted corporations “personhood” rights–the same as it granted to black people. This means that if your town wants cell phone manufacturers to label their phones’ specific absorption rates (SARs) of radiation, the corporation can refuse, because such labeling would interfere with their right to free speech–a right of “personhood.”

In 2015, Berkeley required SAR labeling on cell phones sold within its jurisdiction. Telecom corporations sued the city. Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig defended Berkeley–and won. The telecoms have appealed this ruling.

Do any federal agencies protect the environment re EMR exposure?

In 1969, inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which illuminated the hazards of pesticides like DDT, Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Quickly, EPA formed a division that studied the effects of EMR exposure on health and wildlife. By the late ’80s, this division employed 36 full-time people. The EPA is still authorized to study EMR exposure’s effects on health and the environment. However, since 1995, Congress has allotted this division a budget of zero to study the effects of EMR exposure.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires an environmental assessment before deploying new technology near schools or sensitive habitats ( The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) requires Environmental Assessment before deploying new technology near sensitive habitats (usfws.ogv). These Acts need to be enforced.

Let’s get informed

In April, 2015, Norm Alster, a journalism fellow at Harvard’s Center for Ethics, asked 202 people, “How likely it is that the US Congress forbids local communities from considering health concerns when deciding whether to issue zoning permits for wireless antennae?”

Only 1.5% of respondents considered this likely to be true.

This means that the vast majority of people are unaware of Section 704 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which prohibits states and municipalities from considering health or environmental concerns when a telecom corporation requests a permit to install a cell tower.

This survey, published in Alster’s Captured Agency: How the FCC is Dominated by the Industries It Presumably Regulates, tells us that if people become informed about The Telecom Act’s Section 704–and about the dangers of exposure to EMR from wireless technologies, then significant numbers of people might well reduce their use. So let’s get informed.

Which is greater: the amount of radiation that the FDA allows a microwave oven to leak–or the amount of radiation that the FCC allows a cell phone to emit? Answer: the amount of radiation that a cell phone is allowed to emit.

How can we prevent installation of a single, new tower?

Get a copy of the deed to the property where the proposed tower will be rented. If the deed prohibits anything commercial on the land (for one example), then you may have a good case against the tower’s installation, since the landowner will receive rent from the telecom corporation that installs the tower, and the corporation will receive rent from other telecoms that place antennae on the tower.

If the area is key to migratory birds, then installing a tower there could violate the Dept. of the Interior’s US Fish & Wildlife’s Migratory Bird Treaty Act. click here

If the proposed tower would be in a residential or business district–or an area with wildlife, then its collapsing or catching fire could threaten residents and/or sensitive habitats. Let local officials know about our growing list of towers that catch fire or collapse click here

How can we prevent installation of multiple towers?

Perhaps the only recourse your municipality to pass an ordinance ASAP! that protects your rights to determine cell tower placement and zoning. Find sample zoning regs and more in Blake Levitt’s book, Cell Towers: Wireless Convenience? or Environmental Hazard? Proceedings of the Cell Towers Forum, State of the Science, State of the Law (SafeGoods/New Century edition, 2001; iUniverse ed., 2007).

As Levitt explains, a tower can be placed in a residential zone that has restrictions for commercial use “unless the town’s regulations expressly forbid it.”

Let’s consider basics: how is electricity regulated at the federal level?

No agency regulates power under 1000 Hz, including 60 Hz electricity.

Once a home is built, no code requires periodic inspection for wiring errors or corroded ground (for examples).

Property owners should have their electrical systems checked by reputable electricians every five years. Karl Riley’s Tracing EMFs in Building Wiring and Grounding is an excellent resource. For info about solar systems, see

What are “smart” meters, and how are they regulated?

“Smart” meters are wireless, transmitting meters that measure use of gas, water and electricity. A “smart” meter can be programmed to transmit data to your utility monthly, daily or every few seconds. Because electricity (say) is delivered most efficiently when it’s distributed “evenly,” utilities might eventually use the data to charge more for daytime electric use (when business use is high), and less for weekend and evening use.

These meters can transmit for a half mile or more. If you live in a state with “opt-outs” (that let you “self-read” an analog meter, perhaps for additional fees), you’d still be subject to transmissions from neighbors’ meters.

Solar power systems can include transmitting “net” meters that track the unused electricity that is sent back to the utility.

Since every residence typically includes three meters, these might be our society’s most ubiquitous deployment of transmitters.

“Smart” meters are not regulated. However, the devices they require to transmit data–i.e. text-messaging devices–are regulated by the FCC. For example, the FCC may require that the transmitting devices be kept a certain distance from people, or that they not be installed close to each other.

Eugene, Oregon’s Water & Electric Board (EWEB) has created a model policy that will allow customers to “opt-in” (or not) to transmitting meters. EWEB also recognizes Paul E. Dart, MD’s report that meters should not be programmed to transmit at night, when most people sleep. click here

Consider self-regulation

Don’t use mobile devices or Wi-Fi near pregnant women. click here

Turn Wi-Fi off at night until you get wired access.

Don’t use a mobile device in a moving vehicle, since the device goes to maximum power each time it connects to a new cell tower (about every mile); and much this EMR gets trapped in the vehicle (a metal box).

Get your public library to purchase quality meters that measure magnetic and radiofrequency fields–and to offer workshops about using them. Wiring and grounding errors can be corrected. The first step is identifying them!

Before purchasing a new appliance, electronic device or car, do your own research. Does its manual warn that children should not use it? Does the manual warn that it may cause medical implants to malfunction?

Documentaries worth watching

Merchants of Doubt, about industry methods that kept the public uninformed about cigarette hazards and scientific research on climate change.

Mobilize, about telecom corporations claiming that labeling cell phones’ SARs would infringe on their free speech rights.

Broadcast Blues, about FCC’s inadequate ability to regulate EMR emissions from broadcasting antennas. click here

Take Back Your Power, about “smart” meters.


Alster, Norm, Captured Agency: How the FCC is Dominated by the Industries It Presumably Regulates.

Singer, Katie, An Electronic Silent Spring, Steiner Books, 2014. The legal chapter details the federal record on health and radiofrequency field exposure since 1995. Also includes extensive solutions. Studies about EMR exposure’s biological effects Info about ordinances that protect a town’s control of cell tower placement.;; about community rights/local self-governance. Longtime policy watchdog.

For cell tower health effects:



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