Electromagnetic radiation consists of waves of electric and magnetic energy moving together (that is, 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. Often the term electromagnetic field or radiofrequency (RF) field may be used to indicate the presence of electromagnetic or RF energy.

An RF field 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 for each component. For example, the unit “volts per meter” (V/m) is used to measure the strength of the electric field and the unit “amperes per meter” (A/m) is used to express the strength of the magnetic field.

RF 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 (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).

Probably the most important use for RF energy is in providing telecommunications services. Radio and television broadcasting, cellular telephones, 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. Microwave ovens are a good example of a noncommunication use of RF energy. Other important noncommunication uses of RF energy are radar and for industrial heating and sealing. Radar is a valuable tool used in many applications from traffic enforcement to air traffic control and military applications. Industrial heaters and sealers generate 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.

The quantity used to measure how much RF energy is actually absorbed in a body is called the specific absorption rate (SAR). It is usually expressed in units of watts per kilogram (W/kg) or milliwatts per gram (mW/g). In the case of whole-body exposure, a standing human adult can absorb RF energy at a maximum rate when the frequency of the RF radiation is in the range of about 80 and 100 MHz, meaning that the whole-body SAR is at a maximum under these conditions (resonance). Because of this resonance phenomenon, RF safety standards are generally most restrictive for these frequencies.

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 rapidly heat biological tissue. This is the principle by which microwave ovens cook food. 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 excessive heat load. At relatively low levels of exposure to RF radiation, that is, levels lower than those that would produce significant heating, the evidence for harmful biological effects is ambiguous and unproven. Such effects have sometimes been referred to as “nonthermal” effects. It is generally agreed that further research is needed to determine the effects and their possible relevance, if any, to human health.

In general, however, 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 workplace environments near high-powered RF sources, where recommended limits for safe exposure of human beings to RF energy could be exceeded. In such cases, restrictive measures or actions may be necessary to ensure the safe use of RF energy.

Some studies have also examined the possibility of a link between RF and microwave 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. In fact, other studies have failed to find evidence for a causal link to cancer or any related condition. Further research is underway in several laboratories to help resolve this question.

In 1996, the World Health Organization (WHO) established a program called the International EMF Project that 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 website that provides extensive information on this project and about RF biological effects and research.

Various organizations and countries have developed exposure standards for RF energy. These standards recommend safe levels of exposure for both the general public and for workers. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted and used recognized safety guidelines for evaluating RF environmental exposure since 1985. Federal health and safety agencies-such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (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 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). Expert scientists and engineers developed both the NCRP exposure criteria and the IEEE standard 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 appropriate margins of safety. 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.

The NCRP, IEEE, and ICNIRP exposure guidelines state the 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 threshold level. The threshold level is a SAR value for the whole body of 4 watts per kilogram (4 W/kg). The most restrictive limits on whole-body exposure are in the frequency range of 30-300 MHz where the RF energy is absorbed 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.

Major RF transmitting facilities under the jurisdiction of the FCC-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 RF compliance whenever an application is submitted to the FCC for construction or modification of a transmitting facility or renewal of a license. Failure to comply with the FCC’s RF exposure guidelines could lead to the preparation of a formal Environmental Assessment, possible Environmental Impact Statement, and eventual rejection of an application.