County To Sue FCC Over Radio Frequency Emission Standards for Small Cell Antennas

Exposure limit is currently 580 microwatts per square centimeter

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The Montgomery County Council and County Executive Ike Leggett are planning to sue the Federal Communications Commission with the goal of forcing the agency to update its radio frequency emissions standards for small cell antennas.

The council has hired attorney Albert Catalano of the Washington, D.C., firm Keller and Heckman LLP, according to a Nov. 6 memo from County Attorney Marc Hansen to council President Hans Riemer.

For the last two years, the council has been deliberating a bill that would require the antennas to be installed on existing utility poles and allow new poles housing the antennas to be installed in residential neighborhoods in order to bring high-speed 5G wireless service to the county. The “small cell” bill has been met with fierce opposition from residents’ groups, which are concerned about the possibility of microwave radiation emanating into neighborhoods if the small cell towers are placed too close to homes. The bill is expected to be discussed further during the next council term, which begins Dec. 4.

There is currently scant scientific evidence that the amount of radiation emitted by the antennas is enough to cause cancer or other health problems according to national health organizations such as the National Cancer Institute, American Cancer Society and others. Both the American Cancer Society and Environmental Protection Agency have stated that cell phones and cell towers emit low levels of radiation, but not typically amounts that are serious enough to lead to health problems.

According to the FCC’s website, the agency adopted a radio frequency exposure limit of 580 microwatts per square centimeter for cell towers in 1996. The limit, the website states, is “many times greater” than radio frequency levels that are typically found at the base of cell towers.

In a Thursday press release, Riemer wrote that almost a year ago he, Leggett and U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), asked the FCC to update its radiofrequency emissions guidelines, but the agency declined.

“So we are taking them to court to ensure that they fulfill their responsibility to keep our residents safe,” Riemer wrote.

Riemer also noted the FCC prohibits local governments from enacting legislation regarding such based on health concerns.

“While there is no clear scientific consensus on the health effects of cell phones in general or 5G in particular, we need the FCC to embrace this issue in an open and transparent manner in order to address public concerns. The FCC must work with other federal agencies to examine the science carefully and weigh the costs and benefits of this new technology and share the results publicly,” he wrote.

Separately, Montgomery County is one of 40 jurisdictions across the country that is involved in a lawsuit challenging the FCC’s preemption order concerning cell antennas, which limits the amount of time local jurisdictions have to install the devices before the action becomes illegal under the rules.

County resident Theodora Scarato said Friday that she has concerns about the fact that Keller and Heckman has frequently represented a number of telecommunications companies according to the law firm’s website. She said she isn’t assigning blame to the council, but wants to know more about what motivated the lawsuit.

“I want to know more. Are there conflicts of interest that need to be looked into?” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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