Researchers push for new cell phone safety standards

Scientists testifying at a Senate subcommittee and attending a conference on cell phones and health this week say the FCC needs to change safety guidelines for cell phones.

Researchers testified Monday before a Senate subcommittee about the need for updated safety standards for cell phones and the need for more funding. Marguerite Reardon

WASHINGTON--Scientists studying the effects of cell phone radiation on humans are calling for the Federal Communications Commission to update its current standards for what it considers to be a "safe" cell phone.

At an international conference here this week, sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the University of Pittsburgh, researchers from different scientific disciplines have indicated that the current safety standards used in the U.S. for cell phones are not enough to protect the public. The sentiment was echoed through testimony Monday at a Senate hearing for the Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services, chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

"In the present situation of scientific uncertainty...the statements that the use of mobile phones is safe, are premature," Dariusz Leszcynski, a researcher for the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Finland, said in his testimony before the subcommittee. "In my opinion the current safety standards are not sufficiently supported because of the very limited research on human volunteers, children, and on the effects of long-term exposures in humans."

Leszcynski's agency has issued two advisories to the public warning them about the use of cell phones. The most recent warning came this year. In January, the government agency issued a warning to parents to limit their children's use of cell phones.

The FCC was not available for comment on this story.

The safety of cell phones has been debated for years. And although there are hundreds of studies related to the effects of cell phone use on health, most of the literature on the subject is contradictory. But more recent epidemiological studies involving humans suggest that heavy cell phone users of 10 years or more have developed brain tumors on the same side of their heads as where they used to hold their mobile phones.

Several countries other than the U.S., including, Israel, France, Finland, and the U.K., have issued warnings about the use of cell phones. And they have advised people to take precautionary measures until the science determines whether or not cell phones actually cause health problems.

The FCC's stance
But the U.S. agencies that regulate cell phones, namely the FCC and FDA, have not issued warnings. Instead these agencies say on a joint Web site that "the scientific evidence does not show a danger to any users of cell phones from RF exposure, including children and teenagers."

Even if the FCC is unwilling to issue a warning about possible cell phone radiation dangers, researchers think that the standards used to deem a device "safe" need to be updated and changed.

The FCC is responsible for making sure that every cell phone model that is sold in the U.S. emits a safe level of radiation. The agency uses the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), which measures the amount of radio frequency energy absorbed by the body, to indicate whether a cell phone is safe. The SAR is measured as watts per kilogram. The FCC requires that all cell phones sold in the U.S. have a SAR exposure rate of 1.6 watts per kilogram. Phones that are at or below this SAR rating are considered to be "safe," according to the FCC.

The FCC publishes the SAR rating for each phone that has been approved by the FCC. And just last week the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., published an online consumer guide that lists the SAR ratings for more than 1,200 cell phones. CNET has also compiled SAR ratings that can be found in thisQuick Guide: Cell phone radiation levels.

But what the SAR really measures is the heat that is generated and absorbed by the body from a cell phone. Some scientists attending the cell phone and health conference say that is a meaningless measurement since they believe damage to a cell's DNA could occur at very low temperature levels, which would not even register on the SAR scale.

"The current standards are inadequate and misleading," Martin Blank, a professor and researcher in the Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics at Columbia University, said after his presentation at the conference Monday. "Heating of tissue doesn't mean anything. You need a certain amount of energy to cause a change in DNA, but that energy could be spent even before the temperature goes up and can be measured. People are led to believe that these standards say something, and they don't."

Even if the SAR were the right metric to measure the safety of cell phones, several scientists say that the current standards used by the FCC are not good enough to protect consumers.

"The FCC set cell phone radiation standards 17 years ago when few people used cell phones," Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, told the Senate subcommittee in her testimony. "These standards fail to provide an adequate margin of safety for cell phone radiation exposure and do not account for risks to children."

The size of the head
Indeed, research indicates that cell phone radiation penetrates the heads of children much more than it does adults for a variety of reasons, including the fact that children have smaller and thinner skulls. This was first discovered by Om Gahndi, a radiation expert from the University of Utah and confirmed by recent studies by Niels Kuster, an electrical engineer from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

"The FCC set standards for the amount of radio frequency that can be emitted by a cell phone based on models of a man's head," Devra Davis, a researcher in the department of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, said during her testimony. "And not just your average Joe, but that of a 200 pound man with an 11-pound head, talking with a phone to his ear for 6 minutes."

She also said that even the manuals for popular smartphones, such as the BlackBerry and the iPhone, suggest that users hold the device at least one inch away from their bodies.

Davis is one of the primary organizers for the conference on cell phones and health and she has been a strong advocate for warnings against cell phone radiation.

Gahndi, who pioneered radiation absorption studies in children, has studied the effects of radio frequency absorption for years. He even tested cell phones for the FCC at one time to determine SAR ratings. He said that the problem with the current system is that the FCC tests one device supplied by the manufacturer and then assigns the SAR number. After that it does not randomly test samples of the device in the market. Gahndi argues this a problem because even devices within the same model number may emit different levels of radiation.

"The manufacturers admit there is a 2:1 variability in terms of the SAR in devices of the same model number," Gahndi said. "So there's just no way the average consumer can know for sure what the SAR of the phone is that they are using."

Gahndi recommends that consumers choose devices with SAR ratings that are far below the 1.6 SAR threshold set by the FCC to make sure that even if their device gives off more radiation, that it is still within the so-called safety zone.

That said the industry is adamant that the standards are sufficient and that there is no known risk to consumers.

"Based on my review of the epidemiologic studies and consideration of experimental data on animals, I agree with the conclusions of the scientific organizations: The current scientific evidence does not demonstrate that wireless phones cause cancer or other adverse health effects," Linda Erdreich, a senior scientist at the Exponent's Health Sciences Center for Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Computational Biology, said in her testimony in front of the Senate hearing. Erdreich said she was testifying at the request of the CTIA, the industry trade group for the wireless industry.

But when asked by Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) whether she could say with certainty that there was no harmful effect of cell phone radiation on the health of individuals, Erdereich said that no science can say definitively that there are no harmful effects.

Safety precautions you can take now
So what should consumers do to protect themselves from the potential risks? That is the question that Sens. Harkin and Specter asked the panelists on Monday. Even though some of the scientists on the panel, such as Siegel Sadetzki, who has conducted research to advise the Israeli Ministry of Health, said as a researcher she does not see enough evidence in the current research findings to say there is a direct causal relationship between cell phone radiation and cancer. But she said as a public health official, she has seen enough red flags to justify public warnings.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) shows off his "hands-free" headset for his BlackBerry. Marguerite Reardon

"It is far better to prevent harm using simple and low cost measures than to wait for long-term results to confirm a health hazard that has already occurred," she said. "Therefore we must be prepared to act before scientific certainty has been achieved."

She, along with several other scientists testifying Monday, agreed that cell phone users can limit their exposure to cell phone radiation by keeping their devices as far away from their bodies as possible. This includes using a wired headset instead of holding a phone to their ear. Researchers differ in their opinion on whether a wireless Bluetooth headset poses a risk. Some scientists said it could be a problem, while others did not. But they all agreed a wired headset is best.

These researchers also agreed that using a speaker on the phone or texting instead of talking is another good way to limit exposure. And they said that users should avoid using a cell phone when the signal is poor, since phones emit more radiation energy when they are looking for a nearby signal tower. The Environmental Working Group recommends people make and take calls when the cell phone signal is strong. And all of them recommend limiting children's use of cell phones.

The researchers testifying also spoke of the need for more research. And they urged the senators, who oversee funding for the National Institutes of Health, to consider increasing funding for research on the risks of cell phone radiation.

John Bucher, associate director of the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health, gave an update on pending animal research that will study the effects of radiation on rodents. But researchers, such as Finland's Leszcynski , said that more studies are needed to study the effects on humans.

Davis even proposed a mechanism for funding new research. She suggested that wireless operators tack on an extra research fee of $1 to every cell phone bill for three years and use the funds to support major independent research programs. While this might generate the necessary cash to fund such programs, it's hard to imagine that the wireless industry, which has been fighting to eliminate several "taxes" to its customers used to fund other government programs, such as the Universal Service Fund, would be willing to allow yet another "tax."

It's too early to know if the testimony given at the Senate subcommittee hearing will spur any action in terms of changing current standards or if it will lead to more funding for research. The fact that only two senators on the subcommittee (Harkin and Specter) attended the full hearing suggests that it is not a top priority for the other 12 members of the appropriations subcommittee.

And given that most of the people attending the hearing were scientists and activists, who were also attending the conference on cell phones and health just a few blocks away from the Capitol, it's fair to say that cell phone safety is also not a top concern for many citizens. But scientists and activists involved in cell phone radiation research hope that will soon change.

"Our children and grandchildren will thank us years from now if they are using safer devices because we took the step at this moment in history to create the solid research program to create an improved technology," Davis said. "I am confident that with this hearing a new day of open dialogue has begun, and I thank the Senators for making this possible."

 

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