The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) yesterday announced plans to require mobile phones to carry new information revealing the rate of radiation emitted by certain models on the sides of the containers the phones come in.
"Voice-only devices are giving way to real heavy Internet-ready devices with a lot more guts that, at least theoretically, may not be that great to have right next to your head," said Bryan Prohm, a wireless industry analyst at market research firm Dataquest.
The radiation information, which could be packaged with new handsets in as early as three to six months, is expected to show that cell phones are within acceptable radiation exposure ranges. All cell phones sold in the United States today have been certified to meet federal requirements for the quantity of radio frequency energy absorbed by the body, industry representatives said.
The World Health Organization urged in June that more testing be conducted worldwide.
The industry's latest move could rekindle a long-running debate about the safety of a technology used by 95 million Americans, as well as millions more in other corners of the globe.
New evidence suggests the radio frequency waves emitted by the handsets could be cause for some concern. The renewed interest in cell phone safety, including related driving risks, comes just as the industry is preparing for an explosion of growth in the next few years around new voice users and high-speed wireless Internet access.
The addition of radiation information on a cell phone box could help stave off new regulations and future lawsuits and could appease consumer groups, analysts say.
"This is still an unknown. It behooves (the industry) to err on the side of caution, especially in this litigious society," Prohm said. "The tobacco settlement is a perfect example of what happens when an industry is accused of covering up information. It's definitely a wise move to be more forthcoming."
Since 1996, consumers have been able to research radiation levels on the FCC Web site, but industry representatives admit the information has not been consumer-friendly.
"You see these values, but what the heck does it mean?" said Megan Matthews, a spokeswoman for Nokia Americas, the world's largest mobile phone maker. "What we're trying to do is make it easier for consumers to understand. We think (the new CTIA plan is) good."
Added a spokeswoman for Ericsson, another mobile phone maker: "The information will be there to reassure consumers that phones on the market are safe."
Although research remains limited, several studies are under way to investigate whether there is potential for long-term health risks associated with regular use of a mobile phone.
A November 1999 study by a University of Washington researcher showed exposure to microwaves similar to those emitted by cellular phones led to long-term memory loss in some lab rats. A similar study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration also is testing the technology in conjunction with the CTIA wireless group.
Still, there is little, if any, solid evidence to prove cellular phone use results in any health side-effects. Many wireless companies offer information on their Web sites about safety concerns and the lack of evidence to show any reason for alarm.
The wireless industry's self-imposed radiation warning information could be viewed as an attempt to thwart less desirable regulation in the future. A pre-emptive effort would not be a new strategy. For example, the television and movie industry embraced new, self-imposed ratings systems in the late 1990s after a growing social outcry about sex and violence on film and talk on Capitol Hill of requiring "v-chip" parental control devices in new televisions.
Mobile phones are also being scrutinized on another health front.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration today said "driver distraction" from cell phones and other devices could, in part, be to blame for a higher number of car crashes, according to the Associated Press.
Increasingly, policy-makers are voicing their opposition to cell phone use while driving. Analysts estimate that about 50 percent of mobile phone use occurs in automobiles.
After a variety of studies in recent years indicating that mobile phone users have higher accident rates than average motorists--in some cases approaching rates of those legally intoxicated--some lawmakers are now calling for curbs in the use of mobile phones while driving.
The distractions of conversing while driving can lead to unnecessary accidents or unsafe driving habits, opponents say.
"Hands free" earpieces and microphones, which have gained in popularity and often come with the newest phones, not only allow motorists to drive with both hands on the steering wheel, thus improving safety, but also move the handset away from a person's head.