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FCC finally opens review of cell phone safety standards

Nine months after the FCC said it would take a closer look at its standards for cell phone safety to see if the agency needs to revise the 15-year-old guidelines, it finally opened the official inquiry

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

The Federal Communications Commission officially opened an inquiry today into whether U.S. standards need to be updated to protect people from cell phone radiation.

Chairman Julius Genachowski circulated a notice of inquiry last June that looked at a series of questions surrounding whether the current standards need to be updated or whether the agency's testing practices should be altered. But it took nine months for the notice of inquiry to become an official part of the FCC docket.

Now that the notice of inquiry is officially registered, the FCC can begin its review and receive comments from the public and industry about its testing process.

When it first discussed reviewing the testing process, the FCC noted that the review was a standard procedure. And there is a chance that the agency may not change the rules at all.

The current standards have not been updated since 1996. These guidelines set a maximum radiation exposure level that is based on how much heat is emitted and absorbed by mobile phones. And the original guidelines for this test were based on behavioral studies on the effects of cellphone radiation on animals in the 1980s.

There has been concern from some scientists and consumer advocates that energy absorbed from cell phones could cause cancer and other potential health problems. In 2011, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed several studies and listed mobile phones as a possible carcinogen, putting them in the same category as lead, gasoline engine exhaust, and chloroform.

Still, the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the U.S. government's National Institutes of Health, acknowledges on its website there is some concern over the safety of cell phones. But the group says that studies of cells, animals and humans haven't produced evidence that cellphone radiation can cause cancer.

Even though the FCC hasn't changed its standards for evaluating the safety of cell phones, it has provided consumers with information about how to minimize the risk of exposure to cell phone radiation. For example, the FCC recommends people use the speakerphone feature or an earpiece when talking on the phone, since increasing the distance the device is held from the body greatly reduces exposure.

But the agency has not advocated for stricter warnings nor has it even endorsed these safety measures as necessary. The current review of the standards could change that as the agency will look at its testing procedures as well as the educational information it provides to the public about cell phone safety.

The wireless industry maintains that cell phones are safe. But in a statement on Friday, John Walls, vice president of public affairs for CTIA, said that his industry group "welcomes the FCC's focus on cellphones and health effects."

And he added that the group is confident that the FCC will be guided by science in finding that cell phones and the current testing practices keep consumers safe.

"As the GAO stated in its July 2012 report, 'Scientific research to date has not demonstrated adverse human health effects of exposure to radio-frequency energy from mobile phone use, but research is ongoing that may increase understanding of any possible effects,'" he said in a statement. "The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health have reached similar conclusions about the state of the science."

"As this review proceeds, it is important to recall the FCC's Director of Communications has said, 'We are confident that, as set, the [FCC's] emissions guidelines for devices pose no harm to consumers.'"