FCC to re-examine cell phone radiation standards

The Federal Communications Commission is taking a look at revising its 15-year-old safety limits for cell phones, in a routine review of its standards.

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
5 min read

The Federal Communications Commission is planning to take a closer look at its standards for cell phone safety to see if the agency needs to revise the 15-year-old guidelines.

Later today, Chairman Julius Genachowski will circulate a notice of inquiry that will look at a series of questions surrounding whether the current standards need to be updated or whether the agency's testing practices should be altered, a source at the commission said. And the agency will also examine whether it needs to make improvements in how it communicates safety information to consumers.

The FCC hopes to get comments from the public on the issue. It has not set a time-frame for when the comment period will end. And the agency also has not said whether it will update the current rules and standards. In fact, there's a chance the commission may leave the current limits in place. A representative for the agency said the checkup is a routine review of the standards and was not prompted by any new developments or complaints about cell phone safety.

"We are confident that, as set, the emissions guidelines for devices pose no risks to consumers," Tammy Sun, a spokeswoman for the FCC, said in a statement. "The United States has the most conservative emissions standards in the world. Our action today is a routine review of our standards. We hope and expect that other federal agencies and organizations with whom we work with on this issue will participate in the process."

FCC's current standards
The FCC current standards the agency uses to determine if a cell phone is safe are based on an algorithm that measures a cell phone user's specific absorption rate, or SAR. This measurement is the rate at which your whole body absorbs energy from a radio-frequency magnetic field. It's measured in watts per kilogram or W/kg. And it's typically averaged either over the whole body or over a small sample volume, such as 1 gram of tissue.

To be considered safe, every cell phone model sold in the U.S. must adhere to standards set by the FCC and the Food and Drug Administration -- an SAR that's less than 1.6 watts per kilogram taken over a volume containing a mass of 1 gram of tissue, even under the worst conditions.

To give you an idea of how much energy is being absorbed on average on any given slice of tissue on your body, 1.6 watts is about as much as is used to light up a string of 36 LED holiday lights, and the average pineapple weighs about 1 kilogram.

The last time the FCC updated its guidelines for radiation-exposure was in 1996. Some experts say the review is long overdue. The current standards are based on behavioral research conducted on animals in the 1980s.

Henry Lai, a researcher and professor at the University of Washington, who has conducted studies on the biological effects of cell phone radiation, told CNET a year ago for an article published about the SAR standard that more than 60 studies in the last decade have shown biological changes to cells at SAR levels less than the current safety standard allowed by the FCC and the FDA.

"The SAR rating itself is not meaningful," he said. "It is surprising to me that the FDA and FCC have not changed their acceptable limits. They need to look at the literature."

The FCC has admitted that the SAR levels are only intended to ensure that a cell phone doesn't exceed the FCC's maximum permissible exposure levels even when operating in conditions that result in the device's highest possible radio-frequency (RF) energy absorption for a user. But they're not intended to be used as a way to compare specific devices and make conclusions about their overall safety.

The wireless industry has said all along that mobile devices are safe. But the actual research on cell phones and the risks they pose to health have been conflicting. Some recent studies have either been inconclusive or have warned of potential cancer risks. Last year 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.

Other reviews of research indicate that there is no link between cell phone use and cancer, brain function, or infertility. In April, the U.K.'s Health Protection Agency looked at hundreds of studies and concluded there was no link between "low-level radio frequency" exposure and health risks.

Still, there's enough uncertainty around the subject that many experts say it needs more study and evaluation, especially when considering the potential health risks to children. Devra Davis, an epidemiology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has been an advocate for studying the effects of cell phone use and radiation absorption on children. She said that because children have smaller heads, they absorb more radiation than adults. She points out that standards were originally set for a very large man.

"The reality is that the head of a child is different in terms of density of the bone and the amount of fluid in the brain than that of an adult," Davis said in a interview with CNET a year ago. "And we know that the more fluid there is an object, the more deeply the radio signal can penetrate."

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 speaker phone or earpieces, 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.

Any changes to the FCC's policy could affect the cell phone industry, which has resisted making safety-precaution information mandatory at the point of sale. The industry's lobby group, the CTIA, sued the city of San Francisco for trying to institute such requirements. But the group said it will work with the FCC and is confident that the current guidelines will continue to stand.

"We fully expect that the FCC's review will confirm, as it has in the past, that the scientific evidence establishes no reason for concern about the safety of cell phones," CTIA's vice president of public affairs, John Walls, said in a statement. "Expert agencies and scientific advisory groups around the world have concluded that cell phones operating within government standards pose no known health effects and are safe for normal use."