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Yacking Yourself To Death
Interactive Week
Journalist: Meg McGinty
April 10, 2000

They're everywhere. The ones who talk loudly to themselves in public places, gesturing wildly as they go. Shhh! They're trying to avoid brain tumors, but they might just be out of luck.

It turns out that "hands-free" cell phones may not save you from the Grim Reaper after all. Alarming claims surfaced last week in a research publication in the U.K. that not only are many hands-free devices useless in protecting wireless phone users from radiation that might cause tumors, these products may actually raise the amount of radiation being directed into the head by three times.

"This is very worrying for users. People who have been using hands-free kits [and other products] aren't getting protection they want," said Antonia Chitty, the senior researcher who wrote the report for Which? magazine, a 700,000-subscriber consumer report publication that takes no advertising.

According to Chitty, the publication enlisted the help of an unnamed wireless technology laboratory to test and measure five types of products that users believe reduce radiation exposure. Products tested included a phone case, a device attached to the phone that claims to absorb radiation fields and three types of hands-free kits.

Hands-free kits use an earplug and microphone so a user can talk on a cell phone without having to hold it directly next to his or her head.

Chitty said that while most of the products in the hands-free kit category are more apt to tout the convenience of the products - rather than radiation protection qualities - the products were tested because many people believe they decrease the amount of radiation to which users are exposed. According to the studies, while the other devices merely didn't protect from radiation at the levels advertised, the hands-free kits, made by Carphone Warehouse, BT Cellnet and Philips Electronics, actually multiplied the radiation levels that are sent to the brain. Philips and Ericsson phones were used.

The manufacturers whose products were used in the testing have resoundingly stated that their products meet all radio frequency standards. "Technically, that's possible [that you'd get higher RF from an earplug], but the relevant question is: 'So what?' The world is full of RF emissions. Just because you can measure it doesn't mean it will have any more impact," said Herschel Shosteck, a wireless technology specialist at researcher Herschel Shosteck Associates.

Chitty said the report's information has been passed on to the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, a U.K. group designated as the research arm to look into the health effects of cell phones. IEGMP is expected to issue a report on the mobile phones in May.

"Some in the industry are threatened by this. Others say it's quite interesting," Chitty said, when asked about the global response to the studies.

But it doesn't look like the studies commissioned by Which? have made much of an impact on the U.S. wireless industry. "From what we understand from the Federation of Electronics organization, our counterpart organization in the U.K., the phones and the accessory devices all meet the appropriate standards," said Joanne Basile, vice president for industry and external relations at the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. "It appears the SAR standard was not used, and, therefore, it's difficult to understand the meaning of their results."

SAR, or specific absorption rate, is a method of rating the amount of radiation absorbed by human tissue. The U.S. standard for SAR is 1.6 watts per 1 gram of human tissue. The U.K. standard is more lenient, Basile said.

According to Which?, the experiment first involved taking the measurements of radiation emitted from two different wireless phones, one made by Philips and the other by Ericsson. These fields were then measured again with the hands-free products attached to the phones. Fields flush against, and also slightly away from, a life-sized model head filled with a gel material to simulate brain tissue were measured. The result, according to Which?, was that the earplugs in the hands-free kits acted as aerials and channeled more radiation into the model than either of the phones did alone.

Makers, sources said, were quick to point out that their own testing did not concur with the results of the Which? study. "If people are worried about the findings, then they should cut down on their use of cell phones or only use them for important calls," Chitty said.

The CTIA, which is working with the Food and Drug Administration on developing a new research program looking into cell phone hazards, has been criticized in the past for not doing enough research on wireless phones and health effects. The organization did develop a five-year, $25 million research program, called Wireless Technology Research, but concluded there were more questions than answers surrounding the issue.

Since WTR disbanded last year, its program leader, Dr. George Carlo, has written a book on the health effects of cellular phones.

"We don't want manufacturers to ignore this report," Chitty said. "Our experts said it's possible to reduce radiation waves, and we have to have manufacturers look at their own products to make them better."

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