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Journalist: Cara Buckley
October 05, 2000
In an effort to assuage consumer fears over cellphone radiation levels, phones sold in the United States starting this week will contain information on their emission levels. But whether these levels tell the user anything useful about the phone's safety is a contentious issue among regulators, manufacturers and scientists.
The ratings, known as specific absorption rates, or SARs, measure radio frequency waves emitted by cellphones and absorbed by brain tissue. To comply with Federal Communications Commission guidelines, each cellphone made and sold in the United States cannot exceed SAR levels of 1.6 watts/kg over 1 gram of brain tissue. Europe sets a level of 2.0.
"The figure [1.6] is arbitrary,'' said Dr. Ross Adey, a widely respected radiation biologist at the University of California Riverside. ``It doesn't meant that any phone that puts more than 1.6 watts of energy in your head is going to be dangerous, nor does it mean any phone that's below that is inherently safe.''
All cellphones sold in the United States -- home to 83 million of the world's 300 million mobile users -- pass FCC muster. But recently the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association asked its member manufacturers to provide the ratings to help educate the consumers, according to spokesman Travis Larson.
The reason: last year, thousands of worried cellphone owners rushed to buy headsets and ear pieces after ABC's 20/20 aired a program suggesting links between high SAR levels and brain cancer.
Mobile phones emit waves of electromagnetic energy, at their strongest when users are far from base stations or in their cars. While the conveniences of modern life envelop us all in an electromagnetic blanket, mobile phones are the first devices designed to be held next to the skull on a regular basis.
There is no second-hand radiation problem -- emissions plunge dramatically within inches of the antenna. But what concerns some scientists is where the radio frequency waves do hit, and for how long.
Radiation scientists not affiliated with the government have said SAR numbers reveal nothing about a cellphone's safety.
According to Adey, SAR levels are not the most important factor determining brain tissue response to cellphone radiation. What government scientists should look at instead are the cumulative effects of cellphone usage, instead of the split second impact that SAR gauges.
Such studies are being conducted by the World Health Organization, but won't be complete until 2006.
Dr. George Carlo, a now-independent radiation scientist who conducted research for the cellphone manufacturers for six years, said SAR levels are good only for comparison shopping.
"SAR doesn't measure biological effects, and studies have shown genetic damage from radiation,'' said Carlo, referring to the 1999 American Health Foundation and Swedish studies that found tumors on the heads of frequent cellphone users.
"There are no safety standards anywhere.''
Carlo urged cellphone users to invest in ear pieces, and keep the cellphones away from children, whose brains are still forming.
But the FCC stands by its position that, as far as science mandates, cellphones are safe.
"We have the support of federal agencies like FDA and EPA,'' said Robert Cleveland, an FCC senior scientist. ``In so as far as we can tell, the limits are adequate and protective of public health, and we have no reason to believe they're not safe.''
FCC testing guidelines require SAR levels to be measured in models of human heads filled with brain-like gel. The test results are self-reported by cellphone manufacturers, who conduct the studies in their own labs, and vary widely depending on cellphone position and testing materials, like the width of the model head's rubber ears.
The FCC and CTIA report they're moving toward adopting standardized and independent testing.
John Osepchuk, regulatory chairman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which helps set FCC guidelines, insisted there is no reason to fear cellphones.
"There are dangers to overreacting,'' he said. ``If this kind of thinking were around 100 years ago, then we wouldn't have cars.''