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FDA Wants New Overview Of Wireless Tech Health Risks
ARS Technica
Journalist: John Timmer
January 21, 2008

Although the Food and Drug Administration plays no role in approving wireless technology, it does get involved if that technology is ever shown to present a health risk to consumers. Right now, its FAQ on cell phone radiation suggests that there is no evidence of risk, but the agency is apparently interested in staying ahead of the curve: it commissioned the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science to determine what areas need further study in order to better assess safety. After a meeting of international experts in August of last year, the NRC has now issued its report.

The report makes clear that its authors aren't interested in making proclamations regarding the actual state of safety research. Instead, their goal is to identify the gaps in our current knowledge of biological changes that may result from exposure to wireless radiation and any health outcomes that these produce. To that end, they identified a number of overarching issues that merited further study.

At the level of populations, these included differences between long- and short-term exposure, local versus whole-body exposure, and the potential for risks in specific subpopulations, such as children. At the cellular level, questions deemed worthy of further study were the issue of whether there is any biological mechanism by which wireless radiation affects cells (beyond simple heating), and whether the radiation might synergize with chemical agents or other risks.

To help close some of these gaps, the committee recommends tracking the exposure of children, pregnant women, and fetuses. This knowledge should be combined with information from long-term epidemiological studies of cohorts of children and those with occupations that expose them to high levels of this sort of radiation. On the hardware side, the authors suggest greater study of potential differences between a typical transmitter and a wireless base station. The report also suggests that there are gaps in our understanding of the basic biochemistry of a cell's response to wireless radiation, as well as the potential for wireless radiation to affect the activity of neural networks.

The real challenge in the field, however, is stated in the last of the key issues identified by the committee: the ability to extrapolate what we know about current technology to the new hardware that's rapidly appearing on the market. Each generation of WiFi or cell technology that is introduced typically changes the frequency and power distribution of the radiation emitted; as the report noted, even changing the antenna configuration of same-generation hardware can radically alter exposure. These changes are already known to have real-world consequences, at least when it comes to medical equipment safety.

Given the fact that the source of potential risk is such a fast-moving target, it's not clear whether we'll ever have a definitive answer on whether wireless technology is completely safe. Nevertheless, the committee's identification of outstanding issues suggests that there is some consensus on the aspects of wireless technology that are probably safe. Given the areas in need of study, we can infer that no biological mechanism has been identified for this radiation to directly influence cells and that, for the typical adult, short- and medium-term exposures pose no clear risks.

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