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Cell Phones On The Brain
Feds decide how much radiation is too much.
There will soon be a new number besides price to consider when shopping for a cell phone — one that will tell you how much radiation is being absorbed by your brain.
Nokia, QualComm, Motorola and other big-name makers of the ever-growing number of wireless phones will be required to detail radiation emissions on the new ones they produce.
The Cellular Telecommunication Industry Association, which is mandating the disclosure, says consumers should start seeing the new labeling on store shelves in three to six months.
The disclosure plan is intended to ease growing concern over health risks after several recent studies — and a striking about-face by the scientist leading the industry's research program — have called into question whether the devices 100 million Americans use every day are safe.
Experts, however, point out that the bulk of the research from dozens of studies has concluded the radiation given off by cell phones is safe or has found few signs of risk.
Last month, Maryland neurologist Chris Newman filed an $800 million lawsuit against Motorola and Verizon, blaming his cell phone for his brain cancer.
The case joins more than a dozen suits filed over the last eight years alleging that exposure to cell-phone signals caused or aggravated brain tumors.
The charges have been fueled by several studies expressing concern over the potential for danger.
The industry labels that consumers will start seeing will detail how much radiation is absorbed by your body while you are using a cell phone.
The Federal Communications Commission's specific absorption rate, or SAR, a benchmark of what level is considered safe, is being questioned by some experts.
A Daily News survey of the radiation numbers for several popular phones shows that many of the models come in just inside the FCC safety limit.
Carlo had a controversial history of working with industries trying to clean up their images. In the early 1990s, he worked for the Chlorine Institute in its effort to downplay the dangers of dioxin, and he did a study for tobacco giant Philip Morris showing how personal biases among scientists could cause them to overestimate the hazards of secondhand smoke.
After $25 million and six years of work, Wireless Technology Research closed in December when the industry funding dried up. Carlo went public to say that he saw some "red flags." "When we say the jury's still out," Carlo said of the debate in the scientific community over cell phone dangers, "it doesn't mean that they're neutral. There are definite red flags. We just don't know whether it's a big problem or a little problem."
He turned up the heat on the industry in an interview with ABC's "20/20" in October in which he said he no longer had confidence that cell phones are safe.
Days before, Carlo wrote to AT&T's chief executive officer, Michael Armstrong, outlining some of his unpublished findings, including, he said, a higher brain-cancer death rate and double the rate of a rare type of brain tumor in cell phone users compared with nonusers.
Carlo also told The News he found persuasive evidence of genetic damage in human cells exposed to cell phone radiation.
Industry spokesman Travis Larson challenged Carlo to publish his findings in scientific journals. "What scientists need to see is the data behind it," Larson said, "and try to replicate it in their own laboratories."
Carlo countered that peer review takes years and said people would be wise to take precautions now, as he has done with his own family: "I gave everyone headsets for Christmas two years ago."
Dr. Henry Lai, a researcher at the University of Washington at Seattle, said a number of studies show biological effects in experiments in which heating is not a factor. Others measured effects at intensity levels too low to cause heating. A recent British study suggested that a radiation level 80 times lower than the FCC limit could damage cells and upset chemical reactions.
Lai and Carlo pointed to evidence that cell phone radiation below the FCC limit may damage DNA, interfere with protein synthesis and change brain chemistry.
Larson said the FCC gave the cell phone industry its stamp of approval — and that's good enough: "The government has looked at this and said, ‘We've looked at more than 200 scientific studies and come up with this benchmark, and that any phone that meets this, meets our standards.'"
But in February, the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Device and Radiological Health wrote to the FCC to suggest a review of the benchmark. The guidelines, said the FDA, are based only on radiation's heating effects, not other possible dangers.
The FDA report cited several studies — including one that found double the rate of lymphoma in mice exposed to cell phone radiation.
Carlo does not think the FDA should wait for more data.
"We have never in our history," he said, "had a consumer product where we've had 100 million people exposed so quickly and we don't understand whether it's safe."
Gauging the Juice
Then click "View Exhibits" and download the SAR test results — usually labeled "Test Report" or "SAR Results."
The SAR shows the amount of radiation your body absorbs as you use the phone, measured in watts per kilogram (w/kg).
To be licensed by the FCC, a phone must deliver an SAR of no higher than 1.6 w/kg at maximum power — a standard that is being called into question.
The position of the phone, the distance from a base station and obstructions interfering with the signal affect a phone's SAR. Phone makers are quick to say that the SARs filed with the FCC are at maximum power and don't represent the average SAR during normal use.
Tips for Safe
Avoid using your phone inside buildings or wherever your phone says the signal is weak, because it will have to send out a more powerful signal to work.
Extend the antenna if your phone has one.
Never touch the antenna when the phone is in use, because that disrupts the signal.
Get an external antenna for your car if you use your phone on the road a lot.
Use a hands-free headset and leave your phone in a belt clip — or better yet, a purse or bag — to keep it away from your body.
Don't use your cell phone for long chats, and discourage use by young children.
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