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Cell Phones To Carry Radiation Data
Interactive Week
Journalist: Meg McGinty
July 21, 2000

Cellular phones will soon carry information on radiation output, but critics said the move will still leave consumers in the dark about the possible health effects of the mobile devices.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association announced that, starting Aug. 1, it will require wireless phone manufacturers that want CTIA certification to publish statistics regarding cell phone radiation emission.

SAR, which stands for specific absorption rate, measures how much radiation energy is absorbed by 1 kilogram of human tissue. While a phone's packaging will signify that the phone is CTIA-approved, SAR numbers will be explained in literature packed inside the box. The data will also be available on a Web site.

"It was a proactive move and an opportunity to be responsive to growing interest in making this information more easily available," said Jo-Anne Basile, vice president for external and industry relations at the CTIA.

But there remain some big questions about the usefulness of such scientific measurements to the lay consumer.

"Is the average person going to know what this amount of energy means? I don't think the average user can interpret that data," said Ken Hyers, wireless analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group.

Current regulations limit cell phones to an SAR of 1.6. The law has been in effect since 1996, but the numbers were not widely published. Why start now?

"It's a proactive move to try to quiet the critics who said industry hasn't had much concern over consumers' health [fears]," said Larry Swasey, vice president of communications research at Allied Business Intelligence.

But those familiar with radiation testing said that determining the SAR is not an exact science. Kathy Maclean, president of Aprel Laboratories, one of the first labs to start conducting SAR tests, said that today, phone manufacturers oversee the radiation tests on their own phones. These companies must then submit the research to the Federal Communications Commission showing how they derived an SAR number. But there are no objective means for a government agency to audit the findings, she said.

Pre-emptive action

"I am concerned with devices that purport to meet, but do not meet, the standards, and that is the problem with SAR," Maclean said.

"The CTIA is just taking pre-emptive action. It can see the FCC mandating some form of labeling, if the British do, and so it decided to get into the act itself with some less-intrusive information," said Australia-based journalist and radio frequency expert Stewart Fist.

The SAR labeling move may have the greatest impact on parents taking a second look at getting phones for their children, which is a large growth rate segment, Hyers said.

Cell phones and their possible health effects have been in and out of the news limelight since a Florida man charged publicly in 1993 that his wife's illness was caused by cell phone usage.

The CTIA, in response to the suit and the public's growing concern, initiated a research program, which came to be known as Wireless Technology Research (WTR). The CTIA and industry kicked in some $27 million for the program, but after five years, the research was criticized as inconclusive.

Scientists in the industry pointed out that no "live testing" on actual human tissue was ever conducted.

Instead, the program focused on epidemiological studies looking at usage patterns over many years. After the CTIA pulled the plug on WTR, George Carlo, head of the research effort, became one of the most outspoken figures against the cell phone industry.

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