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Long-Term RF Study On Animals Starts Amid Exposure Limits Debate
RCR Wireless News
Journalist: Jeffrey Silva
May 05, 2003

Controversy has erupted in efforts to bring radio-frequency radiation exposure guidelines in line with a global standard, a change a leading scientist claims would make America's mobile-phone safety limit the weakest in the world.

The debate is playing out in a committee of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which is working on revisions to the current RF standard for mobile phones and base stations.

Much of the world adheres to the RF standard of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection. The ICNIRP standard, based on a specific absorption rate of 2 watts per kilogram averaged over 10 grams of body tissue, takes into account the largely cartilage-comprised outer ear, or pinna, in terms of radiation exposure.

The IEEE, whose current standard is based on 1.6 watts per kilogram averaged over one gram of human tissue, wants to exclude the ear from consideration in the new RF standard. Thus, the ear would be subject to a looser radiation safety limit otherwise reserved for hands, wrists, forearms, feet, ankles and lower legs.

"By relaxing the SAR limit for the pinna ... we would abandon the harmonization with the ICNIRP standard for cellular telephones and thus create the most lax RF standard in the world for these globally used devices," said Dr. Om Gandhi, of the University of Utah, in a March 28 letter to Richard Tell, chair of IEEE's Risk Assessment Working Group.

"The ramification for this major departure from ICNIRP guidelines for handheld cellular telephones," continued Gandhi, "can be substantial when one realizes that the ICNIRP guideline has been adopted not only in Europe, but also in Asia, Australia, and elsewhere."

In a March 15 letter to Gandhi, Tell pointed out that IEEE members are near unanimous in supporting a less stringent radiation safety limit for the ear and that mobile phones increasingly do not reach their maximum radiated power anyway.

"As a matter of fact, the trend has been to reduce the transmit power as the technology has evolved," said Tell.

Whether that trend will hold as wireless carriers roll out next-generation color phones-fueled by high-speed processors to handle data-intensive content-is unclear.

All health lawsuits brought against industry to date have been dismissed for lack of scientific evidence.

Federal health and safety officials plan to travel to North Carolina later this month for a briefing by National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences officials on a $10 million long-term animal study-the largest of its kind in the United States-that is being developed in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

The National Toxicology Program, a unit of NIEHS selected by the Food and Drug Administration for the project, will investigate the controversial issue of non-thermal effects that some studies attribute to mobile-phone radiation.

"The existing exposure guidelines are based on protection from acute injury from thermal effects for RF R exposure. Current data are insufficient to draw definite conclusions concerning the adequacy of these guidelines to be protective against any non-thermal effects of chronic exposures," states a fact sheet published by the NTP in March.

The Environmental Protection Agency has embraced the same position on the RF standard.

The wireless industry downplayed the NTP document and challenged the notion that radiation safety guidelines may not give the nation's 140 million mobile-phone subscribers adequate protection.

"The statement by NTP is virtually unchanged from the statement they issued last year in the 2002 NTP Fact Sheet," said Jo-Anne Basile, vice president for external and industry relations at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.

"The standards-setting bodies in the United States as well as those in other parts of the world are continually reviewing the latest research to determine if any changes are required," added Basile. "They have recommended no additional protective measures beyond the substantial measure of safety already built in to the current standard. The FDA, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the EPA, as well as expert scientific panels around the world, have been consistent in their view that the existing federal guidelines are sufficient to protect the public health. CTIA and the wireless industry globally have always supported sound, independent and well-focused research. Additional focused research provides public health agencies more data upon which to base standards, public policy and guidelines to protect the public's health."

Last month, EMR Network President Janet Newton and Jeff Munger, in-state legislative liaison to Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.), met with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps to seek FCC action on a 2001 petition that states the current RF standard is dated and does not reflect results of newer studies-including those showing non-thermal effects.

Dr. Ronald Melnick, head of the RF research program at NTP, said the animal study could help clarify the non-thermal effects question.

"I'm not predicting that we will find something or that we will not find something," said Melnick.

Melnick said equipment alone will cost $1.5 million to $2 million. The remaining $8 million will cover the administration of lifetime animal studies. Requests for proposals for the latter will go out this fall, he said.

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