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Jury Still Out On Cell-Phone Risks
Journalist: Stephen Buel
April 03, 2001

Few corporations extend their brands into new markets more aggressively than Walt Disney. So when Disney said it would no longer license Mickey, Donald, and their cartoon peers for use on mobile phone faceplates, its uncharacteristic retreat shed light on an issue that may concern any company hoping to embrace wireless telephony.

Disney acted following a story from its ABC News division, aired in November 2000, about the potential health risks of prolonged mobile phone usage. The PrimeTime news magazine report concerned recent developments in Great Britain, where a 2000 government panel advised parents to limit their children's mobile telephone usage. Shortly after ABC called attention to Disney's involvement in marketing mobile phones to children, the company changed course.

“Since issues were first raised about the safety of cellular telephones when held to the ear, we have been examining the available scientific research and literature and are mindful of the Food and Drug Administration's statement that there is no conclusive evidence that they present a health risk,” Disney spokesman John Singh said.

“However, because the well-being of our customers is our first priority, we have decided to discontinue the licensing of our characters for use on cellular telephone faceplates until there is reliable scientific evidence establishing the absence of any such risk.”

If Disney truly waits until mobile phones are proclaimed risk-free, it could have a very long wait ahead. The health effects of radio frequency radiation—the electromagnetic emissions of products such as radios, televisions, microwave ovens, and mobile phones—have already been studied inconclusively for more than a half century. But a flurry of news has again revived the issue. These latest developments not only raise questions for consumers about how to ensure safe phone usage, but they challenge wireless business executives to consider the potential effect upon their companies' futures as well.

Wireless companies also will have to carefully consider partners. For example, Disney's move away from branding mobile devices had financial implications for Nokia as well, the company that Disney had partnered with to create and market the character faceplates.

While no other companies have followed Disney's lead yet, and indeed while its own Internet division continues to provide content to Sprint PCS wireless Web subscribers, its retreat “is likely to be copied by other 'youth' brands as the furor [over radiation issues] continues,” said Eddie Hold, director of telecom services for Current Analysis. “Although there's no proof one way or the other, the larger brands that are highly sensitive about how they are perceived are likely to avoid the issue,” he said.

Much of the latest news coverage focuses on a British government inquiry billed as the most extensive review to date of scientific evidence on radio frequency radiation. It found many subtle signs of biological impact from radio frequency radiation, although no definitive health risk. But the truly groundbreaking aspect of this so-called Stewart Report was its advice that children under the age of 16 should limit their mobile-phone usage. The report recommends that children use mobile phones only for essential calls—and, even then, only briefly.

William Stewart, the biologist who chaired the independent expert group on mobile phones, said that the warning stemmed from the possibility that if unrecognized adverse health effects occur from the use of mobile phones, children may be more vulnerable because of their developing nervous system, the greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head, and a longer lifetime of exposure.

In response to the report, the British government began distributing health advisories that repeated the panel's advice regarding children. It also encouraged concerned phone users to keep their calls short and consider energy output levels when buying a phone.

While the United States has not issued a health advisory similar to the U.K.'s, the Federal Communications Commission is requiring U.S. manufacturers to keep mobile device radiation emission levels under a certain threshold. The FCC requires manufacturers to submit their phones, pagers, and wireless devices to third-party testing to ensure that the products' specific absorption rates, or SAR levels, do not exceed FCC standards. The official position in the United States is that as long as radiation emission levels do not exceed these standards, mobile devices are safe.

Wireless analysts in Britain and the United States are hesitant to predict the impact that the U.K. policy change will have upon ever-escalating consumer adoption trends. “I would assume that there will be liability lawyers trying to make a living off of this for a long time,” said Herschel Shosteck, president and CEO of the international wireless consulting firm that bears his name. But whether usage guidelines and precautionary health information will cut into industry growth in the same way that early surgeon general's warnings on cigarette packages served to initiate a gradual reduction in U.S. smoking levels is not yet certain.

However, this much is clear: While the broad, international consensus is that radio frequency radiation has not been proven unsafe to mobile phone users—a flurry of new studies buttress this conclusion, yet call for still more research—an increasing number of studies and reports also suggest that users should think more about the health effects of mobile-phone usage.

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