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Cell Phone Health: Still Confused
Research to date cannot assure that the mobile phones used by more than 115 million Americans pose no health risks, congressional investigators say, provoking fresh calls for efforts to better inform consumers.
A report by the General Accounting Office released Tuesday relied on the work of major health agencies and interviews with prominent scientists to reach this consensus: Current research doesn't show that the radio waves emitted by cell phones have adverse health effects, but "there is not yet enough information to conclude that they pose no risk."
The report criticizes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for not keeping consumers updated about the latest scientific knowledge on the safety of mobile phones. It also expresses concerns of federal investigators that a research partnership between the FDA and the cellular wireless communication industry gives too much power to the industry to withhold study results from the public.
The report scrutinizes industry-funded studies on cell phone users' radiation exposure, which it says are not standardized to deliver consistent and reliable information. Industry groups and the FCC are working to come up with standards for cell phone emission testing but have not yet done so.
That's partly because most research on radio frequency energy has focused on short-term exposure of the entire body, the report said. There are long-term studies currently under way, but "it will likely be many more years before a definitive conclusion can be reached on whether mobile phone emissions pose any risk to human health," according to the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.
Until the research offers clear answers, Americans need better information, the report said.
"In the short term, millions of consumers will be required to make their own judgments," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who requested the study with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).
"It's very hard, if not impossible, to obtain accurate exposure limits," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), one of the members of Congress who commissioned the report.
The report also criticizes a cooperative agreement between the FDA and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), an industry trade group. The cooperative is supposed to fund and conduct research on cell phone safety. But investigators said the agreement allows the industry to decide who conducts safety studies and allows them final say on whether to release the details to the public.
"We cannot have a cooperative agreement where an industry which has a stake in the results can handcuff a federal agency," Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said upon the release of the GAO report.
The lawmakers recommended that the Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration set up a website and call center to make it easier for consumers to look up the radiation levels of their particular phone models.
Major manufacturers have started including such information voluntarily inside their phone packaging. The FCC has information on its website, but consumers need the individual phone's ID number to look up the radiation level.
Information provided by the agencies on cell phones also can be written in too technical a language for the average consumers or it may not contain the latest available research, the GAO said. That's a source of concern because the industry passes along information from both the FCC and FDA to consumers with its products.
"We rely on government information," said Jo-Anne R. Basile of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, the leading industry trade group. "We would welcome the government updating it on a regular basis and putting it in consumer-friendly terminology."
The FCC, in its response to the GAO, said it was working already to make its website easier for consumers to understand.
The government should also clean up its process for determining whether cell phones comply with radiation limits, the report said. Right now, manufacturers test their own phones in various positions and submit data to the FCC. The commission requires that devices have a "standard absorption rate" of no more than 1.6 the energy, measured in watts per kilogram, that one gram of tissue absorbs from a cell phone.