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Radiation And Obfuscation In The Cell Phone Industry
By Stephanie Losi
Wireless NewsFactor
May 21, 2002

By insisting that mobile phones do no harm, even as they bury radiation statistics amid technical jargon and fail to explain what 'safe' means, manufacturers are transmitting a mixed message.

My cell phone goes everywhere I go. It is a must-have device in case my car breaks down at two in the morning, and I need to call for help before a random passerby decides to kidnap and murder me. It also allows me to inform people if I am stuck in traffic and will be late, and it helps me find other friends wielding cell phones, in a crowd.

Without a cell phone, I am alone. With it, I have a crutch to lean on, the promise of help -- so long as I remember to charge the battery.

But I'm scared that this little safety net is delivering risky doses of radiation to my brain. Sure, I've read the studies that say there is no apparent danger associated with cell phone use. But those studies -- published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine -- also say more studies are needed, that the long-term effects of cell phone use are unknown.

Fueling the debate, controversy over the validity of study results occasionally erupts. Most recently, Dr. George Carlo of the Mobile Telephone Health Concerns Registry challenged the findings of a recent study, published by the American Academy of Neurology, that found no connection between mobile phone use and inner ear tumors.

And then there are the really frightening reports -- the ones that document changes in human tissue exposed to frequent doses of cell phone radiation.

Who's To Blame?
When Wireless NewsFactor began reporting on these studies in late 2000, people posted horror stories to our forum boards. One example described the discovery of cancer in the chest region, suspiciously close to where a user's phone had been carried in shirt pockets; another told of cell phone use leading to sharp pain on the side of the head where the phone was held; and a reader reported a diagnosis of brain tumors that occurred within months of starting to use a cell phone.

Granted, it's easier to have a scapegoat when something unimaginably bad happens. It's much harder to accept that disaster can strike at random. Are people stricken with cancer or unexplained symptoms searching for someone to blame, or is something deeply wrong in our mobile world?

In this case, the evidence is inconclusive -- but manufacturers aren't inclined to admit that. Their philosophy seems to be: "The less you know about radiation levels, the better. Oh, and don't worry. We've got everything under control."

The Search for SAR
In 1996, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released revised safety requirements for all phones sold in the United States. According to those guidelines, phones must have a Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) of less than 1.6 watts per kilogram. The SAR indicates the amount of radiofrequency (RF) energy absorbed within the head of a mobile phone user.

I decided to look up the SAR of my mobile phone -- after all, I thought, if there's even a small chance that cell phones increase the risk of cancer, I'd like to know where my device stands.

Clear As Mud
A Google search referred me to a third-party site that displays SAR values for various cell phone models, but mine wasn't listed.

My next stop was the FDA's new Cell Phone Facts site, which provides information about RF emissions. According to that site, I would need to look up my mobile phone's FCC (Federal Communications Commission) ID, then use that ID to query a database on the FCC Web site.

I found the FCC ID on the side of the box in which my mobile phone had arrived and entered it as instructed. When a results page appeared, I clicked on "Display Grant."

According to the highly technical document that appeared on my screen, my mobile phone had a maximum SAR of 1.11 when held near the head and 1.24 when worn on the body (for use with a hands-free headset). Those figures were corroborated by information I found buried at the back of my cell phone manual in the "Emergency Calls" section, of all places.

But what did the numbers mean? Was the SAR scale linear or exponential? How did my phone compare with other phones on the market? Most importantly, why was this information so hard to track down and decipher in context?

Mixed Message
Mobile phone manufacturers are in an unenviable position. By adhering to FDA standards, they have done all that is technically necessary to comply with the law. In addition, because all phones that meet the guidelines are considered "safe," sellers understandably wish to prevent consumers from using SAR as a determining factor in cell phone purchases.

But by ensuring that SAR data is difficult to locate and interpret, cell phone makers are obscuring vital information that consumers should be able to access quickly and easily.

Moreover, by insisting that mobile phones do no harm, even as they bury radiation statistics amid technical jargon and fail to explain what "safe" means, manufacturers are transmitting a mixed message.

Bring Out Your Data
It's time for a change. Emissions data should be printed in a clearly marked "Radiation information" section of the manual that ships with each cell phone, along with a relative comparison chart and an explanation of what the data means. Such a gesture would show that manufacturers have nothing to hide and would represent a huge step forward from the current, obfuscated state of affairs.

If manufacturers are worried that, armed with easily understandable data, consumers would flock to phones with the lowest SAR values, they could help ease users' concerns with a "cell phones are safe" campaign. Admittedly, they are unlikely to do this, probably because they fear lawsuits if they are someday proven wrong. "Safe" is an elusive concept; guidelines have changed in the past and could change again.

Regardless of manufacturers' reluctance, though, the bottom line is this: Consumers have the right to use SAR data however they wish, and companies should be required -- by law if necessary -- to provide it in a clear and easily accessible format. The current see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil approach to a possible health threat, no matter how slight, is reprehensible. Until all of the evidence is in (and that could take years), the possibility of risk should be admitted and openly discussed, not ignored.

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