Is Your Cell Phone's Radiation Level Safe? Don't Call the FCC
Almost everyone admits that cell phones emit radiation when they link to the closest tower. What almost no one can agree on is whether that radiation is harmful to those holding their phones to their ears.
Amid this confusion comes a report from health and safety activists that the government's cell phone watchdog -- the Federal Communications Commission -- is putting industry desires before public well-being.
Investigators for the Environmental Working Group (EWG) filed Freedom of Information Act requests for documents showing that last year, FCC officials met three times -- in January, June and July -- with representatives of industry groups and corporations, including the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, Nokia, AT&T and Motorola.
"It is our hope that the FCC will not join industry in arguing against Americans' right to know about cell phone radiation, but will instead take the lead with states and municipalities advancing public access to basic data on phone emissions," said Dr. Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist with EWG.
The agency did not respond to questions from AOL News as to whether or how often discussions were held with groups concerned about possible health hazards.
Everyone Agrees Cell Phones Generate Radiation
The fact that cellular devices generate low levels of radio frequency energy, also called RF, is indisputable. Manufacturers, vendors, industry lobbyists and the government's primary watchdog the FCC all admit that without it, cell phones can't communicate with signal towers.
Also without dispute is that exposure to radiation can harm tissue, but the extent of that harm is controlled by the type of radiation, intensity and duration. At some levels, radiation can excite atoms and molecules in biological tissue and possibly cause permanent damage, including cancerous tumors.
The energy levels associated with RF, including both radio waves and microwaves, are not great enough to cause the ionization of atoms and molecules.
Trying to quantify the risk to humans has become a new growth industry, with almost every cell phone vendor and wireless trade association funding studies in laboratories and animal-testing sites around the globe.
We'll look at some specific scientific findings in a minute, but suffice it to say almost all admit their results are inconclusive and more testing has to be conducted.
Who Will Give You Accurate Information?
With new cell phones hitting the market almost every day, who can the consumer turn to for accurate, untainted information on the safety of these devices?
The primary responsibility falls to the FCC and we'd like to think it doesn't have a dog in this fight.
"Not so," EWG told AOL News. Scientists from the nonprofit watchdog of environmental and public health have been investigating the potential dangers from cell phone-generated radiation since the fall of 2009.
Documents from the FCC's meetings with cell phone companies show that one focus is on the value of specific absorption rate, or SAR, of each cell phone model, a measure of the amount of radiation the body absorbs from the device, EWG reported.
Before the meeting, consumer guidance on the FCC's website noted that some parties recommended taking precautions, such as buying phones that release less radiation. After the meeting, that caution was deleted and replaced with comments stating that differences in phones' emission levels have no bearing on health concerns.
Take a look:
This is the old version of the FCC's warning to consumers, which had been on the website since Nov. 5, 2009:
This is the change of wording that appeared Sept. 20, after the meetings with industry, according to EWG:
An FCC official told EWG it made the changes on its own initiative because of "public confusion" on the issue but acknowledged that an industry trade group had separately asked the agency "to review the same pages," safety specialists said.
"These meetings suggest evidence that cell phone industry lobbyists and lawyers are working to squelch any effort to provide their consumers with this information," Naidenko said. "There are real concerns about cell phone radiation and potential risks later in life, and that information should be presented before the device is purchased."
The Government Accountability Office has faulted the FCC in the past for accepting industry recommendations without peer review by independent scientific experts.
A Need for Transparency
Many safety experts believe these cozy relationships demand transparency and peer review is vital. And it's not just the FCC.
The Food and Drug Administration told AOL News Thursday that between 1999 and 2008, the agency had a corporate research and development agreement with industry trade groups "to assure needed research to assess the safety of radio frequency exposure was conducted."
These relationships can be troublesome, EWG said.
Do not underestimate the power of the wireless industry lobby. It was able to thwart efforts by Maine state representatives to demand that cell phone retailers provide consumers with easy-to-find information on each phone's radiation output.
San Francisco lawmakers were able to pass a first-of-its-kind ordinance requiring that cell phone retailers provide consumers with RF output information, but trade groups were able to prevent the consumer information from being demanded throughout California.
Many other countries less hampered by special interest lobbying have precautionary warnings on their cell phones that pretty much duplicate warnings used in Europe.
The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health cautions, "When buying a mobile phone, make sure it has a low SAR."
Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection urges consumers to minimize individual exposure and "in situations where a land line is available, use a land line; use phones with low SAR value; make shorter calls or avoid making calls when reception is poor; use headsets; or send a text message instead."
Nevertheless, the wireless trade groups are fervent in their stated belief that cell phones are safe.
"It is our hope that the FCC will not join industry in arguing against Americans' right to know about cell phone radiation, but will instead take the lead with states and municipalities advancing public access to basic data on phone emissions," Naidenko added.
What do the studies show?
Let's start with the industry views.
"The peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices, within the limits established by the FCC, do not pose a public health risk or cause any adverse health effects," John Walls, head of public affairs for the wireless trade association CTIA, said in an e-mail this week to AOL News.
TechAmerica, another industry organization, said scientific evidence so far does not indicate a public health risk and that warning labels would be misleading and confusing.
EWG scientists disagree.
"This is an important issue because recent studies find significantly higher risks for brain and salivary gland tumors among people who have used cell phones for 10 years or longer," said Jane Houlihan, EWG's senior vice president for research.
"We have particular concerns for children, who may absorb twice as much radiation into brain tissue as an adult would," she said.
There may be continuing disputes on what the risk assessments find, but health agencies in Switzerland, Germany, Israel, France, the United Kingdom and Finland have recommended reducing children's exposure to cell phone radiation.
Dr. Michael Thun, the American Cancer Society's vice president emeritus of epidemiology and surveillance research, said the approximately 30 epidemiological studies that looked at the relationship between cell phones and brain cancer or benign tumors yielded contradictory results.
"Questions about the current evidence can only be resolved by longer term epidemiological follow-up and by critical evaluation of experimental studies that report biological effects from cell phones," Thun said.
Last year, the International Journal of Epidemiology published the largest case-control study of mobile phones and brain tumors, titled the "Interphone Study," which was conducted in 13 countries outside the U.S. over a 10-year-period. The authors concluded there "was no increase in risk of brain tumors with normal use of mobile phones."
However, researchers said there were, "suggestions of an increased risk of developing glioma" -- a usually malignant brain tumor -- on the side of the head where the cell phone is held. Many physicians commenting on the validity of the study noted that in diseases caused by smoking and asbestos exposure, the latency period -- time between exposure and onset of symptoms -- can sometimes be measured in decades.
There is no doubt something happens in the brain when exposed to cell phone radiation. In a study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association -- which went viral in the media -- physicians and scientists from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the medical laboratory at Brookhaven National ran tests on 47 healthy men and woman during which cell phones were placed on both their left and right ears.
Researchers said they didn't find altered activity throughout the entire brain, but the PET scans showed significant changes in the orbitofrontal cortex and temporal pole, nearest to the ear, and the cell phone's antennae, which are responsible for decision-making and auditory processing.
But these seven words in the study's conclusions are important: "This finding is of unknown clinical significance."
"Even though the radio frequencies that are emitted from current cell phone technologies are very weak, they are able to activate the human brain to have an effect," concluded Dr. Nora Volkow, a pioneering brain imaging scientist and the study's lead author.