Back in 1996, when the Federal Communications Commission set a legal maximum on cell phone radiation, Motorola was touting its tiny $2,000 StarTac, the first clamshell phone and an early adopter of — texting!
Sixteen years later, cell phones — with 6 billion subscriptions worldwide and counting — have revolutionized how we communicate. The technology that powers them has changed just as dramatically. Today’s smartphones vibrate, rock out, show high-def movies, make photos and videos, issue voice commands, check email, go underwater, navigate with global positioning systems and surf the web in 3-D. They sport dual core processors and batteries that let you – or your kid — talk for close to 20 hours. (The StarTac maxed out at just 3 hours.)
We doubt it.
Studies conducted by numerous scientific teams in several nations have raised troubling questions about possible associations between heavy cell phone use and serious health dangers. The World Health Organization has declared that cell phone radiation may be linked to brain cancer. Ten studies connect cell phone radiation to diminished sperm count and sperm damage. Others raise health concerns such as altered brain metabolism, sleep disturbance and behavioral changes in children.
These studies are not definitive. Much more research is needed. But they raise serious questions that cast doubt on the adequacy of the FCC rules to safeguard public health. The FCC emissions cap allows 20 times more radiation to reach the head than the body as a whole, does not account for risks to children’s developing brains and smaller bodies and considers only short-term cell phone use, not frequent calling patterns over decades.
The FCC’s safety standards for radiation from cell phone were based on studies conducted in the 1980s, These studies have long since been rendered obsolete by newer research. Yet for years the FCC refused to update or even review its standards. Instead, the federal agency simply sat on its hands while cell phones became ever more powerful and ubiquitous.
The agency is finally moving to meet the realities of the 21st century and the Information Age. On June 15, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski circulated a proposal to his four fellow commissioners calling for formal review of the 1996 regulations. To advance, his plan must be approved by a majority of the commissioners. If they agree, the FCC could take the long overdue step of modernizing its safety standards. But the pace is likely to be glacial.
Americans need new, more protective cell phone standards that reflect the current science and society’s heavy dependence on mobile communications.
Consumers need — now more than ever — real-world, relevant data on how much radiation their phones emit under various circumstances. The FCC does not require the cell phone industry to disclose these data. One important study showing that certain networks could expose consumers to 30 to 300 times more radiation than other networks was hidden from the public until the information was dated to the point of irrelevancy.
Given this appalling lack of information in the face of a cell phone market where just about anything goes, the Environmental Working Group is suspending publication of the EWG guide to cell phones until the FCC makes the responsible decision to require cell phone makers to generate and disclose data about device and network emissions under real-world conditions. We strongly believe that as cell phones become more powerful and ubiquitous, it is critical that people have a right to know how much radiation they can expect their cell phones to generate. As things now stand, the FCC’s cell phone safety rules are as obsolete as the StarTac.
In the meantime, EWG recommends that consumers take steps to reduce their exposures to cell phone radiation by holding phones away from their bodies, using earpieces and following and other simple tips in EWG’s updated Guide to Safer Cell Phone Use.
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