The Washington Post reported late last week that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently changed its consumer guidance on cell phone purchases to no longer suggest that consumers concerned about cancer buy cellphones with lower radiation emissions. The change was revealed on a consumer factsheet entitled, “SAR For Cell Phones: What It Means For You” hosted on the FCC’s website.

All cellphones expose users to radiofrequency (RF) energy. The RF exposure rate  is measured by its specific absorption rate (SAR), which is calculated by the amount of watts absorbed by each kilogram of human tissue averaged over one gram of tissue. While cellphones range in their SAR levels, the FCC has established a maximum SAR level of 1.6 W/kg. In the past, the FCC’s factsheet suggested that consumers concerned about the potential health risks of RF energy should buy handsets with lower SAR levels. However, the new factsheet omits this language and instead provides language suggesting that all cellphones that pass FCC testing guidelines are equally safe for use regardless of their SAR levels. The new language reads in part:


Many people mistakenly assume that using a cell phone with a lower reported SAR value necessarily decreases a user’s exposure to RF emissions, or is somehow “safer” than using a cell phone with a high SAR value. While SAR values are an important tool in judging the maximum possible exposure to RF energy from a particular model of cell phone, a single SAR value does not provide sufficient information about the amount of RF exposure under typical usage conditions to reliably compare individual cell phone models.

While the conclusion is on hold whether SAR levels and cellphone RF emissions impact cancer rates, some watchdog groups are concerned that the FCC is phoning it in with its new guidance. On its website, the Environmental Working Group wrote:

The FCC has essentially cut and pasted the wireless industry’s position into its revised websites. The agency’s new assertions raise fundamental questions about the effectiveness of the FCC’s current standard testing methods and regulations; they also are odds [sic] with current research. Rather than arguing against making maximum SAR values accessible to the public, the FCC’s new website makes the argument for such disclosure even stronger.

This argument echoes the fight over an ordinance currently being considered in San Francisco where cell phone retailers would have to provide information about SAR levels at the point of sale. The ordinance provides for fines up to $500 (depending on duration of violation and other factors) per handset. The CTIA, the association the represents the wireless communications industry, already dialed up a lawsuit against San Francisco to block the ordinance, arguing that the ordinance conflicts with the FCC safety regulations mentioned above — deeming cell phones that pass testing safe — and that the ordinance is preempted by federal law.

Notwithstanding the state of the scientific literature, some point out that San Francisco ordinance recognizes that RF exposure may have more long term adverse effects on children, whose tissues are still developing, compared to adults. These lingering concerns, along with the FCC treatment of SAR levels, have compelled one House member to introduce a bill which, among other things, reexamines FCC’s guidelines for SAR levels.

Regardless of the outcome of the bill and the debate around the scientific evidence related to RF impact on cancer rates, the fact is that more than ninety percent of all Americans use cell phones in some capacity. If it turns out that RF emissions have even a small negative effect on health, impact could be great — as well as expensive — over the long term with so many people holding RF emitters next to their brains. Mobile phones are an important and resilient part of the consumer technology industry as evidence by the strong sales during the recession.

This is, of course, not to say that the current regulations are not adequately strong or that the FCC erred in changing its guidance to consumers. To be sure, there is scientific uncertainty regarding the carcinogenic effects of RF energy. However, agencies tend to take a conservative approach when it relates to health and safety concerns in the face of scientific uncertainty — especially when the issue is not a matter of far reaching regulation but one of narrow consumer guidance. Application of this precautionary principle, teamed with credible scientific evidence on both sides of the discussion, should persuade the FCC to call up the old consumer guidance until the carcinogenic properties of RF energy from cell phones are better understood.

— David Rutenberg

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