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Phoning It In? Phoning It In?

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Magazine / Need to Know: Technology

Phoning It In?

Some of the federal government’s own scientists say that it’s not doing enough to determine whether cell phones pose a health risk.

Safe? Few studies have looked at the effects of chronic exposure.(NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Meghan McCarthy
April 7, 2011

Cell phones are everywhere—glued to ears, in children’s backpacks, even replacing landlines in millions of homes. Yet the federal government’s oversight of cell-phone safety—in particular, the potential health risks of long-term use—is at best informal and at worst slipshod.

The Federal Communications Commission first issued standards for cell-phone safety in 1996 and has not updated them since. Written in the midst of the wildly successful spectrum auction that established the infrastructure for the wireless industry, the standards restrict the level of radiation to prevent it from burning tissue in phone users’ bodies. They do not address the chronic effects—if any—of cell-phone use.

Greg Lotz, director of the division of applied science and research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said that additional federal oversight is needed, if only to reassure cell-phone users that the government is looking after their well-being. “The chronic exposure effects are an important issue that needs to be addressed in any standard,” Lotz told National Journal.

 

Norbert Hankin, who started an interagency working group on cell-phone radiation exposure when he was a scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency, agreed about the need for more action. “There is no concerted government organization to regulate cell-phone safety … and the federal government does not agree on standards,” said Hankin, who recently retired, in an interview.

Industry officials disagree. No additional government oversight is necessary, they contend, citing the lack of evidence that cell-phone use poses health risks. Until such evidence exists, the industry says, the current standard is adequate.

A 2010 report from the National Cancer Institute found that most studies “suggest” that the radiation that the phones emit is not harmful. However, the institute called for more research to “determine what effects, if any, low-level non-ionizing … energy has on the body and whether it poses a health danger.”

In a February study, the National Institute on Drug Abuse determined that when people use cell phones, the brain cells nearest where they hold the device appear to become more active. Researchers don’t know whether the increased activity is benign or potentially harmful, but it shows an impact from phones beyond heating tissue. “Once you know the brain is sensitive, then it behooves us to do that research that will allow us to determine if repeated exposure over 10 to 15 years has long lasting effects, or not,” said Nora Volkow, the institute’s director, who led the study.

“You want these studies to be done and funded by federal agencies so there is no real or perceived conflict,” Volkow said in an interview, but she added that her agency does not have the funds to follow up on her study. Only one other major government study on cell-phone exposure is under way, at the National Institutes of Health’s National Toxicology Program; preliminary results are not expected until 2014.

Neither Congress nor the White House has given federal agencies direct marching orders to examine chronic effects, if any, of cell-phone use. In the 1980s and ’90s, EPA, NIOSH, and other agencies had dedicated research teams examining the effects of non-ionizing radiation, the kind emitted by devices—such as cell phones, radio transmitters, and routers—that use radio waves to provide wireless Internet and network connections.

EPA lost funding for its radio-frequency research team in the 1980s. As people working on these issues retired from the Federal Drug Administration and NIOSH, no one took their places. It was simply a “matter of attrition,” Lotz said. “None of us felt we have the manpower to tackle the chronic limits. For FDA and NIOSH, there were competing priorities. Given flat budgets, other things became higher-pressure issues.”

Lotz is part of an informal, radio-frequency interagency working group that monitors the human health impacts of cell-phone use. About a dozen people from different federal agencies communicate via e-mail and hold teleconferences two or three times a year to review the potential health effects of cell phones.

The FCC, which issued the 1996 guidelines, says that it does not have any health experts on staff and that it defers health responsibilities to FDA. Abiy Desta, the FDA’s cell-phone expert, says there is insufficient evidence that cell phones do anything to the body besides briefly warming up tissue. He agrees that more research is required, however. “There needs to be, and there are actually studies being planned, that will look at cell-phone use for a longer period of time. I think that specifically addresses a gap in knowledge,” Desta said.

All of the big cell-phone companies, from Apple to Motorola, include extensive, fine-print warnings—tucked deep inside their product packaging—about the radiation emitted from their devices. But when the city of San Francisco tried to require manufacturers to provide some of that warning information to potential customers before they purchase, the wireless industry sued the city. The case is still pending in federal court.

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