FCC Should Reassess Health Risks From Mobile Phones, GAO Recommends

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By Paul Barbagallo  

The Federal Communications Commission should reassess the current allowable limit for cellphone radiation emissions, the Government Accountability Office said.

In a report posted on its web site Aug. 7, the GAO said that while scientific research has not conclusively demonstrated adverse human-health effects of exposure to radio-frequency energy from cellphone use, that research is still “ongoing” and may “increase understanding of any possible effects.”

The limits the FCC established in 1996 for such exposure, the GAO noted, “may not reflect the latest research, and testing requirements may not identify maximum exposure in all possible usage conditions.”

The report comes as the FCC is preparing to issue a draft order, a notice of proposed rulemaking, and a notice of inquiry to solicit views on modifying the current standards.

FCC rules require wireless phones to have what is known as a “specific absorption rate” of no more than 1.6 watts per kilogram. As the FCC explains on its website, in the case of cellular and Personal Communications Service, or PCS, cell site transmitters, the agency's radio-frequency exposure guidelines recommend a maximum permissible exposure level to the general public of 580 microwatts per square centimeter. This limit is many times greater than the radio-frequency levels found near the base of cellular or PCS cell site towers or in the vicinity of other, lower-powered cell site transmitters, it points out.

15 Years Since Last Review.

And while the commission is now planning to review its standards, it maintains that “currently no scientific evidence establishes a causal link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses.”

Some members of Congress, including Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who requested the GAO study, might disagree.

“With mobile phones in the pockets and purses of millions of Americans, we need a full understanding of the long-term impact of mobile phone use on the human body, particularly in children whose brains and nervous systems are still developing,” Markey said in an emailed statement Aug. 7. “It has been 15 years since the FCC updated its requirements for the exposure and testing of mobile phones, and with the health of American consumers at stake, it is time we send these standards in for a check-up.”

Environmental and health activists have long called for an update of the FCC's standards, arguing that the current standards grossly underestimate the degree of radio-frequency emission exposure to most of the U.S. population, including children.

Some recent studies have suggested a link between cellphone use and cancer, lower bone density, and even infertility in men. But other studies have found no measurable effect at all.

Industry Welcomes Review of Standard.

John Walls, vice president of public affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, which represents wireless carriers led by Verizon Wireless, AT&T Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp., and T-Mobile USA Inc., said the industry welcomes further review of the standards.

“CTIA continues to defer to the views of scientific experts, federal agencies with expertise and impartial health organizations,” Wall said in an e-mailed statement Aug. 7. “The FCC, the FDA, the National Cancer Institute and the World Health Organization have each evaluated the scientific research on wireless phones that has been conducted worldwide for more than two decades. Each has found that the weight of the scientific research has not established that wireless phone use causes adverse health effects.”

That said, Wall noted that the FCC has remained “vigilant” by setting among the “most conservative” safety standards in the world.

For the report, visit http://www.gao.gov/assets/600/592901.pdf.

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