By the end of 2011, 87% of the world population had a mobile subscription - that’s six billion mobile subscriptions, according to the International Telecommunication Union (2011). This is an increase from 5.4 billion in 2010 and 4.7 billion mobile subscriptions in 2009.
The rapid adoption of mobile phones has occurred amid controversy and uncertainty over whether the technology poses a risk to human health as a result of long-term exposure to radio-frequency (RF) energy from usage. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), undertook a study to report to Congress, the resulting report, “Exposure and Testing Requirements for Mobile Phones Should Be Reassessed” was released in August.
The FCC and FDA share regulatory responsibilities for mobile phones. The GAO was asked to examine several issues related to mobile phone health effects and regulation. Specifically, the report addresses what is known about the health effects of RF energy from mobile phones and what are current research activities; how FCC set the RF energy exposure limit for mobile phones; and federal agency and industry actions to inform the public about health issues related to mobile phones, among other things.
GAO reviewed scientific research; interviewed experts in fields such as public health and engineering, officials from federal agencies, and representatives of academic institutions, consumer groups and the mobile phone industry; reviewed mobile phone testing and certification regulations and guidance; and reviewed relevant federal agency websites and mobile phone user manuals.
Harmful or Not?
The conclusion is that there is no conclusion. Scientific research to date has not demonstrated adverse human health effects of exposure to RF energy from mobile phone use, but research is ongoing that may increase understanding of any possible effects.
In addition, officials from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as well as experts GAO interviewed have reached similar conclusions about the scientific research. Ongoing research examining the health effects of RF energy exposure is funded and supported by federal agencies, international organizations, and the mobile phone industry.
The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) RF energy exposure limit may not reflect the latest research, and testing requirements may not identify maximum exposure in all possible usage conditions.
The FCC set an RF energy exposure limit for mobile phones in 1996, based on recommendations from federal health and safety agencies and international organizations. The standards set the Specific Absorption Rate (“SAR”), or the amount of radiation emitted to be at a maximum level of 1.6 watts per kilogram. The international organizations have updated their exposure limit recommendation in recent years, based on new research, and this new limit has been widely adopted by other countries, including countries in the European Union. This new recommended limit could allow for more RF energy exposure, but actual exposure depends on a number of factors including how the phone is held during use.
The FCC has not adopted the new recommended limit. The Office of Management and Budget’s instructions to federal agencies require the adoption of consensus standards when possible. FCC told GAO that it relies on the guidance of federal health and safety agencies when determining the RF energy exposure limit, and to date, none of these agencies have advised FCC to change the limit.
However, the FCC has not formally asked these agencies for a reassessment. By not formally reassessing its current limit, the FCC cannot ensure it is using a limit that reflects the latest research on RF energy exposure.
The FCC has also not reassessed its testing requirements to ensure that they identify the maximum RF energy exposure a user could experience. Some consumers may use mobile phones against the body, which FCC does not currently test, and could result in RF energy exposure higher than the FCC limit.
There are currently no federal requirements that manufacturers provide information to consumers about the health effects of mobile phone use.
What GAO Recommends
The FCC should formally reassess and, if appropriate, change its current RF energy exposure limit and mobile phone testing requirements related to likely usage configurations, particularly when phones are held against the body. The FCC noted that it has a draft document currently under consideration that has the potential to address GAO’s recommendations
In the Meantime
A new federal bill called the “Cell Phone Right to Know Act, H.R. 6358” hopes to put warning labels on cell phones, create a national research program to study cell phone radiation levels, and require an update on radiation standards. The bill was introduced by Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich on August 6, 2012.
Rep. Kucinich said, “While we wait for scientists to sort out the health effects of cell phone radiation, we must allow consumers to have enough information to choose a phone with less radiation. As long as cell phone users may be at increased risk of cancer or reproductive problems, Americans must have the right to know the radiation levels of cell phones.”
The warning label would include the RF energy levels emitted from the phone, legal limits and health-based goals for safe exposure. The current SAR level does not consider populations that may be even more vulnerable to the dangers of cell phone radiation, such as children or pregnant women. The bill would also require the Environmental Protection Agency to update SAR standards, instead of the FCC.
Despite many companies offering products that claim to help protect against exposure, according to the FTC, there is no scientific proof that so-called shields significantly reduce exposure from these electromagnetic emissions.
In fact, products that block only the earpiece – or another small portion of the phone – are totally ineffective because the entire phone emits electromagnetic waves. What's more, these shields may interfere with the phone's signal, cause it to draw even more power to communicate with the base station, and possibly emit more radiation.
To limit your exposure, the FTC suggests:
- Increase the distance between your phone and your head by using a hands-free device, like an earpiece that is wired to the phone, or using the speakerphone feature.
- Consider texting more and limiting your cell phone use to short conversations.
- Wait for a good signal. When you have a weak signal, your phone works harder, emitting more radiation. Phones also give off more radiation when transmitting than when receiving, so tilt the phone away from your head when you're talking, and bring it back to your ear when you're listening.