FCC changes position on cell phone radiation and safety guidelines
The Federal Communications Commission has updated its views on cellphone safety in a move criticized by a public interest group for downplaying the potential risks that radio frequencies could pose to users.
The agency, without issuing a press release, made the update on its Web site, saying that its guidelines on radio frequency limits were confusing and did not necessarily show whether one phone is safer than another.
Specifically, the FCC revamped its Web entry on cell phone health guidelines, removing a suggestion that users concerned about the radiation emitted from cellphones could choose devices with lower SAR values. SAR stands for “specific absorption rate,” which is a measure of the rate of radio-frequency energy absorbed by the body.
"The FCC requires that cell phone manufacturers conduct their SAR testing to include the most severe, worst-case (and highest power) operating conditions for all the frequency bands used in the USA for that cell phone," the agency wrote on its consumer and governmental affairs section.
The issue of cellphone health risks has captured the attention of several jurisdictions, most notably San Francisco, which adopted a "Right to Know" ordinance that requires cell phone companies to label phones with radiation levels. San Francisco is scheduled to hold public hearings Thursday on the ordinance. A similar measure is also being considered by nearby Burlingame, Calif.
Public interest groups, scientists and some lawmakers have called for an overhaul of the way regulators assess the safety of cellphones. They say that testing of phones' specific absorption rates should be conducted by regulators, and they cautioned that the current testing approach does not account for the fastest growing group of users: youth.
All of this has put the cellphone industry trade group, CTIA, on the defensive. It filed a lawsuit against San Francisco seeking to block the ordinance, said it would not longer consider the city for future trade shows and ramped up a lobbying campaign against similar measures elsewhere.
Scientists say the higher the SAR, the greater the potential danger to humans. To be sure, scientists do not agree on the effects of cellphone use on humans. Some studies show that radio frequencies absorbed by brain tissue have led to cell mutations and tumors – with the greatest threat posed to children. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and state lawmakers in Maine and California have called for a sweeping federal review of its oversight of cell phone safety.
The Environmental Working Group says the FCC's changes mimic a message pushed by CTIA. The FCC said that measuring safety by SAR ratings can be misleading and cause confusion. A phone has different SAR levels depending on how far the phone is located from a cell tower base station and how closely it is being held to the body.
The FCC said that using cellphones with a lower SAR value doesn’t necessarily decrease a user’s exposure to radio frequency emissions or and isn't necessarily safer than using a phone with a higher SAR value. Sources close to the FCC’s thinking on the change said the agency had been reviewing its approach to cellphone health guidelines for some time and that the decision wasn’t the result of lobbying by the cell phone industry. Instead, it was evaluating how effective its current rating system was in adequately informing and protecting consumers.
“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,” the FCC said. “Rather, the SAR values collected by the FCC are intended only to ensure that the cell phone does not exceed the FCC’s maximum permissible exposure levels even when operating in conditions which result in the device’s highest possible – but not its typical - RF energy absorption for a user.”
CTIA has argued that the labeling adopted in San Francisco would also be misleading. It says that a phone with a specific absorption rate of 1.0 isn't necessarily safer than a device with the national limit SAR of 1.6. All phones approved by the FCC are safe, CTIA says, and SAR values vary by how the phone is used.
At stake is the profitability of a multi-billion-dollar industry that has been a rare bright spot in a stubborn recession that has hurt nearly every other sector in the U.S. economy. Apple, Verizon, and AT&T have lobbied against a state measure in Maine that was defeated earlier this year. That bill would require cellphone retailers to sell devices with warnings about the potential dangers of radio frequencies to children, who have thinner skulls and should be subject to stricter SAR limits, some scientists say.
“The revised FCC website devotes considerable space to casting doubt on the usefulness of comparing maximum SAR values for determining potential health risks for consumers,” the Environmental Working Group wrote in a blog entry. “Yet this exercise raises a pointed question: if the FCC is not sure that SAR tests are effective for determining health risks, how can the agency say with confidence that cell phones are safe?”
| September 30, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories: AT&T, Apple, FCC, Verizon
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