The U.S. should reassess standards for radiation exposure from mobile phones, the Government Accountability Office said in a report that found federal guidelines lagging behind international standards.
Limits set in 1996 by the Federal Communications Commission may not reflect recent research on radio-frequency energy from phones, and testing requirements may not identify maximum exposure in all usage conditions, the agency said in a July 24 study released today. The FCC doesn’t test for devices carried against the body, a practice that may lead to exposure that exceeds the FCC’s limit, the GAO said.
“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,” Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said today in an e-mailed statement.
The FCC under Chairman Julius Genachowski, a Democrat, said June 15 it’s planning to review the standards. The FCC’s planned study “has the potential to address and even expand on the recommendations in the GAO report to thoroughly review” rules, Julius Knapp, chief of the agency’s Office of Engineering and Technology, said in a July 6 comment to the GAO that was published as part of the report.
Research hasn’t demonstrated adverse human-health effects of exposure to radio-frequency energy from using mobile phones, the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, said in the study posted on its website.
“The U.S. has among the most conservative standards in the world,” Neil Grace, an FCC spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. The FCC will seek comments from experts including federal health agencies, Grace said.
The GAO report was requested by congressional Democrats, who said the FCC should change its requirements to reflect current research. The FCC relies on guidance from federal health and safety agencies that haven’t called for revised exposure limits, and the FCC hasn’t formally asked the agencies for a reassessment, according to the GAO report.
A mobile phone, like any transmission device, emits radio-frequency, or RF, energy, Markey and fellow Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman and Anna Eshoo, both of California, said in a news release.
At high levels, such as those used in X-rays, RF energy can heat biological tissues and cause damage, the Democrats said.
Mobile phones don’t operate at a level high enough to cause heating, the Democrats said. Questions remain about whether RF energy emitted by mobile phones could cause other health issues, such as cancer, the lawmakers said.
The U.S. has about 286 million mobile phone subscribers, including an increasing number of children, and it’s “vitally important” that the FCC update its testing requirements, the lawmakers said in the statement.
CTIA-The Wireless Association, a Washington-based trade group, welcomed further review of the standards, John Walls, a spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement.
“The FCC has been vigilant in its oversight in this area and has set safety standards to make sure that radio-frequency fields from wireless phones remain at what it has determined are safe levels,” Walls said.
CTIA members include Verizon Wireless, AT&T Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp. and T-Mobile USA Inc., the U.S. unit of Bonn-based Deutsche Telekom AG. Spokesmen for all four companies referred queries to the wireless association.
“The United States is behind on the science,” Devra Lee Davis, founder of the Teton County, Wyoming-based Environmental Health Trust, said in an interview. “There’s been this dogmatic belief that there cannot be an effect.”
FCC standards assess compliance with energy exposure limits when devices are held against the ear or carried in holsters, the GAO said. Using a mobile phone in a pocket while using an ear piece could lead to exposure that exceeds the FCC limits, the GAO said.
“These devices are not going to go away but we’ve got to be smarter about using them,” said Davis, a former professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh. “Do not keep your phone in the front pocket when it’s on.”
Children receive more exposure than adults, Davis said.
“We need to do a better job of vetting things before we conduct wholesale experiments on our children and grandchildren,” Davis said.
There are concerns that radio-frequency energy from phones held close to the head may affect the brain and other tissues, according to the National Cancer Institute of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Studies of cells, animals and humans haven’t produced evidence that radio-frequency energy can cause cancer, the cancer institute said on its website.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration found no evidence linking wireless phone use to heightened risk of brain tumors, according to its website. The agency examined a 2010 World Health Organization study and a separate program by the NIH cancer unit that found no increase in brain cancer as phone use increased.
Wireless devices emit energy when used, and the closer the device is to the body the more energy a person absorbs, the FCC said. People can reduce exposure by using a speaker phone or earpiece and increasing the distance between the device and the body, the FCC said, without endorsing the need for such measures.
Apple Inc. recommends that iPhone users carry the device at least 5/8 inch (1.5 centimeters) from their bodies to keep exposure below the maximum levels. The iPhone meets FCC and European Union exposure guidelines, the Cupertino, California-based company said in a manual for the iPhone4s.
San Francisco city officials in 2010 required that stores post the level of radio waves emitted by each mobile phone they sell.
CTIA-The Wireless Association challenged the requirement in court, saying it would mislead consumers about a safe product.