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Government study urges safety review of cellphones

This news story was published on August 9, 2012.
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By Mark Davis, McClatchy Newspapers –

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Cellphones — and their use — have come a long way in 16 years. But federal safety standards haven’t budged.

Reason enough, according to the Government Accountability Office, to reassess how much radio frequency energy mobile phones should be allowed to emit.

The 46-page report, released Monday, offers no new concerns about phone safety. It also acknowledged that a newer European standard is looser than the U.S. standard set in 1996.

U.S. phone tests, on the other hand, may not reflect how consumers use cellphones, the GAO report said.

Specifically, tests don’t look at how much radio frequency energy exposure a user receives when cellphones are used “directly against the body.” For example, some consumers keep the device in a pocket while using an ear device.

Newer phones fit more easily in a pocket than those manufactured 16 years ago. They also actively connect to wireless networks even when no phone calls come in.

“They’re connecting all the time … so there may be some emissions coming from the phone all the time if you have it turned on,” said Marcia Crosse, director of health care for the GAO.

Cellphone companies, including Overland Park, Kan.-based Sprint Nextel Corp., referred questions about the GAO report to CTIA-The Wireless Association.

In a statement, CTIA spokesman John Walls called the Federal Communications Commission “vigilant” in overseeing safety standards, which he characterized as “the most conservative in the world.”

Walls noted that the FCC has said it will review its safety standards for wireless phones. Crosse said the FCC had a review copy of the GAO report when it made the announcement.

CTIA and GAO agreed that scientific research has found no human health effects from cellphone exposure.

The government agency report said continuing research “may increase understanding of any possible effects.”

The GAO report was equally interested in federal testing requirements. It said current tests assume that consumers keep cellphones at a distance from their bodies even when using an earpiece. But some consumers may keep the phone in a pocket when using an earpiece.

“All the manuals (from manufacturers) we reviewed, except one, include a statement that, when used on the body, as opposed to against the ear, a minimum distance between the body and the mobile phone should be maintained,” the report said.

The recommendations ranged from 1.5 to 2.5 centimeters, or a bit more than a half inch to an inch.

Companies also include information about health concerns online. Sprint, for example, links to government and company information.

Consumer groups note that many cellphone users are unaware of the recommendations or that the testing requirements assume consumers follow them.

The GAO also said the federal standard should be reviewed in light of newer European standards that are less stringent.

U.S. standards, it said, allow a cellphone to emit 1.6 watts per kilogram of body tissue, averaged over 1 gram of tissue. This measures how much radio frequency energy is being absorbed by the body.

A European standard allows 2 watts per kilogram averaged over 10 grams of tissue, GAO said, reflecting a 2006 recommendation from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

“An official from one consumer group told us that adopting the 2.0 watts per kilogram exposure limit would be a step back, since it could allow users to be exposed to higher radiation levels,” the GAO report said.

Phone makers, on the other hand, told GAO officials that different standards in Europe and the United States drive up their manufacturing costs and “may affect phone design in a way that could limit performance and functionality.”

A reassessment, GAO said, would ensure that federal standards protect the public and allow the industry to provide efficient and practical services.

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