GAO criticizes FCC’s standards for cellphone radiation

August 7, 2012

The Government Accountabil­ity Office on Tuesday called on federal regulators to revamp standards that measure the impact of radiation from cellphones.

The year-long review by the GAO, which was done at the urging of lawmakers, did not suggest that cellphone use causes cancer. But the GAO was critical of the way the Federal Communications Commission has managed its standards, noting that the rules, which had not changed since 1996, lagged behind those of the international community.

The FCC’s regulations “may not reflect the latest evidence on the the effects” of cellphones, the GAO’s report said.

What’s more, when testing cellular radiation exposure on someone using an earpiece, the FCC assumed that people would place their phones at a distance, say, on a nearby table, the GAO noted. But many keep their phones in their pockets or on belt buckles.

The FCC “may not be identifying the maximum exposure, since some users may hold a mobile phone directly against the body while in use,” the GAO said. It recommended that the FCC reexamine both its exposure limits and the way it conducts tests.

In response to the report, the FCC said it will ask federal health agencies and others for input as it assesses its regulations. The FCC said in June that it was contemplating whether it needed to update its rules, but the agency has noted that reputable health experts dismiss fears that cellphones are dangerous.

“The U.S. has among the most conservative standards in the world,” FCC spokesman Neil Grace said in a statement. “We look forward to reviewing today’s GAO report as part of that consideration.”

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who had asked the GAO to study the matter, said the study shows that the FCC is behind the curve.

“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.

Ahead of the study’s release, there had been renewed interest in the area of cellphone radiation.

Last year, a World Health Organization report found that cellphone radiation might be carcinogenic. A separate study from the National Institutes of Health, done in early 2011, found that 50 minutes of cellphone use altered activity in the part of the brain closest to where the device antennas were located.

On Monday, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) introduced a bill that would put warning labels on cellphones and tap the Environmental Protection Agency — not the FCC — to lead the way in examining the effects that radiation has on the human body.

In a statement, Kucinich said that cellphone users have a right to know how much radiation their phones give off, particularly as people spend more time with them. They shouldn’t have to wait for scientists to prove whether there are harmful effects.

“It took decades for scientists to be able to say for sure that smoking caused cancer,” Kucin­ich said. “We must allow consumers to have enough information to choose a phone with less radiation.”

The city of San Francisco is looking at a labeling measure similar to the one proposed by Kucinich. CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade group, has filed a lawsuit against the proposed ­ordinance.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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