FCC changes cellphone safety guidance

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010

The Federal Communications Commission has changed its guidance to cellphone users worried about the health effects of wireless devices, dropping a long-standing recommendation that concerned consumers purchase phones with lower levels of radiation emissions.

The move comes amid a growing debate over cellphone safety and coincides with efforts in some jurisdictions - most notably San Francisco - to require wireless providers to more clearly state the radiation emissions of the phones they sell.

The revisions were made last week, without any formal announcement, to a consumer fact sheet posted on the FCC's Web site. Consumer advocates criticized the agency for what they called a lack of transparency.

"A secretive change like the one that was just made raises questions of collusions with industry and does not help make the change credible," wrote wireless industry consultant Michael Marcus in a blog on Public Knowledge, a public interest site.

An FCC representative declined to comment.

In its revised guidance, the FCC said that data on a phone's radiation emissions is not a useful gauge of the risk posed by any device. The updated language omitted a previous suggestion that users buy phones with lower specific absorption rates, a measure of the rate of radio-frequency energy absorbed by the human body. The FCC now says that any phone approved by the FCC has passed its absorption tests and is safe.

Scientists are mixed on the effects of cellphone radio frequencies on human tissue. Some say that heavy users could have higher exposure and be at greater risk for brain cancer. Others say that children, with thinner skulls, are at a greater risk for tissue changes that can lead to cancer. But leading health groups, including the World Health Organization, say there is not enough evidence to reach that conclusion.

"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 of its Web site on Sept. 20.

The FCC's new stance corresponds with the cellphone industry's arguments against San Francisco's ordinance and similar proposals elsewhere. The wireless trade group CTIA has said that phones with a specific absorption rate of 1.0 are not necessarily safer than devices with a rate of 1.6 - the national limit - and said that how a phone is used is a more meaningful gauge.

CTIA has filed a lawsuit against San Francisco seeking to block the ordinance, which would take effect in February, saying the measure would harm companies including Apple, AT&T, Verizon and Motorola. The group has sent executives to speak at hearings on other cellphone labeling proposals under consideration in Maine and California.

A source familiar with the FCC's decision said that CTIA lobbying didn't change the agency's views about cell phone safety.

While the agency did meet with CTIA and wireless industry officials, the change was already under consideration, said the source, who was not authorized to speak on the record and discussed the matter on the condition of anonymity. FCC engineers and the consumer affairs division had noticed that differing absorption rates do not correspond with safety levels and that suggesting the use of lower-rate phones was misleading, the source said.

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