Devra Davis, a long-ignored evangelist on the health dangers of cellphones, finally feels like she’s been heard.
As soon as next week, Congress is expected to say that a year-long investigation by the Government Accountability Office has found the Federal Communications Commission’s cellphone-safety regulations are woefully out of date. Congress may also urge the agency, whose radiation-limit rules are 15 years old, to take a fresh look at how children in particular may be affected by radio waves.
The findings won’t say whether cellphones are safe or dangerous, or if they can cause cancer — a hotly contested question that top scientific organizations say is still uncertain.
But news of the congressional investigation has renewed attention on the issue and put a spotlight on persistent and controversial advocates such as Davis.
“The FCC hears us now,” said Davis, a former Clinton administration health adviser and an epidemiologist who co-founded the public interest group Environmental Health Trust. “This is just the start.”
Davis is among a handful of scientists and health advocates who have for several years warned that cellphone radiation may cause brain and breast cancer and reduce sperm count. Their arguments, advanced in breathless speeches and on Web sites that sometimes feature gruesome videos, have largely been brushed aside by U.S. officials, and consumers continue to voraciously adopt cellular gadgets.
The FCC said in June that it was contemplating whether it needed to update its rules, but the agency pointed to science from reputable health experts who dismiss fears that cellphones are dangerous.
“Our action . . . is a routine review of our standards,” FCC spokeswoman Tammy Sun said in a June statement about the agency’s review. “We are confident that, as set, the emissions guidelines for devices pose no risks to consumers.”
Even Davis agrees it is not 100 percent clear that cellphones cause cancer. But she and others have argued that government regulators need to update the way they approach cellphone safety.
The advocates have pushed for the FCC to rethink its calculations — whether, for instance, its radiation limits take into account the way many consumers carry their phones in their pockets and on their belts for hours. They also want the agency to set different guidelines for children because young skulls are thinner and may be more vulnerable to the radio waves from the phones.
In California, Maine and Oregon, Davis and groups such as the Environmental Working Group have pushed for cellphone companies to put radiation measurements on the outside of phone packages.
Currently, these warnings are buried inside user manuals. Documents that accompany the iPhone, for example, state that radiation measurements “may exceed the FCC exposure guidelines for body-worn operations if positioned less than 15 mm (5 / 8 inch) from the body (e.g. when carrying iPhone in your pocket).”
“We need organizations like the Environmental Working Group who are asking the right questions and pushing for more research where necessary on this important issue,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who pushed for the GAO investigation.
CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade group, has countered the Environmental Working Group’s efforts and has filed a lawsuit against a labeling ordinance in San Francisco. The lawsuit goes to court later this month. CTIA did not respond to requests for comment.
What drew new attention in Washington to the matter was a May 2011 World Health Organization report that found cellphone radiation may be carcinogenic. A separate February 2011 study from the National Institutes of Health found that 50 minutes of cellphone use altered activity in the part of the brain closest to where the device antennas were located.
“Independent researchers who work on issues affecting public health often face an uphill climb when matched against an industry that has deep pockets and a vested interest in maintaining the status quo,” said Thomas Cluderay, assistant general counsel for the Environmental Working Group. “Yet, the public has a right to know about the potential risks of long-term cellphone use, particularly for children.”
It’s been hard to draw mass attention to the issue, advocates say. People love their smartphones and tablets. Apps and wireless devices are a bright spot in the economy. And politicians tend to stay away from the controversy, advocates on the issue say.
Some, such as Davis, say they are often dismissed as paranoid.
“I know how this sounds. And there are a lot, I mean a lot, of people who are emotional about this and who aren’t scientists and don’t use the language of science,” Davis said. “But the fact that they are emotional doesn’t mean they are wrong.”
Davis says her passion on the issue does not arise solely from emotion. She has a doctorate in science studies and a master’s degree in epidemiology. Until 2010, she was founding director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Environmental Oncology. Since then, she has led the Environmental Health Trust, an advocacy group run out of her home in Teton Village, Wyo. She wrote “Disconnected,” a book laying out the lobbying campaign that, she argues, has prevented public awareness on cellphone safety.
“The science is there, and the issue of cellphones and cancer is going to be huge,” she says, whispering to emphasize the point. “This could be the next tobacco.”
Electrical engineers, physicists and other scientists say such conclusions are possible but not at all certain. Companies, meanwhile, who have funded their own research on the topic, strongly dispute such arguments.
Still, these firms have used their influence to lobby government officials on the issue.
Over the past two years, top lawyers for AT&T, Motorola, Nokia and other industry officials have met with senior FCC officials to ask for support in their fight against radiation labeling and disclosure laws in California and Maine, according to documents obtained by the Environmental Working Group through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“This is a real David and Goliath issue,” said Lou Slesin, who publishes a blog on radiation science, Microwave News. “And even though no one knows the real answers, there is enough substantive information that calls for more research.”