US calls for cellphone rules review

2012-08-08 07:33

Washington - US regulators should take a fresh look at 15-year-old standards on radio frequency energy from mobile phones, an investigative arm of the US Congress said amid lingering concerns the devices may cause brain tumours.

Before a mobile phone comes on the US market, it is first tested to ensure its emissions are within a limit determined by the Federal Communications Commission to be safe for human exposure.

But that limit may not reflect the latest research, and testing may not reflect the actual conditions under which mobile phones are used, such as when stored directly against the body in a pocket while someone talks through an ear piece, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

The report concludes a year-long investigation prompted by Democratic Representatives Edward Markey, Henry Waxman and Anna Eshoo.

"While the GAO report indicates there is not evidence to suggest using a cellphone causes cancer, it's important that safety standards are current and account for changing trends in cellphone use and technology," Eshoo said.

Testing procedures

The GAO recommended that the FCC conduct a formal reassessment of its emissions limit and testing requirements and change them if appropriate.

FCC chair Julius Genachowski in June circulated a proposal to his fellow commissioners calling for a formal inquiry into the mobile phone emissions standards set in 1996.

If it is approved by a majority of the FCC's five commissioners, the agency would consider changing its testing procedures and seek input on the need either to strengthen or ease the current standards. The proposal also considers whether emission standards should be different for devices used by children.

The FCC would solicit input from a variety of experts, including federal health agencies, and take the GAO's report into consideration as part of its review, FCC spokesperson Neil Grace said.

The agency has stressed that it believes there is no evidence tying cancer, headaches, dizziness, memory loss or other health problems to mobile phones.

Demand for wireless devices like Apple's iPhone and Google's suite of Android-powered smartphones has surged in recent years, with some consumers opting to forego landline phone service altogether.

The sharp increase in mobile phone usage has fuelled lengthy debate about the potential link to the main types of brain tumour, glioma and meningioma.

Frequent use

In May 2011 the World Health Organisation added cellphone radiation to a list of possible carcinogens, putting it in the same category as lead, chloroform and coffee and said more study is needed.

Unlike ionising radiation, such as that from gamma rays, radon and X-rays, which can break chemical bonds in the body and are known to cause cancer, radio frequency devices such as cellphones and microwaves emit radio frequency energy, a form of non-ionising radiation.

According to the National Cancer Institute, there is no consistent evidence that non-ionising radiation increases the risk of cancer.

What these devices do produce is energy in the form of heat, and the concern is that frequent use of cellphones held up to the ear can change brain cell activity, as some studies have suggested.

What is not yet clear is whether this causes harm, which is why the WHO and other health bodies have called for further study.

The wireless trade association, CTIA, noted that two decades of scientific research, evaluated by government agencies and impartial health organisations, have yet to establish that wireless phone use causes adverse health effects.

"The FCC's safety standards include a 50-fold safety factor and, as the FCC has noted, are the most conservative in the world," said John Walls, CTIA's vice president of public affairs.