How safe is your cell phone?

Pub date June 9, 2010
SectionGreen City

By Brittany Baguio

GREEN CITY In the wake of recent studies suggesting that extensive cell phone use might be linked to some types of cancer, consumer advocates are pushing to require phone companies to publicize the level of radiation their devices emit.

It seems like a simple idea. If fast-food restaurants are required to post the calories and fat content of their junk food, why shouldn’t cell phone companies post the level of radiowave energy coming out of their products? But it’s proving to be a tough fight — in part because the scientific studies are so complex, and also because the industry is fighting furiously against disclosure rules.

The California State Senate narrowly rejected June 4 a bill by Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF) that would have taken a modest step toward better disclosure. Leno’s measure, SB 1212, would have mandated that manufacturers and phone providers disclose radiation levels, or specific absorption rate (SAR), on their Internet websites and online user manuals. They would also be required to state the maximum allowable SAR value, and what it means.

“The federal government has set a standard for this type of radiation and already requires reporting,” Leno told us, “At the very least, consumers should have the right to know about the relative risks of the products they’re buying.”

There’s a similar measure in the works in San Francisco. On May 24, the Board of Supervisors City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee passed Mayor Gavin Newsom’s plan to require retailers in the city to reveal the amount of radiation released by cell phones. That would make San Francisco the only city in the United States mandating that retailers acknowledge radiation information.

The most recent and largest study focusing on cell phone radiation, the Interphone Study, was released this year. Conducted by 21 scientists in 12 participating countries, the study looked at the long-term risks of certain brain cancers.

The results are mixed. The study found some results of increased risks of tumors, although the authors could not agree on how to interpret the data.

The researchers surveyed 5,000 brain cancer patients, and found that people who were “heavy” cell-phone users (defined as using the phone 30 minutes or more a day) had a slightly higher risk of some kinds of cancer. But, as an Environmental Working Group analysis of the study noted, “most of the people involved … used their cell phones much less than is common today.”

Cell phones emit radiowaves through their antennas, which in newer models are often embedded in the phone itself. The closer the distance from the antenna to a person’s head, the more exposed he or she is to radio frequency energy.

However, as the distance between the antenna and a person’s body increases, the amount of radio frequency energy decreases rapidly. Consumers who keep their phones away from their body while doing activities such as texting are absorbing less radio frequency energy.

The Federal Communications Commission has set a safety level for a phone’s SAR — a measure of radiation energy — at 1.6 watts per kilogram of body mass. All cell phone manufacturers must produce phones at or below this level.

Renee Sharp, director of California’s Environmental Working group, says the evidence doesn’t have to be conclusive to warrant caution. “We aren’t trying to say that cell phones are dangerous because we don’t have definite answers yet and we need more research,” Sharp said. “But when you look at studies with long-term use of 10 years of longer, you see increases in certain kinds of brain tumors. We are trying to give people as much information as we can to make informed decisions because it may or may not impact their health.”

Cell phone manufacturers aren’t required to disclose SAR information directly to phone buyers; they send the data to the FCC. Although the FCC makes this information available on its website, the information is incomplete and hard to find. A list of cell phone SARs information compiled by the Environmental Working Group is at

The telecommunications industry strongly oppose Leno’s bill. Joe Gregorich, a lobbyist for Tech America, an industry group, told us that the requirement in Leno’s bill “has an assumption that a lower SAR is safer than a higher SAR. The FCC, FDA, and Inter Agency Working Group regulate the SAR and have set a SAR threshold where cell phones are considered safe. All cell phone manufacturers make cell phones below this SAR threshold.”

According to Sharp, the FCC’s standards are out of date. “The FCC set SAR standards 14 years ago and has not updated them since,” Sharp said. “This was before we found out that children have thinner skulls and are more susceptible to radiation effects, and before phones developed and exploded into what they are now.”