Sixteen years later, cellphones—with 6 billion subscriptions worldwide and counting—have revolutionized how we communicate. The technology that powers them has changed just as dramatically. Today’s smartphones vibrate, rock out, show high-def movies, make photos and videos, issue voice commands, check email, go underwater, navigate with global positioning systems and surf the web in 3-D.
Yet those 16-year-old FCC rules still stand. Are they protecting the public from radiation coming out of those multi-tasking marvels and the networks that enable them?
We doubt it.
Studies conducted by numerous scientific teams in several nations have raised troubling questions about possible associations between heavy cellphone use and serious health dangers. The World Health Organization has declared that cellphone radiation may be linked to brain cancer. Ten studies connect cellphone radiation to diminished sperm count and sperm damage. Others raise health concerns such as altered brain metabolism, sleep disturbance, and behavioral changes in children.
These studies are not definitive, and much more research is needed. But they raise serious questions that cast doubt on the adequacy of the FCC rules to safeguard public health. The FCC emissions cap allows 20 times more radiation to reach the head than the body as a whole, does not account for risks to children’s developing brains and smaller bodies and considers only short-term cellphone use, not frequent calling patterns over decades.
The FCC’s safety standards for cellphone radiation safety were based on studies conducted in the 1980s.
These studies have long since been rendered obsolete by newer research. Yet for years the FCC refused to update or even review its standards. Instead, the federal agency simply sat on its hands while cellphones became ever more powerful and ubiquitous.
The agency is finally moving to meet the realities of the 21st century and the Information Age. In June, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski circulated a proposal to his four fellow commissioners calling for formal review of the 1996 regulations. To advance, his plan must be approved by a majority of the commissioners. If they agree, the FCC could take the long overdue step of modernizing its safety standards. But the pace is likely to be glacial.
Americans need new, more protective cellphone standards that reflect the current science and society’s heavy dependence on mobile communications. Consumers need—now more than ever—real-world, relevant data on how much radiation their phones emit under various circumstances. The FCC does not require the cellphone industry to disclose these data. One important study showing that certain networks could expose consumers to 30 to 300 times more radiation than other networks was hidden from the public until the information was dated to the point of irrelevancy.
Given this appalling lack of information in the face of a cellphone market where just about anything goes, the Environmental Working Group is suspending publication of the EWG guide to cellphones until the FCC makes the responsible decision to require cellphone makers to generate and disclose data about device and network emissions under real-world conditions. We strongly believe that as cellphones become more powerful and ubiquitous, it is critical that people have a right to know how much radiation they can expect their cellphones to generate. As things now stand, the FCC’s cellphone safety rules are as obsolete as the StarTac.
In the meantime, here are 5 things you can do to protect yourself when using a cellphone:
1. Use a headset or a speaker.
Choose either wired or wireless. If you go wireless, make sure to take your headset out of your ear when you’re not on a call. Use your phone in speaker mode.
2. When in use, hold phone away from your body.
Why? The amount of radiation absorbed by your head and body decreases dramatically with even a small distance. Don’t put the phone in your pocket or clip it to your belt, even when using your headset.
3. Text more, talk less.
Phones emit less radiation when sending text rather than voice communications.
4. Call when the signal is strong.
Fewer signal bars mean the phone must try harder to broadcast its signal. Research shows that radiation exposure increases dramatically when cell phone signals are weak.
5. Don’t store your phone in your pocket (or under your pillow).
When a phone is on and not in use, it still sends out an intermittent signal to connect with nearby cell phone towers, which means radiation exposure is still happening.
To learn more, visit the EWG's FAQ on Cellphones, and the Executive Summary on Cellphones.