Cell Phone Health Risks: Part 1

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

Regulating Cell Phone Emissions (RF Energy)

As cell phones and cell phone base stations are considered transmitters regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the FCC is the federal agency that sets radio frequency (RF) energy exposure limits for cell phones on the market. In August 1996, the FCC adopted limits for “safe” exposure to RF energy based on Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) value, and began requiring cell phone manufacturers to comply with these limits before marketing their phones. SAR value is a measure of the rate at which body tissue absorbs RF energy when a person uses a cell phone. It is solely based on risk of “thermal effects,” or biological effects caused by the heating of bodily tissues. The FCC currently requires that wireless phones adhere to a safety limit of 1.6 watts per kilogram.

Origins of SAR Value Standards

When establishing SAR limits, the FCC did not conduct any scientific research about the relative safety or harm of cell phone use. Instead, the FCC relied on recommendations made by two expert organizations, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, as well as opinions given by other federal agencies, like the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Seems thorough enough, right? But none of these organizations and agencies actually performed scientific research on the issue either; rather they based their recommendations and opinions on review of existing scientific literature documenting RF biological effects.

As multi-agency and organizational review of pre-1996 scientific literature is the basis for our current standards, it’s in our best interests to ask about the source of this research. While the U.S. Department of Defense has funded military research on the issue (radar and other high-powered radio transmitters involved in routine military operations utilize RF energy), much of the non-military research on the biological effects of RF energy has, unfortunately, been funded by industry organizations such as Motorola, Inc. Without significant scientific research from impartial sources, then, can we really trust exposure limits set by the FCC?

Why are Current Cell Phone Safety Standards Insufficient?

Current FCC SAR value regulations do not sufficiently protect us against potential health hazards for several reasons: (1) they are outdated and do not account for different rates of RF absorption by children and adolescents; (2) they do not account for possible non-thermal health effects; (3) SAR varies with proximity of source radiation; and (4) the standards may reflect industry bias.

1.    The Standards are Outdated and Do Not Account For Use By Children and Teens

Cell phone usage patterns, as well as technologies, have changed dramatically since safety standards were established. Approximately four billion people worldwide are now using cell phones with more evolved technologies than those on the market in the 1980’s and 90’s. Industry experts estimate that cell phone use in the U.S. increased from 13 to 91 percent between 1995 and 2009. While a rise in popularity of cell phones does not, in and of itself, render current SAR values obsolete, it seems to correlate with greater frequency of use, which does affect efficacy of the 1996 standard.

Over the past decade, adults and children alike have been spending more time conversing on cell phones. In 2003, average use among Americans increased by 19 percent: from 14 to 17 minutes per day. In 2008, minutes of use averaged almost 26 minutes per day. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study, American children (ages 8 to 18) averaged 33 minutes per day talking on their cell phones. While we don’t know whether these minutes were used continuously or spread throughout the day on various calls, the amount is concerning when examined under the existing safety standard.

The 1996 standard reflects 6 minutes of (continuous) exposure to cell phone emissions by a large man. Since, in the Interphone Study, 30 minutes of daily use by adults was linked to increased risk of brain cancer, and experts believe children are at much greater risk than adults because their tissues are not yet fully developed, the rise in minutes of use among children is of serious concern. The current SAR standard desperately needs revision to reflect current usage patterns and technologies, as well as how RF emissions specifically affect children and teens.

Additionally, the 1996 standard was based on studies that could not have accounted for the latency of brain cancer (see Legislative Awareness of Cell Phone Safety). While brain cancer often takes decades to develop, cell phones were not available until at least the 1980’s. Studies conducted in the 1980’s and 90’s necessarily could not have been used to accurately assess cancer risk associated with cell phone use. More recent studies (if free of other methodological limitations and biases) might provide a more reliable determination of any link between cell phone use and cancer.

2.    The Standards Do Not Account for Possible Non-Thermal Adverse Health Effects.

It is well known that exposure to ionizing (high frequency) RF energy can rapidly heat body tissuesand cause serious biological effects like cancer. The current regulatory position is that cell phone towers, wireless Internet, cordless phones, power lines and other sources of RF emissions (including microwave ovens) generally do not expose people to high enough levels of RF energy to cause thermal, or ionizing, effects. Current safety standards, which are founded on possible risk of thermal effects, do not account for possible “non-thermal effects” associated with exposure to low-frequency RF energy, then.

A small, but significant, portion of the general population has reported suffering from “electromagnetic hypersensitivity,” or EHS, a condition characterized by non-specific symptoms (i.e., they are not associated with any other syndrome) which the afflicted person attributes to sources of electromagnetic fields (EMF) such as cell phones. Some of the more common symptoms include heart palpitations, digestive problems, difficulty concentrating, tiredness, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness, and nausea, as well as skin redness, tingling, and burning sensations of the skin. While EHS is not a medical diagnosis, the World Health Organization has recognized it as a potentially disabling condition with real symptoms which can “vary widely in their severity.”Authorities recognize that EHS affects quality of life, even if, at this point, it is not considered part of the development of any degenerative diseases.

In light of the prevalence of EHS symptoms, scientists have theorized that exposure to RF energy at currently permitted standards induces a stress response in cells. Hypothetically, this stress response could cause adverse biological changes such as compromised function of the blood-brain barrier, DNA damage and suppression of the immune system. To conclusively make such determinations, though, for the purpose of reevaluating SAR value standards, more in vitro and experimental (as opposed to epidemiological) research is needed.

The FCC acknowledges, “in general, while the possibility of ‘non-thermal’ biological effects may exist,whether or not such effects might indicate a human health hazard is not presently known. Further research is needed to determine the generality of such effects and their possible relevance, if any, to human health.”

3.    The Standards Do Not Account for Proximity to Source of RF energy.

Regardless of the SAR value of our phones, we face greater exposure to RF radiation when we call people while our cell phone signals are low. When we make calls, signals are sent from our cell phone antennas to the nearest base station antennas. Therefore, RF exposure generally increases the further away we are from base station antennas because more power is required  maintain the connections. If we are using cell phones while in rural areas or within the confines of our cars, for example, we will be exposed to more RF energy than if in a city full of cell phone towers and antennas. Because RF emissions vary with the location of the base station, then, SAR value of individual phones may not be a reliable predictor of harm or safety.

4.    The Standards May Reflect Industry Bias

There is speculation that the current SAR standard demonstrates bias toward the cell phone industry due to source of funding. In 1999, the FCC acknowledged that “much of the non-military research on biological effects of RF energy in the U.S. is being funded by industry organizations such as Motorola, Inc.”6 Since the agencies and organizations the FCC consulted when determining its safety standards derived their opinions and recommendations from scientific literature which had been predominantly industry funded, it follows that current safety standards may reflect favor toward the cell phone industry.

Reducing Unnecessary Risk of RF Exposure

Current regulatory standards for cell phones, set forth in 1996, need to be revised to reflect changes in cell phone technology and usage patterns, possible non-thermal health effects, and other factors affecting reliability of SAR value as a measure of cell phone “safety.” Understandably, the FCC won’t change the SAR value standard for manufacturers until scientists and other experts agree on the actual health risks of cell phone use. Hence, until science gets the facts straight and the government gets up to speed with regulation, we need to take matters into our own hands…we need to act with precaution until we know what the actual risks are.

In response to concerns about cell phone health risks, the FCC has started suggesting precautionary measures to limit cell phone radiation exposure, including:

  • Using a headset (HMDI recommends a wired one with an air tube);
  • Keeping wireless devices away from the body when they are on;
  • Using the speakerphone function;
  • Texting rather than talking (but not while driving); and
  • Buying a cell phone with a lower SAR value.7

HMDI also suggests turning off the phone when not using it for calls or text, using a landline whenever possible and limiting children’s use to emergencies.

References and Resources:

© 2010 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.

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