What's the Media Talking About?
For over ten years now, controversy has been swimming around the hypothetical link between cellular phone usage and brain cancer. The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) reignited latent fears about cellular radiation with its announcement that wireless manufacturers will begin disclosing actual emission levels of particular handsets. This announcement came just days before CTIA celebrated the 100 millionth wireless subscriber on July 26, 2000. Wireless usage continues to grow exponentially, meaning a significant percentage of the U.S.'s population has reason to tune in to the recent media coverage.
The aggregation of industry, federal, and private research has failed to produce any conclusive evidence that cellular radiation is harmful. The industry is only becoming decreasingly concerned with continued research. The current expansion of inquiry was founded with consumer interest and concern primarily in mind. Don't get confused by all the hype; Let'sTalk.com breaks down the issues so that you, the consumer, can put your concern to rest by knowing the facts.
Putting a Number on Emissions
A wireless phone works exactly like those two-way radios from long ago, transmitting conversations via low-power radio signals. The technology is very much like that of a radio station. The voice data can be sent in either digital or analog format. Like all electronic devices, cellular phones in use give off low levels of radio frequency (RF) energy. Unlike scary X-rays or gamma rays, RF energy is non-ionizing radiation. This means that the frequency of the radiowaves is far too low to break chemical bonds, which means that RF radiation does not have enough energy to damage genetic material and thus potentially lead to cancer or birth defects.
One way to put a number on the emission levels from particular handsets is SAR, or "specific absorbed radiation." This measure refers to the maximum quantity of radiation in watts absorbed by a kilogram of biological tissue under laboratory conditions. For example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has long required all wireless phones in the U.S. to meet a conservative radiation safety standard of 1.6 SAR (which most do by a landslide). In terms of wattage, wireless phones maximally emit power in the range of 0.2 to 0.6 watts. Compare this to that of walkie-talkies, which emit radiation in excess of 10 watts, or to AM radio stations, which emit radiation at levels of 50,000 watts or more!
The "Worst-Case" Scenarios
According to the FCC, handset testing is typically done under "worst-case" scenarios, under maximum power usage. A regular local call on a cellular phone generates only about 1/10th of that maximum radiation; radiation increases when the handset has extra work to do, as when the caller is especially far from the mobile tower or when the call being made is long distance. In fact, according to the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), a local wireless call racks up about 10mW, whereas long distances can generate up to 125mW. This means that emission levels from average daily usage fall well below the conservative guidelines set by the FCC.
Making the Numbers Available
The CTIA-pioneered disclosure began August 1, 2000. Manufacturers who provide the radiation levels of their handsets acquire the right to claim their products as "CTIA-certified." Within three to six months, all new cell phones will be packaged with the new information.
Since 1996, the FCC web site has provided certain SAR figures as provided by manufacturers, searchable by FCC equipment identification number. There is still no standard protocol for coming up with the number, and testing does vary widely. A standard testing procedure is currently in the works, due sometime in the next year. Furthermore, the SAR data supplied to the FCC, while reviewed by the federal government, has not been independently verified. Consumers are warned that the SAR figures provided by manufacturers should by no means be taken as "safety ratings." All wireless phones that pass the FCC regulation can be considered equally safe; again, the FCC guideline is especially conservative and differences across models are considered negligible.
While the Research Continues
Wireless users who would like to take precautionary measures might try a hands-free kit. Consisting of a speaker and microphone, these devices remove radiation from the immediate head area altogether by locating the handset at waist-level or mounted on a desk or vehicle dashboard.
There are plenty of web sites to find further, up-to-date information on the controversy. Consumers are encouraged to learn as much as possible. The more facts you learn, the more sense you can make of the hyped-up media explosions. At core, the CTIA's disclosure program seeks to secure a trust between consumer and industry, so that consumers needn't feel that facts are being "hidden."
1 WHO, Fact Sheet No. 193: Electromagnetic Fields
and Public Health, Revised June 2000.
2 IEGMP, The Stewart Report, June 2000.