Cell Phone Safety Debate Intensifies

It has become as common for many folks as putting on their socks and shoes: Almost instinctively, they put their cell phones into their pockets, and then later in the day hold them close to their ears to talk with friends, family, or co-workers. Cell phone users, who number 150 million in the United States, believe their actions are innocuous, but there is a group of scientists and vendors who think otherwise.

These scientists have deduced that the level of radiation emitted by cell phones represents a serious health risk to adults and children, one with potentially far-reaching effects, such as increasing the rate of cancer and learning disabilities in children.

The issue of ensuring the safety of cell phones is divided among vendors, academic institutions, and government agencies. Vendors are charged with developing tests to measure the potential health risks associated with any new product. Often, these tests are devised in conjunction with academic institutions and individuals who become experts in the safety of certain types of products.

Conflicting Findings

Government agencies can either conduct their own tests, which can be an expensive proposition, or piggyback on top of the work completed by vendors and academic institutions.

In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) works in conjunction with the Department of Health and Humans Services to set the guidelines used for cell phone radiation. The current requirements are based on testing vendors conducted in 1992 and the government endorsed in 1996.

Since that time, additional studies have been undertaken. While many support the belief that the current guidelines are safe, a few pointed to potential problems. In 2003, Swedish professors Lennart Hardell and Kjell Hansson Mild made a connection cell phone usage and brain cancer and stated that people who had used analog mobile phones for up to 10 years had a 26 percent higher rate of brain cancer than those who had not used the phones.

Some view the study’s link between cell phone use and brain cancer as tenuous. “The Swedish study was completed with individuals using phones that are no longer made so there are some questions about the validity of the data,” said Bob Cleveland, physical scientist for RF safety at the FCC.

This statement points to one of the challenges in gathering up-to-date information about cell phone usage. The potential impact may become clear only years after users have worked with various devices; with cell phone designs constantly changing, it becomes difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons between devices that are studied and the items users currently work with.

Short Call, Long-Term Damage

The Spanish Neuro Diagnostic Research Institute released a second study that found potential problems when children use cell phones. The institute determined that a call lasting two minutes can open children’s “blood-brain barrier,” allowing toxins in the bloodstream to cross this blood vessel gateway into the skull and attack brain cells. As a result, a two-minute cell phone call could disrupt the natural electrical activity of a child’s brain for up to an hour afterwards.

This disruption could affect the child’s mood, and there is also a possibility that the subtle electronic exchanges between brain cells could cause the child to lose the ability to concentration and remember, making it more difficult for him or her to learn.

However, not all researchers who have looked at the data see the tight connection between cell phone usage and its impact on children as the Spanish Neuro Diagnostic Research Institute espoused.

The differing opinions illustrate that the tests carry a degree of subjectivity, one that can render the findings moot. “In some cases, cell phones pass current radiation emission standards when held in one position but exceed maximum radiation levels if held at a slightly different angle,” said Dr. Om P. Ghandi, a professor at the University of Utah who specializes in this area.

Given the booming nature of the cell phone industry, one might think that plenty of testing is going on. “In regards to cell phone safety, there really isn’t much research taking place worldwide and very little being done here in the U.S. at the moment,” Ghandi told TechNewsWorld.

Lack of Funding

Facing significant expenses from the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, the federal government has been cutting funding for many research initiatives. There is more testing occurring in Europe, but it not a top priority there, either. Much of the funding for research projects in the U.S. and Europe comes from vendors and they may not have much incentive to examine the issue more closely.

The FCC relies on industry groups, such as the Institute of Engineering and Electrical Engineers (IEEE), a vendor consortium, to set safety guidelines, so to a degree the fox is guarding the henhouse when it comes to product safety.

“In the past, the push to safer consumer devices has not come from manufacturers or the government but instead from concerned parties,” noted Brent Sivewright, marketing director at CellSafeUSA Inc.

His opinion features a level of bias as well. CellSafeUSA developed a shield that covers a cell phone’s external antenna and redirects radiation emissions away from a person’s brain and body. The company claims that its device reduces electromagnetic radiation by up to 96.4 percent, a statement not yet backed by everyone in the scientific community.

Getting More Attention

The issue of cell phone safety may gain more attention in the coming months. The IEEE is now examining a recommendation to double the current acceptable radiation limits. Part of the reason is the U.S. limits are stricter than those in Europe. Another factor is the devices are becoming larger and more complex. As this occurs, it becomes more difficult for vendors to deliver systems that fit into the appropriate form factor, so changing the guidelines would make it easier for them to deliver new products.

If the IEEE recommends this step, the FCC could again follow the group’s lead. “I expect the IEEE recommendation to pass and the FCC to adopt it because there has been minimal opposition to it,” said the University of Utah’s Ghandi.

Whether or not such changes will create health problems for cellular customers seems like an issue that will continue to generate more debate rather than a consensus.

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