Amid lingering concerns over cellphones’ link to brain tumors, the chairman of the Federal
Communications Commission proposes a review of the agency’s standards regulating cellphone
On Friday, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski circulated a proposal to his fellow commissioners calling for a formal review of the agency’s current standards, last updated in 1996, to establish a safe level of human exposure to radio-frequency energy. All mobile phones must meet these standards to gain FCC approval to be marketed in the United States.
Genachowski’s proposal needs to be approved by at least two of the other four commissioners before the agency can launch an inquiry. But if it does pass, the FCC will likely reexamine its testing procedures and seek help from other federal organizations, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, to review the evidence on cellphones and brain tumors. One question they’d consider is whether radio-frequency emissions should be stricter for devices used by children.
Cell Phone-Cancer Research Roller Coaster
Cell phones emit energy as heat, similar to the non-ionizing radiation from microwave ovens. This is distinct from ionizing radiation in X-rays and CT scans, which has been shown to damage DNA and could eventually lead to cancer.
Research about the effects of non-ionizing radiation and cancer is plentiful but conflicting. Last year, British scientists at the University of Manchester released data showing that there was no significant change in the number of cancer cases diagnosed since mobile phones were introduced, which they said indicated that the devices were not likely to increase the risk of brain tumors .
But months later, experts for the World Health Organization officially classified cell phones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” a category that also includes the pesticide DDT and gasoline engine exhaust. That announcement was followed in June by a report in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine suggesting that people who used their mobile phones often and for 10 years or more were at higher risk for developing a type of brain tumor called a glioma.
Since then, evidence has increasingly pointed away from a cell phone-cancer connection. Last October, researchers in Denmark reviewed 18 years of data on the entire Danish population ages 30 to 86 — including nearly 360,000 cell-phone users — and concluded that there was no proof of increased cancer risk from the radio-frequency emissions, even among people who had been using their phones for more than 13 years.
This verdict is in line with other findings, including one from the U.K.-based Health Protection Agency’s Advisory Group on Non-Ionizing Radiation. Experts reviewed existing data from hundreds of past studies and determined that there was “no convincing evidence” of a link between mobile phone use and health problems. However, they also said that more long-term information was needed.
The results “must be put into the context of the 15 or so previous studies on mobile telephones and cancer,” Anders Alhbom, PhD, and Maria Feychting, PhD, MD, professors at the Institute of Environmental Medicine in Sweden, wrote in an editorial for the Danish study. “Evidence is reassuring, but continued monitoring of health registers is still warranted.”
As Cell Phone Use Increases, So Does Concern Over Cancer
Given that the cell phone-cancer link has been the subject of such scrutiny in the health and science realms, it makes sense that the FCC would reevaluate its position on the issue. The question is: Why now? Does the agency know something we don’t?
Not according to an FCC spokesperson, who insists that the commission still believes there is no established link between mobile phones and cancer, headaches, dizziness, memory loss, or other health problems.
“Our action today is a routine review of our standards,” the FCC’s Tammy Sun said in a statement, adding that the existing guidelines are the most conservative in the world. “We are confident that, as set, the emissions guidelines for devices pose no risks to consumers.”
Some experts say, however, that a review is long overdue, especially considering our increasing use of — and dependence on — mobile devices. When the standards were set in 1996, the first iPhone was still more than a decade away, and only 16 percent of the American population had wireless service, according to CTIA, an international nonprofit for the wireless telecommunication industry. Today, cell phones are much more ubiquitous: Some 331 million are used in the United States alone, which works out to more than one per person, or a penetration rate of 104 percent of the population.
How often do you use your cellphone? Are you concerned about the effects of the radiation on your cancer risk?