The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a press release on May 31, 2011 advising that exposure to radio frequency (RF) fields from cell phones may increase the risk for certain types of cancer. These findings reverse an earlier position that no adverse health effects were established. WHO now includes cell phones in its possible carcinogenic hazard category.Click here for a copy of the WHO/IARC summary.
The IARC conclusion is not based on new studies, but rather on a review of past studies and on an evaluation of risk based on IARC classification models. How do experts looking at the same set of data reach different conclusions? Perhaps the answer is in the IARC process for identifying risk and the trigger points that define classification as a possible carcinogenic hazard. The listing provides great fodder for scientific and public debate, but it doesn’t address the practical or legal considerations that are attendant to such a listing.
According to the National Cancer Institute, the number of cell phone users has increased rapidly. As of 2009, there were more than 285 million subscribers to cell phone service in the United States. This is an increase from 110 million users in 2000 and 208 million users in 2005. While studies suggest that the amount of RF energy produced by cell phones is too low to cause significant tissue damage (i.e., RF energy does not cause a significant increase in temperature that can damage cell structure), some scientists argue that the data is inconclusive and that more research is needed to determine what effects, if any, low-level non-ionizing RF energy has on the body and whether it poses a health danger.
The question is whether the current scientific data will move the debate from the laboratory to the court room. Is there sufficient nexus between cell phones and health risks? How should manufacturers, retailers, resellers, employers, schools, public and private sectors and users respond to the IARC listing and the potential for legal risks? Will legislative initiatives intervene?
Even now, some states and local units of government are moving forward with laws and regulations aimed at cell phone health risks. For example:
1. Maine proposed legislation requiring that cell phones sold in the state must include a warning that they may cause brain cancer. The 2010 legislation was not enacted, but proponents raised the issue again in the 2011 legislature. The proposed Children’s Wireless Protection Act would require notices on cell phone packages and at the point of sale to warn users of the potential health hazards. Under the proposed law, the label on the packaging would state, “Warning: Federal health safety standards have yet to be established for non-thermal effects of cellular telephone radiation, which have been identified as reasons for health safety concerns, such as brain tumors.” The proposed law also required in-stores point of sale warnings that:
-Federal health safety standards have yet to be established for non-thermal effects of cellular telephone radiation.
-Non-thermal effects of cellular telephone radiation have been identified as reasons for health safety concerns, such as brain tumors, fertility issues, and other consequences of genetic damage.
-Avoid contact with head and body.
-Avoid proximity to reproductive organs.
-Limit use by children.
-The Maine legislation has been tabled again this year, but look for proponents to keep trying to enact the legislation. Click here for a copy of the proposed law.
2. California proposed a bill that would require the following warning notices on cell phone point of sale packaging: “This device emits radio-frequency energy. Consult the user’s manual for additional information on safe use.” An early version of the bill would have required a more robust warning to indicate that users should not “hold or carry it directly against the body when connected to a network or you may be exposed to levels greater than the safety limit established by the Federal Communications Commission.” Click here for a copy of the proposed bill.
3. New Mexico has passed legislation that requires the state to “study available literature and report on the effects of cell phone radiation on human health.” The State Department of Health and the Department of the Environment must prepare a report with “recommendations on how to alleviate any dangerous effects that cell phone radiation has on human health.” Click here for a copy of the law.
4. Oregon has proposed a law to require retailers to affix the following label to a phone and the phone’s packaging. “Warning: This is a radio-frequency (RF), radiation-emitting device that has non-thermal biological effects for which no safety guidelines have yet been established. Controversy exists as to whether these effects are harmful to humans. Exposure to RF radiation may be reduced by limiting your use of this device and keeping it away from the head and body.” Click here for a copy of the law
5. Pennsylvania has proposed law to require labels on cell phone packaging to inform consumers about possible health consequences. The label would state, “This device emits electromagnetic radiation, exposure to which may cause brain cancer. Users, especially children and pregnant women, should keep this device away from the head and body.” Click here for a copy of the proposed law.
6. San Francisco passed a cell phone warning ordinance requiring that cell phone companies and retailers inform consumers of the Specific Absorption Rates (SAR) for their phones. The SAR is an indication of the amount of RF radiation absorbed by the body from a particular cell phone.
There has been significant industry opposition and a lawsuit against the San Francisco ordinance. This has led to a delay in enforcement of the law as well as current efforts to revise the law to remove the SAR reporting requirement.
We make risk-based decisions on limited information all the time. As the public policy debate rages, the real question is how can we use the IARC information to evaluate risk? How should manufacturers, retailers, resellers, employers, schools, public and private sectors and users respond to the potential risk?
We should be mindful of taking the IARC listing and rushing to conclusions of policy or law, but perhaps some practical actions in response to the IARC listing may be prudent:
A. A cell phone user’s level of exposure to RF energy depends on many factors, including:
The number and length of calls. The distance from the cell phone. The quality of the cellular transmission. The size and energy capacity of the handset.
Therefore, minimize the source of possible exposure. Keep the cell phone away from the head. Use the hand’s free mode or connect through external speakers when possible.
B. If using a cell phone near the ear, follow the manufacturer’s recommended safe use distances.
C. Consider using text and voice recognition communication options that are built into many phones.
D. Consider use of power saving functions and limit combined operation with Wi-Fi, navigation and phone resources all on at the same time.
While conclusions about the nexus between cell phones, health risks and legal risks may be years away, cell phone manufacturers, retailers, resellers, employers, schools, public and private sectors and users may want to follow Ben Franklin’s sage advice: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.