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GAO Tells FCC to Update Cell Phone Radiation Rules

WASHINGTON - Federal cell phone radiation standards are outdated and may not protect public health, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released today. The watchdog agency noted that the Federal Communications Commission set its radio frequency energy exposure limits more than 15 years ago in the early days of cell phone technology.

The new report confirms what Environmental Working Group has been saying since 2009: The FCC’s cell phone rules are based on old science and outmoded assumptions and are in serious need of an overhaul.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its report following year-long investigation into the adequacy of the FCC’s rules that was requested by Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that has oversight authority over the FCC and the telecommunications industry.

Among GAO’s top findings: The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) radiofrequency (RF) energy exposure limit may not reflect the latest research, and testing requirements may not reflect maximum exposures in all usage conditions. FCC set its RF energy exposure limit for mobile phones in 1996 based on recommendations from federal health and safety agencies and international organizations.

The GAO recommended that the FCC:

• Formally reassess its current RF energy exposure limit – taking into account the effects on human health, the associated costs and benefits and the opinions of relevant health and safety agencies – and revise the limit if necessary.

• Reassess whether mobile phone testing requirements correctly measure maximum RF energy exposure as cell phones are actually used, particularly when they are held against the body, and update its testing requirements as needed.

“The FCC has been wearing a blindfold for more than a decade, pretending that while cell phones were revolutionizing how we communicate, the agency didn't have to take a hard look at what this meant for its so-called safety standards,” said Renee Sharp, director of Environmental Working Group’s California office and senior scientist. “Finally, the FCC has been taken to task for this grave oversight, and we hope and expect it will use the GAO’s findings to update its safety standards for wireless devices.”

“We’re thankful to Representatives Markey, Waxman and Eshoo for requesting this important report,” said Jason Rano, EWG’s director of government affairs. “They have all been champions of public health and the public’s right to know, and the information provided in this report demonstrates the need for the FCC to review its cell phone safety standards.”

FCC’s current standards – which have never been updated – allow 20 times more radiation to reach the head than the body as a whole, do not account for the possible risks to children’s developing brains and smaller bodies, and consider only the impact of short-term cell phone use, not frequent calling over decades. On June 15, the FCC announced that it was considering conducting the first official review of its standards since they were originally developed, but no final decision has been made.

“In 1996, tweens and teens were not consumers of wireless technology, but today it’s hard to find a group of young people who aren’t armed with the latest mobile device,” said Sharp. “Those populations who are now talking and texting daily were not considered by the FCC when it devised its safety standards fifteen years ago.”

The GAO released its report just days before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is slated to hear a groundbreaking cell phone case. At issue is whether the city of San Francisco can require cell phone vendors to provide consumers with a one-page fact sheet about potential health risks of cell phone radiation and advice on safer cell phone use. The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, the cell phone industry’s leading trade group, is suing the city to prevent the law, enacted in July 2011, from being enforced. The case is scheduled to be heard on Aug. 9.

In May of last year, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified cell phone radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer associated with wireless phone use.

In addition to calling for updated federal standards, EWG has lobbied for greater disclosure of cell phone radiation exposure to consumers, supported right-to-know initiatives and recommended simple steps that cell phone users can take to decrease their exposure, such as using a headset and texting rather than talking.


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The mission of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is to use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment. EWG is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, founded in 1993 by Ken Cook and Richard Wiles.

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