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EWG Seeks FCC-Cell Phone Industry Communications

cell phone

So you’re thinking about trading in your old cell phone, and you want to know how much radiation the new models emit. Think scavenger hunt and you’ve got the idea.

Technically speaking, the Federal Communications Commission makes that information public through its FCC SAR Database. But only the most tenacious shopper will have the patience or know-how to navigate the agency’s online maze to find a phone’s Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) value – the standard measure used to define the amount of radio frequency energy absorbed by the body of a person using a cell phone.

To search the FCC database you have to dig into the recesses of the phone you’re considering to find its FCC ID number. Once you locate that string of letters and numbers, you have the joy of sifting through online documents cell phone makers are required to submit to the FCC. Somewhere in that digital tangle is the SAR value. But make a pot of coffee and prepare to do a lot of clicking.

Why would you care about a phone’s emissions? The FCC permits marketing of cell phones with SAR values of up to 1.6, a figure set in 1996, but more recent scientific research has produced inconclusive but troubling evidence that longtime exposure to cell phone radiation might induce head and neck tumors. Additional research is essential, and it’s in the pipeline. Meanwhile, Environmental Working Group is advising consumers to seek out lower-emission phones and take other steps to minimize their exposure to this form of radiation. To give them easy access to SAR values, which vary widely, EWG has published an interactive database of the SAR values of most cell phones on the market.

San Francisco leaders also believe in an informed public. On July 1, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom signed into law the Cell Phone Right-to-Know Ordinance, the first effort by a U.S. jurisdiction to require retailers to display SAR values at the point-of-sale.

No guessing games. No hassle.

But as scientists generate more questions about cell phone safety, hassle has become the battle cry of industry groups, which increasingly cry foul when anyone tries to empower consumers with more information about their products. Not long after the San Francisco ordinance was enacted, officials of CTIA, the cell phone industry association, announced that they would no longer hold their convention in the city.

CTIA followed up with a lawsuit asking a federal judge to order the city not to enforce the new ordinance.

CTIA argues that San Francisco’s disclosure law is unjustified because it conflicts with federal regulation of cell phone emissions and threatens to disrupt nationwide uniformity in the cell phone market.

As a consumer watchdog group, EWG suspects that CTIA hopes to enlist the FCC in its battle with San Francisco. And, in fact, the agency has a history of siding with industry in legal disputes concerning cell phones.

To shed light on whether the federal government and CTIA are working in tandem, EWG has filed a Freedom-of-Information-Act request with the FCC, asking for all agency communications with CTIA regarding the San Francisco ordinance.

EWG urges the FCC to follow the Obama administration’s commitment to greater transparency in government and to the public’s right to know about the products on store shelves across the U.S.


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