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FCC Dropped Cell Phone Caution Opposed by Industry

EWG's Guide to Safer Cell Phone Use: FCC Dropped Cell Phone Caution Opposed by Industry

August 27, 2013

The Federal Communications Commission revised its online advice to consumers about cell phone safety in September to parrot the industry’s position following a series of private meetings with an industry lobbying group and company representatives, internal FCC documents show.

The website changes deleted previously posted language noting that “some parties’” recommend taking precautions such as buying phones that release less radiation. Instead, the new wording echoes the industry’s position that differences in phones’ emission levels have no bearing on health concerns.

An FCC official said it made the changes on its own initiative because of “public confusion” on the issue but acknowledged that an industry trade group had separately asked the agency “to review the same pages.”

The internal documents (see links below), obtained by Environmental Working Group through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that in early to mid 2010 FCC officials met three times – in January, June and July – with representatives of industry groups and corporations, including the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), Nokia, AT&T and Motorola. The association also represents other major cell phone providers including Verizon, Sprint, TMobile, Cricket and U.S. Cellular.

One focus of these meetings, the documents show, was the issue of the “specific absorption rate” or SAR value of each cell phone model, a measure of the amount of radiation the body absorbs from the device. The FCC set a limit on SAR values in 1996 based on industry recommendations, but cell phone makers have recently suggested that the limit should be raised to accommodate feature-laden smart phones. They have also strenuously opposed regulatory efforts to call public attention to the differences in SAR values among phones and have disputed suggestions that using lower SAR models could minimize any health risk.

The issue of whether cell phone use, especially by children, may increase the risk of some kinds of head and brain tumors remains unresolved, but EWG and others recommend as precautionary measures that consumers seek out lower-SAR cell phones and use headsets or speakers to avoid holding the phone against the head. Research to date has not produced conclusive results, but several large epidemiological studies have pointed to an increased risk for people who have used cell phones the longest.

Participants at the June 2010 meeting among industry and agency represents, including some of the FCC’s top attorneys, received print-outs showing the language about cell phone safety that was then on the FCC website on a page titled “Wireless Devices and Health Concerns.” The page included a section headlined “What You Can Do” that included the statement:

“Buy a wireless device with lower SAR.”

That sentence, which had been on the website since Nov. 5, 2009, disappeared when the page was updated on Sept. 20.

The new text includes statements that dismiss concerns of public health and consumer advocates about cell phone radiation:

  • “Accordingly, some parties recommend taking measures to further reduce exposure to [radiofrequency] energy. The FCC does not endorse the need for these practices.” (Boldface type in original.)
  • “Some parties recommend that you consider the reported SAR value of wireless devices. However, comparing the SAR of different devices may be misleading.”

This is the language that disappeared from the FCC website when it was revised in September.

This is the language that FCC added for the first time after a series of meetings with industry.

(Consultant and former FCC engineer Michael Marcus explores the changes in detail on his website.)

Other documents distributed at the June FCC meeting included a draft of San Francisco’s first-of-its-kind ordinance requiring that cell phone retailers provide consumers with easy-to-find information on each phone’s radiation output at the point of sale. The industry has sued to block implementation of the ordinance, arguing that highlighting SAR values in this way falsely implies that there could be a health risk from cell phones that meet the current federal standard. In other FCC meetings revealed in the documents, the industry representatives lobbied FCC officials to take their side in the San Francisco suit and before other local government bodies weighing proposals similar to the San Francisco ordinance.

In response to a separate EWG Freedom of Information request, Julius P. Knapp, chief of FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology (OET), wrote that agency staff “initially became aware of the public confusion on this issue as a result of news stories and inquiries from reporters” covering the San Francisco controversy. He continued:

“As a result, OET staff reviewed the pages and determined that clarifications were appropriate, and initiated that effort. During the course of that effort, OET staff was advised that the CTIA had asked another [FCC] Bureau to review the same pages.”

Until the FCC changed its website, its advisory was closer to the language of several European governments that take a more precautionary approach to the issue. The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, for instance, urges:

"When buying a mobile phone, make sure it has a low SAR."

And Germany’s Federal Office for Radiation Protection advises (approximate translation):

“To minimize individual exposure: in situations where a landline is available, use a landline; use phones with low SAR value (<0.6 Watts per kilogram); make shorter calls or avoid making calls when reception is poor; use headsets; or send a text message instead.”

A number of other foreign governments have issued similar cautions.

The FCC has not made public a transcript of its officials’ meetings with industry representatives. Many questions remain unanswered about whether industry pressure succeeded in persuading government regulators to soften their position on cell phone radiation safety.

This much is certain. Agency officials met at least three times with industry. Public health and consumer representatives were not invited. After the third session, the FCC shifted its position to omit any mention of safety concerns about cell phones’ emissions level, as the industry has advocated.

Coincidence? You be the judge.

FCC documents obtained by EWG: