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EWG's Guide to Safer Cell Phone Use

Executive Summary

August 27, 2013

EWG's Guide to Safer Cell Phone Use: Executive Summary

More than 4 billion people around the world use cell phones (ITU 2009). Because cell phone technology has been around for just two decades, scientists do not yet fully understand long-term health risks from cell phone radiation. But recent research has prompted serious concerns about exposure to wireless emissions.

Prior to 2003, studies of cancer risk and cell phone use produced conflicting results. FDA told consumers that scientists had found no harmful health effects from exposure to cell phone emissions. (FDA 2003).

But FDA's assurances were based on studies of people who had used cell phones for just 3 years, on average (FDA 2003), not long enough to develop cancer. At that time, studies had not addressed the risks of longer-term cell phone radiation exposures.

Recent studies link cell phone radiation to:
Brain cancer: Two research groups independently analyzed all data from 25 original studies of cell phone users, and identified a 50 to 90 percent increase in risk for two types of brain tumors: glioma and acoustic neuroma (Hardell 2009, Kundi 2009).
Salivary gland tumors: An Israeli study found an increased risk of 50 to 60 percent for salivary gland tumors among people with highest cell phone use (Sadetzki 2008).
Behavioral problems: A study of 13,159 Danish children showed 80 percent elevated risk for emotional and hyperactivity problems among young children who use cell phones and whose mothers also used cell phones during pregnancy (Divan 2008).
Migraines and vertigo: A study of 420,095 Danish adults showed that long-term cell phone users were 10 to 20 percent more likely to be hospitalized for migraines and vertigo than people who took up cell phones more recently. (Schuz 2009).

The research gap is closing. Scientists around the world have recently associated serious health problems with using cell phones for 10 years or longer:

  • A joint study by researchers in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom found that people who had used cell phones for more than 10 years had a significantly increased risk of developing glioma, a usually malignant brain tumor, on the side of the head they had favored for cell phone conversations (International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) 2008; Lahkola 2007).

  • French and German scientists reported an increased risk of glioma for long-term cell phone users (Hours 2007; Schuz, Bohler, Berg 2006). Analysis of all published cell phone-brain tumor studies found that people who had used a cell phone for 10 or more years, the overall risk for developing a glioma on the cell phone side of the head increased by 90 percent (Hardell 2009; Kundi 2009).

  • Cell phone use for 10 years and longer has been also associated with significantly increased risk of acoustic neuroma, a type of benign brain tumor, on the primary side of cell phone use (IARC 2008; Schoemaker 2005). An extensive review of published studies of acoustic neuroma found that long-term cell phone users had a 60 percent greater risk of being diagnosed with the disease (Hardell 2009; Kundi 2009).

  • A study from Israel reported an association between frequent and prolonged mobile phone use and parotid (salivary) gland tumors (Sadetzki 2008). Scientists analyzing data from Sweden and Denmark combined found that people who had used cell phones for at least 10 years ran an increased risk of benign parotid gland tumors (IARC 2008; Lonn 2006).

  • Multiple studies reported that the brains of young children absorb more radiation than those of adults (de Salles 2006; Gandhi 1996; Kang 2002; Martinez-Burdalo 2004; Wang 2003; Wiart 2008), potentially rendering them more vulnerable to brain tumors (NRC 2008b). Researchers in Sweden found the highest risk of brain tumors among people who started using cell phones during adolescence (Hardell 2009).

Scientists have known for decades that high doses of the radiofrequency radiation emitted by cell phones can penetrate the body, heat tissues, trigger behavioral problems and damage sensitive tissues like the eyeball and testicle (Heynick 2003; IEEE 2006).

Yet when cell phones went on the market in the 1980s, federal regulators did not require manufacturers to prove they were safe (GAO 1994).

Recent studies raise particular concerns about the impact of cell phone emissions on children. The National Research Council (NRC) has observed that "with the rapid advances in technologies and communications utilizing [radiation in the range of cell phone frequencies], children are increasingly exposed... at earlier ages (starting at age 6 or before)" (NRC 2008b). The NRC called for "investigation of the potential effects of RF fields in the development of childhood brain tumor" (NRC 2008b).

  • Research by France Telecom scientists showed that under standard conditions of use, twice as much cell phone radiation would penetrate a child's thinner, softer skull than an adult's (Wiart 2008). These results confirm earlier findings that children's heads absorb more radiofrequency radiation than adults (Gandhi 1996; Kang 2002; Wang 2003).

  • Children will be exposed to cell phone radiation for more years and therefore in greater total amounts than the current generation of adults (NRC 2008b).
Government actions: radiation standards and public education
Health agencies in six nations — Switzerland, Germany, Israel, France, United Kingdom, and Finland — have recommended reducing children's exposures to cell phone radiation.
In 2008, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging member countries to develop lower radiation emission limits for cell phones. Legislation introduced in the French Senate would ban marketing and sales of phones for children under age 6.
Brussels, Belgium; Salzburg, Austria; and Christchurch, New Zealand have proposed strict local cell phone radiation standards. Toronto has issued guidance to parents on reducing children's cell phone use.

Few research studies have focused on the health hazards of children's cell phone use, even though the youth market is growing. But one recent study of 13,159 Danish children showed that young children who use cell phones and whose mothers also used cell phones during pregnancy are 80 percent more likely to suffer emotional and hyperactivity problems (Divan 2008).

In response to the growing debate over the safety of cell phone emissions, government agencies in Germany, Switzerland, Israel, United Kingdom, France, and Finland and the European Parliament have recommended actions to help consumers reduce exposures to cell phone radiation, especially for young children.

In contrast, the two U.S. federal agencies that regulate cell phones, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), have all but ignored evidence that long term cell phone use may be risky.

The FCC adopted radiation standards developed by the cell phone industry 17 years ago. These standards, still in use, allow 20 times more radiation to reach the head than the rest of the body. They do not account for risks to children.

While compiling a database of radiation emitted by more than 1,000 cell phones sold in the U.S., the Environmental Working Group has found that emissions can vary by a factor of up to 8 from one phone to another.

The cell phone industry has reported 270 million wireless subscriptions by the end of 2008, equivalent to 87 percent of the U.S. population (CTIA 2009, ITU 2009). This number is only expected to grow. Consumers need — at a minimum — easy access to cell phone radiation information so that they can make informed purchasing decisions and protect themselves and their families from potential health concerns.

Studies: Cell phone radiation may cause tissue damage

Cell phones communicate via electromagnetic waves. During signal transmission, a comparable amount of radiation travels outward, towards the base station, and inward, towards the ear or head of the cell phone user. (IEGMP 2000).

Cell phone waves are in the "radiofrequency" range. They lack the penetrating energy of X-rays and radioactivity. Scientists are still exploring how cell phone radiation may cause the harmful effects that some studies have described.

Cell phones, radios and TV transmissions emit non-ionizing radiation that has a longer wavelength, lower frequency and lower overall energy per photon than UV light, X-rays and gamma rays (a form of radioactivity), which are known as ionizing radiation because they have enough power to eject an electron from its orbit and leave behind a charged ion that can damage cells and tissues.

Scientific research conducted over the past decade has associated cell phone radiation with increased risk of developing brain and salivary gland tumors, neurological symptoms such as migraine and vertigo, and neurodevelopmental effects observed as behavioral problems in young children (BioInitiative 2007; Divan 2008; Kundi 2009; Sadetzki 2008; Schuz 2009).

The National Research Council has reported that exposure to cell phone radiation may affect the immune, endocrine and nervous systems, fetal development and overall metabolism (NRC 2008b). Children are likely to be more susceptible than adults to effects from cell phone radiation, since the brain of a child is still developing and its nervous tissues absorb a greater portion of incoming radiation compared to that of an adult (Gandhi 1996; Kang 2002; Kheifets 2005; Schuz 2005; Wang 2003; Wiart 2008).

FCC radiation standards have little margin of safety

The FCC's cell phone radiation standards closely follow the 1992 recommendations of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) (FCC 1997). These standards allow 20 times more radiation to penetrate the head than the rest of the body and do not account for risks to children.

FCC standards limit the radiation absorbed by a cell phone user's brain and body to a specific absorption rate, or SAR, measured by the amount of the phone's radiation energy (in watts, W) absorbed per kilogram of tissue (W/kg).

Current FCC regulations permit SAR levels of up to 1.6 W/kg for partial body (head) exposure, 0.08 W/kg for whole-body exposure, and 4 W/kg for exposure to the hands, wrists, feet and ankles (FCC 1997, 1999).

The FCC standards are based on animal studies conducted in late 1970s and early 1980s (Osepchuk 2003). FCC, on the recommendation of the IEEE, adopted SAR level of 4 W/kg as the point of departure for determining legal SAR limits for cell phones. In contrast to the FCC decision, an independent analysis by the EPA scientists concluded, on the basis of the same body of data, that biological effects occur at SAR levels of 1 W/kg, 4 times lower than the SAR level chosen by IEEE (U.S. EPA 1984). Exposure to radiofrequency radiation at these SAR levels induces tissue heating that leads to behavioral alterations in mice, rats, and monkeys, that may be a "potentially adverse effect in human beings" (IEEE 2006).

Current FCC standards fail to provide an adequate margin of safety for cell phone radiation exposure and lack a meaningful biological basis.

For example, the FCC standard for the head is just 2.5 times lower than the level that caused behavioral changes in animals. The standard that applies to hands, wrists, feet, and ankles has no safety margin whatsoever.

The FCC adopted IEEE's proposal to allow 20 times more radiation to the head than the average amount allowed for the whole body, even though the brain may well be one of the most sensitive parts of human body with respect to radiofrequency radiation and should have more protection.

To receive the FCC approval for selling a cell phone in the U.S. market, manufacturers typically conduct the phone's SAR tests themselves or contract with the private industry. Private industry organizations (Telecommunication Certification Bodies) are also actively involved in all steps of determining the compliance of cell phones and other wireless devices with the FCC rules (FCC OET 2008f).

SAR testing of cell phones is carried out on a mold in the shape of an adult torso or head which is filled with a viscous fluid mixture selected to simulate the electrical properties of human tissue (GAO 2001). To determine SAR, a cell phone is placed next to the outer surface of the mold and turned on to transmit at the maximum power while a probe is inserted into the viscous inner mixture at various locations, measuring the radiofrequency energy that is being absorbed (GAO 2001).

FCC, the cell phone industry, and the academic community all acknowledge that SAR measurements have significant precision problems (Cardis 2008; FCC OET 2008e; GAO 2001; Wiart 2008). Studies by scientists in academia and the cell phone industry demonstrate that SAR is significantly influenced by the age, shape of the head, and tissue composition (Conil 2008; Wang 2003; Wiart 2008).

The greatest debate is whether the current methods for SAR measurement is adequate for assessing radiation absorption in children's brains (Gandhi 1996; Wang 2003). Recent research on SAR in test models for children's brains and bodies indicates that SAR levels in children would be much higher than in adults (Conil 2008; de Salles 2006; Gandhi 1996; Martinez-Burdalo 2004; Wang 2003; Wiart 2008).

Cell phone standards ignore children

Scientists in a number of countries agree that the head and brain of a child absorb significantly more radiation than those of an adult (de Salles 2006; Gandhi 1996; Kang 2002; Wang 2003; Wiart 2008). Yet U.S. cell phone emission levels and federal standards are based on radiation absorbed by adults and fail to account for children's higher exposures and greater health risks.

In general, as head size decreases, the percentage of energy absorbed by the brain increases,(Martinez-Burdalo 2004). Moreover, children's tissues have higher water and ion content compared to adult tissues (Peyman 2009). Both factors increase radiation absorption, acccording to researchers from the U.S., the Finnish cell phone company Nokia, Institute of Applied Physics in Spain and the U.K. Health Protection Agency (Gandhi 2002; Keshvari 2006; Martinez-Burdalo 2004; Peyman 2009).

All these data, taken together, suggest that when a child uses a cell phone that complies with the FCC standards, he or she could easily absorb an amount of radiation over the maximum allowed radiation limits defined by the federal guidelines. FCC standards give adults only a slim margin of safety over emission levels that harm animals. For children, the margin is much slimmer – if one exists at all.

Consumers have a right to full information on cell phone radiation levels

Cell phone manufacturers opposed SAR disclosure (Lin 2000) until 2000, when the FCC began posting cell phone SAR values on its web site. After the FCC decision, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) began requiring manufacturers to disclose cell phone SARs.

According to CTIA guidelines, a mobile phone SAR value must be listed in the user manual or on a separate sheet. The trade association does not require listing the SAR value on the box or the phone itself (Microwave News 2000).

Cell phone radiation levels are rarely available at retail locations. Consequently, consumers cannot easily identify low-radiation phones.

FCC maintains a database of mobile phone SAR values for devices currently on the market, but it is difficult to use. With significant effort, a consumer can navigate the FCC website to find the SAR value for a specific phone.

To search the FCC database, the consumer needs the mobile phone's FCC ID number, located on a sticker underneath the phone's battery. The first three characters of the FCC ID is the Grantee Code; the remaining numbers and letters of the ID are a product code that can be entered into the online FCC ID Search Form (http://www.fcc.gov/oet/ea/fccid), to pull up five to seven data entries. Consumers must scroll manually through each of the data entries to locate the document that lists the SAR value for the specific mobile phone.

In contrast to this cumbersome process, the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) maintains a detailed, open directory of information on mobile phones available in the German market (BfS 2008b). Such a publicly available database greatly facilitates consumers' access to SAR data, enables informed purchasing decisions and encourages phone manufacturers to offer lower-SAR phones.

Recommendations

The U.S. government should require phones to be labeled with their radiation emissions at the point of sale, so consumers can make informed decisions about the phones they buy.

The cell phone industry should offer consumers phones that operate with the least possible radiation, and should make each phone's radiation emissions available at the point of sale.

Cell phone users can protect themselves and their families by buying low-radiation phones. Look for currently available low-radiation options in the EWG's cell phone radiation buyer's search tool that lists radiation output of more than 1,000 cell phones.

Cell phone users can also reduce radiation exposures by using their phone in speaker mode or with a headset. [see all safety tips]

And please help us tell the government to update its cell phone standards. Current standards provide 40 times less protection than typical government health limits for environmental exposures.