A series of studies quietly published over the last five years show that cell phone network technologies affect radiation exposure as much as the phone design itself.
These studies, mostly overlooked by the press, indicate that users of the same mobile device can absorb starkly different amounts of radiofrequency emissions, depending on which carrier serves them.
There is increased concern if the cell phone user is a child. Children may be more vulnerable to radiation because they have smaller heads and thinner skulls than adults. Multiple scientific studies, including one conducted by France Telecom, have demonstrated that the brains of young children absorb more radiation than adult brains, possibly rendering them more vulnerable to brain tumors. Now that cell phones are cheap and convenient, nearly four in every five teens own a cell phone, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
Studies raise possible radiation link to cancer, brain activity, fertility
Though scientific research has not established firm links between cell phone radiation and human illness, many scientists are taking the question extremely seriously as the number of wireless devices in the U.S. has climbed past the 300 million mark. In 2011, the World Health Organization said that cellphone radiation might be a “possible carcinogen.”
A separate study by Dr. Nora Volkow, a pioneering brain imaging specialist in charge of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, produced dramatic images that showed that 50 minutes of cellphone use visibly changed brain activity nearest the phone’s antenna. Volkow called for more research to explore the meaning of the changes she observed.
At least 10 other studies have identified changes in sperm exposed to cell phone radiation. In the most striking findings, men who carried their phones in a pocket or on the belt were more likely to have lower sperm counts and/or more inactive or less mobile sperm.
Network technology ignored until recently
Yet consumers who want to lower their exposure to cell phone radiation have been left in the dark about which networks are better because the cell phone industry and Federal Communications Commission have failed to disclose vital information about the implications for different network technologies for radiation exposures.
The first inklings that different network technologies caused mobile devices to generate profoundly different emission levels came in 2009, with the publication of a 12-country study led by Martine Vrijheid, an epidemiologist then with the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and a separate study by the French telecom industry. Both studies indicated that when carriers shifted from 2G (second generation) to 3G (third generation) network transmission technologies, phones operating on 3G networks used less power much of the time, and their users experienced lower radiation exposures.
The next year, a U.S. cell phone industry-funded study released online showed that 2G networks using technologies called GSM and TDMA used by AT&T and T-Mobile had exposed consumers to 30 to 300 times more radiation than networks with a technology called CDMA used by Verizon and Sprint. But the raw data were gathered in 2005 and 2006. By the time the study was made public, the comparison information was dated to the point of irrelevancy. The network technology used by the major US carriers had almost entirely moved ahead to 3G (third generation) technology that exposes consumers similarly to the 2G CDMA technology.
The FCC remained curiously silent about these developments. When the agency updated its website pages about cell phone radiation in 2010, it did not inform Americans what they have a right to know: that a growing body of scientific research suggests that network technology plays a major role in determining the level of radiation to which a mobile device user may be exposed. Yet people cannot find out how much radiation will emanate from particular cell phones on particular networks. That information is known only to the cell phone industry.
Will LTE networks cause more radiation exposure?
Meanwhile, cell phone carriers have moved away from 3G and towards what they called LTE, or “long-term evolution” technologies. Some experts in mobile device engineering were coming up with evidence that indicated that LTE systems might expose users to more cell phone radiation than the 3G systems:
-- In 2011, Jørgen Bach Andersen, professor emeritus of electronics engineering and his colleagues at Aalborg University in Denmark presented research showing that LTE technology could expose users to similar levels of radiation as 2G phones, orders of magnitude higher than the CDMA technology and 3G technology.
-- Last year, a team from the Beijing University School of Electronic Engineering reported that fourth generation LTE antenna designs produced average emission rates two to 60 times greater than 2G and 3G designs.
What does all this mean for the consumer who wants to identify lower-radiation phones and systems in the era of LTE technology? The industry has not made public enough information for EWG or any other independent researches to compile a definitive cell phone radiation guide for consumers.
This much is clear: the FCC provides consumers with absolutely no information to help them to choose a cell phone network that would expose them to less radiation. The agency’s policies not only inhibit the consumer’s ability to make informed purchasing decisions, but they also deprive the public of the right to know how mobile devices perform in the real-world environment.
This must change. In the light of the World Health Organization’s recent classification of cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen and the findings from Volkow’s and other studies, consumers need solid insights and reliable information.
Markey, Waxman, GAO demand review of FCC safety standards
At the urging of the General Accountability Office, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the FCC is reviewing its cell phone radiation standards. These were set in 1996, when cell phones were heavy, expensive and rarely entrusted to kids.
EWG is pressing the FCC for real-world relevant data on how much radiation their phones emit under various circumstances, including their networks. Our goal is to ensure that consumers who rely on their cell phones but want to reduce their exposure to radiation can make informed decisions when they purchase a phone and choose a wireless carrier.