Do cell phones cook cells?

Wireless technology companies start revealing radiation levels

December 17, 2000

By Lauran Neergaard and Kalpana Srinivasan, Associated Press

COLUMBIA, Md. -- Scientist Kwok Chan switches on a cell phone held against a model of the human head and gently lowers a radiation probe into the honey-colored goopy liquid simulating the blood and brain tissue inside a person's skull.

Chan's computers in this Federal Communications Commission laboratory then measure how much radiation Americans absorb when they talk on their cell phones.

Now, amid the Christmas sales rush, manufacturers are disclosing for the first time the radiation levels of nearly every phone sold to consumers so infatuated with the devices they use them when they walk, drive, even eat.

It is a voluntary disclosure that could alert many of the nation's 97 million cell phone users to an issue they largely have ignored: conflicting evidence about whether the devices, which unlike regular phones work by beaming radio frequency energy through the air, pose any health threats.

But will the radiation disclosures suggest one cell phone brand is safer than another? Or that people who spend hours pressing them against their ear are at risk of brain cancer? Or will consumers even bother to read the levels?

"People are going to look at that information and say "Huh?'" said Dave Berndt, a financial analyst at Boston's Yankee Group who specializes in wireless technologies.

Federal health officials insist, and published medical studies agree, that so far no real evidence exists that cell phones cause brain tumors or other health hazards -- beyond car crashes when people gab while driving.

At the same time, no government or health organization yet gives cell phones a definitively clean bill of health.

In fact:

* The Food and Drug Administration just ordered new studies after industry-sponsored test-tube research discovered cell phone signals might cause genetic damage in human blood cells, which in turn might spur cancer growth.

* British health officials began distributing leaflets two weeks ago advising that children should limit cell phone use to emergencies, because children's still-forming skulls and brains could be more vulnerable if the phones ultimately prove risky.

* Some small studies raise health questions, including one disputed finding that tumors were more likely near the ear where patients hold their cell phone.

The conflicting opinions have prompted at least one wireless company to post store signs recommending that parents consider pagers instead of cell phones for children. Metrocall, a nationwide reseller of wireless service, also recommends using earphones instead of holding cell phones to the head.

While taking no position on the science, "we decided if we were going to err, we wanted to err on the side of the angels," said Mike Scanlon, senior vice president at the Alexandria, Va.-based company.

Many phone manufacturers fear that listing the radiation number will prompt consumers to buy only the lowest-emitting phones even though every phone must meet federal radiation safety limits.

Consequently, manufacturers will not make it easy to compare radiation levels before buying. The numbers will not appear on a cell phone's outer packaging, but rather only inside along with a brochure explaining radiation safety guidelines. To check a phone before buying, consumers must look it up on the Internet.

"Unless these numbers are explained and put into the proper context, they will be regarded as gradients of safety, which they are not," contends Norm Sandler of Motorola Inc., a leading cell phone equipment maker.

Amid this confusion, a new cottage industry is marketing products claiming to limit radiation absorption. They range from foam wafers stuck onto the phone's earpiece to an antenna-attached gadget that looks like a ceramic ladybug.

Experts warn against the hype.

"For a device which actually claims to reduce radiation, they should look for the data that it in fact does that. But still be aware of the fact that they're taking a precaution that may not be necessary," says Dr. David Feigal, chief of the FDA branch overseeing cell phone safety.

If precautions are not necessary, why did the FDA just call for more safety studies?

"We're not encouraging research because we know of a problem, but because it's important to continue making sure there's not a problem," said Feigal.

Reassuringly, newer digital phones already emit less radiation then older analog models. Still, one expert on radio-frequency energy says choosing lower-emitting phones makes sense for now.

"I think people need to make decisions with respect to their own sense of comfort given the uncertainty right now as to whether cell phones are safe or not," said Dr. Patrick Breysse of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, who keeps a phone in his car only for emergencies.

Radio-frequency waves are non-ionizing radiation, far less worrisome than other types of radiation. On an energy-frequency scale, cell phone radio-frequency waves fall somewhere between microwave ovens and television signals.

But any radiation-emitting device used by millions raises health questions that can take years to settle.

"One of the biggest concerns we have ... is that some of the same (energy) frequencies in cell phones have been used in microwave ovens," explained Kenneth Nichols, head of the FCC lab where Chan studies radiation absorption.

Microwaves damage tissue by burning it. Cell phones' lower-powered radio-frequency waves are not thought to cause enough heat to hurt. Frequent callers who feel heat are actually feeling the phone's battery. The question is whether low-energy radio-frequency waves can cause any significant non-thermal biological effects.

How much radio-frequency energy is absorbed by a caller's head is a measurement known as the "standard absorption rate" or SAR. The FCC limits the "standard absorption rate" to no higher than a level of 1.6 -- the energy, measured in watts per kilogram, that one gram of tissue absorbs from a cell phone.

Companies say if they comply with that standard, their phones are safe. But, yielding to increasing public concern, major wireless companies plan to disclose phones' SAR with models now beginning to hit store shelves.

Phone packages will bear an identification number enabling consumers to look up radiation absorption levels on the FCC's Web site -- -- before buying. Or after they buy the phone, they can find the SAR and an explanation of what it means inside the package.

The effort is meant to reassure consumers "that these phones must meet strict federal guidelines," said Jo-Anne R. Basile of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, the leading trade group.

But to industry's chagrin, some Web sites -- including -- have begun ranking certain phones' radiation levels. "Looking at raw numbers can be misleading," Basile complains.

Copyright © 2000, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.