A new government study is warning that the Federal Communications Commission's standards for testing cell phones for exposure to radio-frequency energy may have fallen out of step with the latest scientific studies, calling on the agency to launch a new inquiry into the potential health risks of mobile devices.
The Government Accountability Office study acknowledged that there is no established proof that exposure to the RF energy emitted from mobile phones constitutes a health risk, but noted that some international groups have adjusted their maximum-exposure limits in light of new research, while the FCC has maintained the same standard since 1996.
The "FCC should formally reassess and, if appropriate, change its current RF energy exposure limit and mobile phone testing requirements related to likely usage configurations, particularly when phones are held against the body," the GAO concluded.
The GAO's inquiry into long-term risks from cellp hone radiation came in response to a request from three House Democrats last June. Reps. Ed Markey (Mass.), Anna Eshoo (Calif.) and Henry Waxman (Calif.) called on the GAO to review available scientific research a day after the World Health Organization's cancer research arm announced that RF energy could potentially constitute a carcinogen linked to a malignant form of brain cancer associated with the use of mobile phones.
In a statement, Markey echoed the GAO's conclusion that the FCC should revisit its testing and exposure standards, indicating that he would work with his colleagues in Congress to pressure the agency to open a formal inquiry.
"With mobile phones in the pockets and purses of millions of Americans, we need a full understanding of the long-term impact of mobile phone use on the human body, particularly in children whose brains and nervous systems are still developing," Markey said. "It has been 16 years since the FCC updated its requirements for the exposure and testing of mobile phones, and with the health of American consumers at stake, it is time we send these standards in for a checkup."
Drawing on interviews with experts in the field and researchers at the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration, the GAO stopped short of suggesting a direct link between long-term exposure to cell phones and cancer or other health risks, instead maintaining that the issue is an area of ongoing scientific inquiry that has produced important new research since the FCC last updated its standards.
In particular, the GAO noted that the FCC's current standards do not account for the maximum levels of exposure a user might experience from holding a device against the body or other types of use.
"The Federal Communications Commission's RF energy exposure limit may not reflect the latest research, and testing requirements may not identify maximum exposure in all possible usage conditions," the GAO said.
An FCC spokesman defended the rigor of the agency's testing and exposure standards, and noted the recent opening of a "routine review" of those criteria.
"The U.S. has among the most conservative standards in the world," the spokesman said in an email. "As part of our routine review of these standards, which we began earlier this summer, we will solicit input from multiple stakeholder experts, including federal health agencies and others, to guide our assessment. We look forward to reviewing today's GAO report as part of that consideration."
CTIA, the principal trade association representing the wireless industry, said it was still reviewing the GAO's report, but that it welcomed its review of the latest scientific studies.
"CTIA continues to defer to the views of scientific experts, federal agencies with expertise and impartial health organizations," John Walls, CTIA's vice president of public affairs, said in an emailed statement. "The FCC has been vigilant in its oversight in this area and has set safety standards to make sure that radio-frequency fields from wireless phones remain at what it has determined are safe levels."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.