Buzzing About Safety

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Small wonder that consumers are flocking to low-emission cell phones and buying headsets to distance themselves from their phones. It's the same caution that compelled the Walt Disney Co., distressed by reports that phone radiation might be particularly harmful to children (see box), to vow to stop licensing its cartoon characters for use with cell phones "until there is reliable scientific evidence establishing the absence of any risk."

And with radiation data for individual phones already posted on the Internet, manufacturers are bowing to public pressure and beginning to include the ratings--measured in watts per kilogram and known as the specific absorption rate (SAR)--in the packaging with new phones. Says Hollywood talent agent Greg Hughart: "I'll certainly buy the lowest emissions I can find."

The fear of cell-phone radiation is creating fresh markets for entrepreneurs. Sevin Rosen, the venture-capital firm that launched Compaq Computer, recently pumped $2 million into a California start-up that plans to build low-radiation phones. At the same time, a cottage industry has sprung up to market shielding devices that block out radiation, although most have scant scientific evidence to support their claims of effectiveness.

There's a catch here too. Today's cell-phone radiation standards--the federal limit is 1.6 w/kg--are based on decades-old guidelines that are considered somewhat arbitrary even by those who set them. (Recall how tire-safety standards, set 30 years ago, proved inadequate to protect consumers from the recent Firestone fiasco.) There's not even agreement on how to determine whether a cell phone really lives up to the standards. And while companies possess the technology to lower radiation sharply, they fear that marketing safety forcefully would only cause alarm.

"Cell-phone safety is a very touchy and involved subject," says Jorgen Bach Andersen, a professor at Aalborg University in Denmark who pioneered the development of a type of low-radiation antenna that is gradually finding its way into cell phones. "If no one wanted to buy mobile phones any longer because they were afraid of health damage, that would be disastrous for the industry." Some 500 million mobile phones are in use around the world--including 100 million in the U.S.--and manufacturers have been selling new ones at the rate of 400 million a year.

Today manufacturers insist all phones that meet radiation standards are equally safe and that it is pointless to use SAR ratings as a marketing tool. "We constantly strive for designs of antennas and phones that maximize the efficiency of the phones," says Motorola's Sandler. "But there shouldn't be any health implication inferred from any of this."

Companies have no intention of playing up the low radiation of some of their models. For example, Nokia's new 8810, sold in Europe, has an internal directional antenna and an SAR rating of just 0.22 W/kg. But David Stoneham, communications manager for Nokia in Britain, denies that the company installed the antenna for safety reasons. Stoneham says the built-in unit permits extended battery life and a stylish design.

As for the government's safety standards, which the Federal Communications Commission adopted in 1996, they amount to a bundle of compromises that date back to 1982, when cell phones were barely a blip on anyone's radar screen. Researchers found at the time that they could degrade the performance of laboratory animals by bombarding their bodies with 4 W/kg of radio waves. To adapt this to humans, engineers first divided 4 W/kg by a safety factor of 10, and later by a factor of 5, and came up with .08 W/kg. According to a scientific rule of thumb, that is the equivalent of 1.6 W/kg--the federal standard--when the radiation is directed at a specific part of the body.

These standards were developed by professional groups like the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), which is currently considering some revisions. According to John Osepchuk, who heads an IEEE panel, the crucial safety factors represent "more a question of practical judgment than science. That's why I argue that the standard-setting process should [be broadened to] include doctors, lawyers and everyone else," so that environmental, social and other concerns can be factored in as much as possible. Nonetheless, Osepchuk insists that the existing standards are "doubly, if not triply, conservative," meaning that they are highly cautious.

If the standards rest on less than hard science, the methods for determining whether a cell phone meets them look even more arbitrary. The testing procedure involves beaming radio waves into a "phantom"--or stand-in for a human head--and measuring the amount of energy absorption. The results hinge on how near the radiation source is to the phantom and just where it is pointed. Yet there is no agreed-upon method for conducting these tests--an astonishing omission that the IEEE and its European counterpart hope to remedy this year. "Until there is a single, uniform measuring standard for SAR tests," says Nokia's Stoneham, manufacturers "won't use safety as a marketing issue or competitive element."

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