Getting practical about cell phones and cancer

Summary:When the occasional coverage regarding the potential connection between cell phones and cancer crosses my radar, one thing I have noticed that these stories are almost universally short on is actionable information. One says there is a connection.

When the occasional coverage regarding the potential connection between cell phones and cancer crosses my radar, one thing I have noticed that these stories are almost universally short on is actionable information. One says there is a connection. One says there isn't a connection. Another says the the jury is out.  So what? Given my options, what am I supposed to do with this information? Although it's my opinion, I'm about to tell you what I'm going to do with it.  What you do is, of course, up to you.

As an educated guy who prides himself on making practical decisions about my personal safety and the safety of my family, I'm still kicking myself over my recent acquisition of two Motorola V265 cell phones -- one for me and one for my wife. According to CNET's list of the ten highest-radiation cell phones in the U.S., the V265--with a Specific Absorbtion Rate (SAR) rating of 1.55 watts per kilogram (W/kg)--is tied for first place as the highest radiating phone on the American market.  

Although I've written about this ignorance on my behalf before, I was motivated to research the topic further when I learned from Walt Mossberg's Wall Street Journal online column of a new cell phone from FireFly Mobile Inc. that's designed specifically for little kids.  By the time I read it, I was already re-sensitized to the cell phone/cancer issue by CNET senior editor Molly Wood's coverage regarding similarities in the behavior of the tobacco and cell phone industries. Wood's coverage is actually what made me realize that I had just purchased some cell phones without checking their SAR ratings (something I promised myself I'd never do). So, with three kids whose safety I'm just anal about, my number one question about the new phone was "What's the SAR rating?"

One thing I learned in the course of researching this blog is that you have to be careful about who you present that question to.  Some will automatically read between the lines and assume that you might be basing your purchase decisions on this information and they'll more or less tell you that doing so is a dumb idea. So, before I continue, let me make three things absolutely clear about the connection between cell phone radiation and cancer -- three facts that, for the forseeable future, will guide my decision-making about handset purchases and, hopefully, yours as well.

The first important fact about the connection between cell phone radiation and cancer is that there's a group of people who, based on the research they've seen, will emphatically say that the results prove that there's no connection between cell phones and brain cancer.  You don't have to think too hard about who some of these people must be (the ones with a business to protect). As best as I can tell, the basis of their claims is a deduction. Since there is no body of research to have conclusively proven a connection between cell phone radiation and cancer, we can make the deduction that the connection doesn't exist. That's how a lot of cause-and-effect science works and it's fair to say that on a case-by-case basis (for example, whether the research is about the connection between cell phones and cancer or  the effectiveness of the color red  in signaling motorists to stop at a stop sign),  we can be hypocrites when it comes to putting our faith in some deductions, but not others.

The second important fact about the connection between cell phone radiation and cancer is that there's another group of people, who, based on the research they've seen, will emphatically say that more research needs to be done.  Some in this group are more prepared to lean in the direction of a connection than others, but virtually all agree that, at the very least,  the results so far are too inconclusive to rule the connection out.   Many researchers and scientists are in this group.

The third fact is that before a cell phone can be put on the U.S. market, it has to live up to a lot of federal regulations and one of them is the maximum SAR level.  Virtually everyone I've spoken regarding this issue cites the 1.6 W/kg maximum, and that fact is confirmed by a page on the Federal Communications Commission's Web site that says "The FCC limit for public exposure from cellular telephones is an SAR level of 1.6 watts per kilogram (1.6 W/kg)." 

Given these three facts -- the existence of two groups and the FCC regulations -- I'm not prepared to go out on a limb and warn you that cell phones cause cancer, or that I even suspect they do. But, in my opinion, if you're a person that would rather be safe than sorry when it comes to your personal safety (as I am), this is enough information to affect how you buy cell phones.

First and foremost in my mind is that the jury is clearly still out.   Though hardly anybody will unequivocally tell you that cell phones cause cancer, there are enough respected voices on the topic that say it's too early to unequivocally say they don't.

Via a telephone interview, one such researcher -- The University of Washington's Henry Lai -- even said (verbatim)  "the jury is still out."  We talked about a number of scientific reasons,  unresearched scenarios, and newer studies which proved to me that, at the very least, there are plenty of bases left to cover before anyone can begin to conclusively swing in either direction. On the scientific front, Lai talked about how there are differences in opinion over testing methodology.  For example, Lai thinks it's fair to question how much brain tissue should be involved in a radiation test.  "Should it be 10 grams or one gram?" asked Lai.  "With 10 grams, the radiation is much more diluted than with one gram. Why not seek to minimize the dilution by going with one gram or even less.  One gram of brain tissue has over a billion brain cells in it. All you need is one cell to be damaged to become cancerous."  Lai advocates tests that seek to maximize the exposure of each cell, rather than to dilute it.  Makes sense to me.  Worst-case-scenario testing is common in many other things us humans do. Why not this? Says Lai, "The cell phone companies advocate the 10-gram approach." I'm sure they have their reasons.  Does it matter? What's more important is that there are  enough smart people who don't agree.

I asked Lai about different common scenarios.  At first Lai talked about testing phones while people are talking on them because that's when they're transmitting.  But what about when people aren't talking on them? Today's digital phones, some of which are also e-mail devices,  are constantly in contact with the network.  What's the difference between the radiation we're getting when the phone isn't "in use," when it's ringing, and when we're talking on it? Marry those three to where the phone is at any given point. Just before my old Nextel phones use to ring, the speakers in my car made a funny noise.  If the phone was lying near the electrical socket by the sink -- the one with the built-in circuit breaker -- the circuit breaker would pop just before it rang.  Clearly, the phone is emitting something in the process of ringing. (Did any brain cells pop?)  "What do you think that was about?" I asked Lai. If you're using some sort of headset but the phone is still on your belt or in your pocket, and it's idle, ringing or in use,  then what? Or, what if you're using a speaker phone?  Given a phone with a particular SAR rating, what are the effects of distance on the radiation levels?   Lai responded that  that these questoins were all great ones to ask and that it's quite simple: more work needs to be done. (Citing a very recent study that explored the connection between cell phone-like radiation and sperm damage, Lai also suggested that men might want to think twice before putting a cell phone in their pockets.)

Here's one question that you almost never see asked when the experts like Lai are interviewed in the press about the cell phone-cancer connection: What are their best practices when it comes to cell phones? It's like asking the mechanic in your family about what car he or she would  buy. Said Lai, "I don't have a cell phone." But Lai cautioned not to read too far into that answer.  Lai also said he doesn't need one.  But if he had one, Lai said he'd probably use a headset (but also admitted that the jury was out on headset effectiveness as well) with the idea being to keep the antennae as far away from your head has possible.

The jury may not be out for some, but the jury looks out to me.  While I may not be willing to give up my cell phone altogether, I still feel as though there are some practical things that I can do to minimize any potential risk while we wait for mo' betta conclusions.  If, ten years from now, it turns out I was overprotective of myself, or my family members, so be it.  What will I have lost?  Actually, that's a good question when it comes to what you should think about when buying a handset in the context of the radiation issue.

As it turns out, there's more to getting FCC approval than just coming below the 1.6 W/kg maximum.  Cell phone manufacturers must have their devices independently tested and the results are made available to the FCC, which in turn makes the actual results available through an online database on its Web site.   In other words, it's not a pass/fail test.  We have access to the actual ratings.  So, if we just buy phones because the FCC allowed them onto the market as opposed to comparing SAR ratings, aren't we selling ourselves short?   Given two phones with the same features and the same price, shouldn't we be considering the one with the lower SAR rating?  Or, how much is your peace of mind worth?  In true better-safe-than-sorry fashion, would you pay an extra $25, $50, or even $100 to have a phone with the same features as another, but with a 33 or 50 percent lower SAR rating?  OK, maybe not for yourself.  Maybe you're 50 years old and you're thinking cell phone-induced brain cancer isn't what's going to arrange your meeting with your maker.  But what about your kids?  I'll bet there are a lot of parents out there who are on serious guilt trips about exposing their kids to second hand smoke. (Something almost no one stopped to think about 30 years ago when they were driving the kids to Grandma's with the car windows rolled up.)

This brings us to the phone from Firefly Mobile that Mossberg reviewed.  In the process of trying to learn more about that phone, I learned more about the system and it wasn't pretty.   For example, all I wanted was the SAR rating of the phone.  Try finding it.  It's not printed on the phone, in its documentation, in the sales literature, or on the company's Web site (at least not as of when I published this blog).   Whereas the FCC should require that the rating be prominently published in product brochures, advertisements, and in the user documentation (which is often available for download before buying a product), all it requires is that the manufacturer add an "FCC Notice and SAR Statement" to the documenation that basically says the product complies with FCC regulations.  Some cell phone manufacturers voluntarily publish their cell phone's rating on this page.  Others, like Firefly (as of the publishing of this blog), do not. (See page 25 of Firefly's user documentation.)   To find it, you either have to be a detective or with the press where you can get access to company executives like Firefly Mobile CEO Pat Marry.

Marry answered my question.  For the "body test," the Firefly phone has a SAR rating of .975 W/kg.  For the "head test" (where the phone gets held up to your kid's brain), the rating is a bit less: .945 W/kg.  But getting this information from Marry couldn't be done without getting lectured on why cell phones are safe and that it didn't matter whether the phone was .5, .9 or 1.6 W/kg... that as long as the phone was below the FCC limit, it was safe.   It took me almost an hour to get Marry to realize that I had no interest in debating the connection, or lack thereof, of cell phones to cancer.  As long as the actual ratings are available, what is the harm in using them as a comparative data point?  Personally, given two designed-for-kids phones with near identical features, knowing that the jury is still out, I'd be very happy to pay an extra $50 or $100 for a lower SAR rating.   From my point of view, the only harm in making this sacrifice might be a few extra bucks.   To the cell phone manufacturer, the harm is their business (particularly if a journalist with any sort of reach adopts such a conservative position).  Naturally, they'll get defensive. 

And defensive Marry got.  Marry told me "there's no reason to imply that a lower number is a safer cell phone.  To most consumers, it's a number and they don't know what it means."  In addition, Marry, who said he was with Motorola for much of his career, claims that it would be easy for any cell phone manufacturer to crank back their SAR rating by lowering the transmission power of the radios in their phones.  Said Marry, "Can you even make a call with phones below .9? Any manufacturer can lower their SAR rating by changing the amount of power that comes out of transmitter but, the phone will drop more calls." Fair enough.  If a phone can't hold a call (or a conversation), that should come out in the independent reviews of it by organizations like the cell phone reviewers at CNET who test cell phones every day.  

Once I got through Marry's lecture though, I was still curious as to why I had to call him to get the SAR rating.  He told me I didn't have to and pointed me to the FCC's Web site where the SAR rating for any telephone is supposedly easy to find.  To this I say, write your congressman. 

The idea should be to make the SAR rating easy to find for any cell phone before the purchase is made.  Indeed, the FCC has a database, but finding your way to it from the FCC's home page, or even it's SAR page (which leads you to another page called the FCC ID search page) is not the most intuitive experience, nor does its name --  the Equipment Authorization System -- make you feel as though you've found what you're looking for.  Marry walked me through the process and then said I had to enter the device's FCC Grantee and Product code into the search page.  These codes, according to the FCC's SAR page, are "usually shown somewhere on the case of the phone or device. In many cases, you will have to remove the battery pack to find the number."  Of course, as I'm being walked through this process, I'm thinking that to find the SAR rating this way implies that you already have the phone, which defeats the purpose of using the database to help with a purchasing decision.  To make matters worse, searching the database on the Firefly's FCC ID of R7C-F100 turned up nothing.   Searching on the Applicant Name of "Firefly" did however turn up two entries for Firefly Mobile (both with the R7C-F100 FCC ID) which, when you click on the "Detail" link, leads you to an index of reports, one of which is the "SAR Test Report", a PDF that simply wouldn't open for  me on the first few tries (eventually, I got it).  As far as I'm concerned the system is both philosophically (to the extent that it's supposed to serve the citizens of the U.S.) and physically broken.  Like I said, write your congressman.

Provided you can get to the Firefly reports, you will find the .945 head test rating for the Firefly Spark phone.  To be fair, since I asked Lai what he does, I also asked Marry.  Marry said "I have a daughter who is 9 and one who is 12 and they both user Firefly phones and I feel more comfortable with their safety now than before they had those phones."  Marry was referring to the fact that, simply by having phones in their possession, his daughters were safer.  Of course, they'd even be more safe if the phone supported E911 GPS. (The documentation makes no mention of this. But wouldn't you want that for your kids?) Marry went onto say that his personal phone is a Nokia 3595, which according to CNET's SAR lookup page (far easier, but less complete than the FCC's database), has a SAR rating of 1.08.

So, what's the next phone that I'm putting to my head?  As it turns out, I'm looking to use a PocketPC-based phone to do some podcast testing and the one I've been spying also has the lowest SAR rating of all the phones in CNET's database: The AudioVox PPC6601 with a SAR rating of .12.  If you believe Marry, that means the radio is turned down, which in turn means it will be difficult to complete calls.  We'll see.

Topics: Mobility

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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