Help! My cell phone is glowing

Atomic cell phones? A leading trade group wants boxes and instruction booklets to disclose cell phone radiation levels.

The leading cellular industry trade group has ordered wireless phone makers to tell the public how much radiation their phones emit. The information will be printed on cell phone boxes and also in instruction booklets.

The issue of whether cell phones cause cancer has for years been hotly debated in the scientific community, in the courts and in governmental agencies responsible for public health issues.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) will require wireless phone makers to publish the data, known as the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), for all phones beginning Aug. 1, a CTIA spokeswoman confirmed. Consumers will be told in "easy to understand language" how to interpret the SAR, she said.

Cell phone packaging also will state that the phone has been certified as meeting standard federal radiation guidelines. And it will include a URL for a Web site where users can compare their phone's rating to other phones.

Cell phone makers that want to be certified by CTIA will have to adhere to the requirement, said Jo-Anne Basile, the group's vice president for industry relations. However, because it will take time to implement, consumers aren't likely to see the information start showing up on the shelves for three or four months, Basile said.

The actual SAR data is already public, but it's neatly tucked away on a Web site (www.fcc.gov/oet/rfsafety) operated by the Federal Communication Commission.

The FCC's Office of Engineering Technology has always required cell phone makers to submit the SAR data before being licensed to sell the phones. Consumers can review that data at the FCC's Web site.

The CTIA decision to publish the data for consumers is curious because for years the group derided the SAR numbers, claiming they were irrelevant and that the public couldn't adequately comprehend them.

The CTIA says, however, they made the decision now because of "some growing interest" by consumers and the media, Basile said. The CTIA's board voted in June to find a way to put the information into the hands of consumers more readily.

But some are critical of the CTIA decision.

"The SAR isn't appropriate as a safety measure," Dr. George Carlo said. Carlo, who heads the independent Radiation Protection Project, previously led a five-year industry-sponsored research panel that looked into safety and cancer risk issues regarding cellular phones. The panel never fully certified cell phones as safe for use, saying that the research remained inconclusive.

Carlo said he believes that putting the SAR data into the public for easier understanding is "a good thing" because any knowledge is better than none. But he said the data is "pretty meaningless in terms of safety" because SAR doesn't measure time used.

CTIA's Basile, however, said the SAR is "a standard that is science-based" and approved by "major federal health agencies." Basile also said the SAR does consider duration of use. "The SAR data is derived from the 'worst-case scenario' of use," she said.

Carlo suggested that the recent decision by a jury in Florida to have tobacco makers pay more than $100 billion in damages due to tobacco-related illness might have shaken the industry into responsibility. The publishing of SAR data might be an effort, Carlos suggested, to preempt a jury at some point from being able to hold the industry responsible for purposefully withholding critical health information.

"That's absolutely false," the CTIA spokeswoman said. "This decision was made in June."

Various cellular phone makers have been sued for allegedly causing health problems. But no such case against a cell phone maker has prevailed.