Science Can't Help Cell Phone Makers

Business is booming in the cell phone industry, which draws 30,000 new users daily. But the industry is quietly struggling with an albatross — whether cell phones pose health risks. Available science is clearly on the industry's side, but recent events indicate "winning the science" won't be enough.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association just announced cell-phone makers will include with new phones information relating to how much of the radio signal produced by the phone is absorbed by the user. The quantity is called the "specific absorption rate."

The SAR limit set by the Federal Communications Commission is 1.6 watts per kilogram averaged over one gram of tissue when the phone operates at maximum power. During actual use, however, phones generally operate at power levels far below the maximum.

CTIA says it wants to help consumers more easily find SARs, which are currently only available on the FCC's cumbersome Web site, and to describe SARs in consumers-friendly terms. More practical, but unstated, reasons include emphasizing that cell phones operate well within safety standards and pre-empting criticism that manufacturers are hiding information à la the tobacco industry.

But it's doubtful SAR disclosure will achieve these goals. SARs will likely be meaningless numbers to the public — like tar and nicotine measurements on cigarettes. Consumers may choose phones with lower SARs, but the benefits likely will be imaginary. The FCC limit is already well below safe levels and phones are well below the FCC limit.

There is no consumer demand for SAR disclosure. Those concerned about safety use ear pieces that reduce exposure. Activism against the wireless industry is not targeted at phones; it's aimed at cell phone transmission sites.

In the short-term, though, the announcement has served as an excuse for more cell phone panic in the media. A ubiquitous force in this hysteria is the cell phone industry's worst nightmare, turncoat scientist George Carlo.

The CTIA announcement occasioned a CNN interview with Carlo who, during the 1990s, led CTIA's research program into the potential health effects of cell phones. The program was necessitated by publicity surrounding a 1993 Larry King Live television show spotlighting a lawsuit alleging cell phone use caused a fatal brain cancer — a lawsuit eventually dismissed for lack of scientific evidence.

Carlo told CNN, "Over a period of seven years and $27 million in funding, we identified that the radiation from the antenna of the cellular phone is capable of causing genetic damage in human blood. We also have evidence of an increased risk of rare brain tumors that are on the outside of the head that grow inward."

Scary stuff — especially from a former industry researcher. But there's more to Carlo and his claims, which contrast sharply with other scientific experts, than CNN told viewers.

A May 1999 report commissioned by Health Canada concluded no evidence exists that radiation from cell phones poses a health risk and that Canada's safety standards — the same as the FCC's — adequately protect the public.

Britain's Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones reported in April, "the balance of evidence to date suggests that exposures to [radio frequency] radiation below guidelines recommended for the U.K. and those recommended by the International Commission on Nonionizing Radiation Protection do not cause adverse health effects to the general population. It understands that all mobile phones presently marketed in the U.K. comply with these guidelines."

The World Health Organization just said, "Current scientific evidence indicates that exposure to [radio frequency radiation] fields, such as those emitted by mobile phones and their base stations, is unlikely to induce or promote cancers."

Carlo's use of the term "radiation" is misleading and inflammatory. "Radiation" evokes frightening images of so-called "ionizing" radiation associated with atomic bombs and Chernobyl. But cell phone radio signals, like light from a light bulb, is the more benign "non-ionizing" radiation.

So what's up with Carlo?

The industry ended Carlo's lucrative research program after he failed to uncover evidence that cell phones posed a health risk. Carlo then converted from researcher to hysteric, questioning cell phone safety seemingly at every opportunity. Not surprisingly, Carlo attracted the attention of superlawyer Peter Angelos, who has amassed a personal fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars by wringing enormous settlements from the asbestos industry.

Teaming with Carlo, Angelos reportedly is considering a class action lawsuit against the cell phone industry.

Unfortunately for Angelos, Carlo has little credibility — even with cell phone activists. Louis Slesin, the publisher of Microwave News, the leading newsletter spotlighting cell phone concerns, noted: "Just as [the industry stops funding him], Carlo has started to say there might be something to cell phone worries after all. Pardon our cynicism, but we've wondered if the two might be connected."

Science and disclosure won't help cell phone makers until they can persuade the media to stop giving a free ride to their former lead scientist — however embarrassing that may be.

— Steven Milloy is a biostatistician, lawyer, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of