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Mobile phone health rules need update, warns US watchdog

Radio emission standards may go up or down

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) is urging legislators to update the health protection requirements required of mobile phone manufacturers, but indicated some emissions limits might be increased rather than reduced.

In a report, the agency recommended a rethink after finding that the current rules for phone radio emissions were last revised by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1996, and that there has been a huge amount of new research into the issue since then. While the GAO says there's no evidence of mobiles causing cancer, it nevertheless recommends a new look, given technological advances.

In 1996 the FCC decided that the maximum safe exposure to radio waves from mobiles was 1.6 watts per kilogram, averaged over one gram of tissue. The measurements are taken with the phone between 1.5 and 2.5cm from the head and the FCC samples about one per cent of US phones a year to ensure compliance.

The GOA report noted that in 2006 the IEEE suggest a safe limit of two watts per kilogram averaged over 10 grams of tissue, which according to the IEEE "represents a scientific consensus on RF energy exposure limits." Other experts consulted pointed out that the safe limits were set at a fiftieth of what would be considered directly harmful to humans.

However, consumer groups were less happy with the situation, with several calling for a decrease in any amount of radio emissions so close to the brain. Labeling of the specific radio strengths of handsets, as has been proposed in San Francisco and elsewhere, was also recommended.

The current testing strategy also needs to be revised, the report suggests. At present there's no formal structure for testing phones held to the body in belt clips or attached via a headset. Any new legislation would need to sort out metrics for these situations, since they mean direct bodily contact with the device.

"While the GAO report indicates there is not evidence to suggest using a cell phone causes cancer, it's important that safety standards are current and account for changing trends in cell phone use and technology," said Representative Anna Eshoo, one of three Democratic legislators pushing for a review.

"As the number of users of wireless technology grows exponentially, the FCC should reevaluate acceptable radiation emission levels to determine if they need to be adjusted."

Complaints about mobile phones and health have been going on pretty much since their invention, and while has been much research the scientific consensus has been moving towards the view that there is no direct threat at present, although the jury will be out for some time to come.

In 2011 the World Health Organization did classify mobile phones and "possibly carcinogenic to humans" and listed them as Group B carcinogenic agents due to their potential to induce brain cancer. It should also be pointed out that other substances listed in the category include alcohol, coal burnt indoors, and getting malaria. ®

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