U.S. cell phone safety report: It’s your call

No definitive link has been found between cell phone use and health risks, but more research is needed to assess possible long-term effects, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) that repeats the conclusions given by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and telecommunication industry groups.

“Research to date does not show radio frequency energy emitted from mobile phones to have adverse health effects but there is not yet enough information to conclude that there is no risk,” said the report, titled “Research and Regulatory Efforts on Mobile Phone Health Issues.”

The report from the investigative arm of Congress rolled together the opinions of the FDA, the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other major health organizations. It concludes that little research has been done over the past few years to clear up questions about cell- phone health risks, attributing that problem to a disagreement between the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) and the scientific community over an industry-funded study begun in 1993.

Not assessed in the report are the potential health risks associated with radio frequency emissions from cell phone towers, interference with medical devices or safety risks associated with talking on a mobile phone while driving. About 110 million people currently use cell phones, according to the report.

The GAO recommended improving the public’s access to information about cell-phone health issues, adding staff to the FCC and creating standardized testing procedures for cell-phone radiation emissions.

The report’s release led U.S. Representative Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, to request that the NIH and FDA work together to decide if the government should provide more funding into research about possible health effects of cell phone use. Along with Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, Markey further called on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the FDA to set up a Web site to provide consumers with information.

More research is needed, Markey said in a statement.

“The reality is that the nature of the health risk is such that no lab study or epidemiological study will likely reveal any adverse health effects of radiofrequency radiation on humans, if any, except over the course of many years of tracking heavy users,” said Markey, who serves on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

“In the short term millions of Americans will be required to make their own judgments about the level of risk and what precautions to take without the definitive conclusions available from the research community about the risk to human health,” he said in the statement.

The CTIA praised the report. “Today’s report is both balanced and fair. They have done an excellent job of examining a wide range of issues impartially,” said Tom Wheeler, CTIA president and chief executive officer, in a statement released by CTIA.

“As an industry, we concur with the report’s conclusions that further research is needed. Hence, we have entered into an agreement with the FDA to pursue additional research,” Wheeler said.

The CTIA and the FDA signed a cooperative research agreement last year, and Markey noted in his comments the potential benefits of that work. While optimistic the agreement will yield more conclusive results than the 1993 study, staffers expressed his concern about the research process.

“Congressman Markey is concerned that the choice of researchers will be left to the industry,” his spokesman said, adding that the public should know what the FDA recommends as research priorities and how the CTIA responds to those recommendations.

Findings from the 1993 study were announced without being peer reviewed – an important step in the scientific research process – and then recommendations were tabled without being acted on, according to Markey’s spokesman.

Scientists and government and industry officials involved in the GAO report who were questioned by authors of the CTIA study raised questions about the productivity and accountability of the organization conducting the CTIA study, the GAO report said.

A more definitive answer about whether cell phones cause health risks could, perhaps, be a more pressing issue with the filing in April of a class-action lawsuit against 25 wireless companies.

Powerhouse personal injury attorney Peter Angelos filed the lawsuit against the companies, including Motorola Inc. and Verizon Wireless Inc., alleging the vendors knew of health risks, including the possibility of brain tumors, for cell-phone users, but failed to warn them or to mitigate the risk. The lawsuits seek to require the companies to provide free earpieces for every cell phone, reimbursement for the cost of an earpiece for those who bought one, and unspecified punitive damages.

Angelos gained notoriety for his class-action court victories against the tobacco industry and asbestos manufacturers.

A full text of the GAO report can be found at http://www.gao.gov/.