How risky is cell-phone radiation?

Last reviewed: January 2011
January 2011 issue cover This article appeared in
January 2011 Consumer Reports Magazine.
Latest on Cell phones and services
FCC Frequency Exposure markings on packages
Inconsistent
A phone might include a simple measure of radiation absorption (left), a statement that the phone meets the safety standard for radiation (center), or comprehensive test data and background information (right).

The Food and Drug Administration says the "weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems," including brain tumors from the low-level radiation that phones emit in normal use. Yet in the past year San Francisco lawmakers have enacted an ordinance requiring that cell phones disclose the amount of radiation emitted, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) announced plans to push for radiation warnings on all cell phones.

Phone manufacturers are required by federal law to package every cell phone with information about its specific absorption rate (SAR) values. The higher the SAR value, the more radiation the body absorbs. But there's usually no explanation provided with those numbers, not even the fact that all phones sold have levels lower than what the FDA considers a concern.

In September 2010, the Federal Communications Commission revised its Web page to address some of the confusion about SAR values. The updated FCC fact sheet (www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/sar.html) states that SAR values indicate the maximum possible exposure from a given phone, not the varying levels of exposure in normal use. So a phone with a lower reported SAR value isn't necessarily safer than one with a higher value, and SAR values can't be used to reliably compare cell-phone models. The FCC says it requires SAR values only to ensure that maximum radiation exposure falls below the level at which experts agree there could be adverse health effects.

Still, consumers are caught in the middle, trying to resolve conflicting messages from regulators and legislators. (The latter include those in the European Parliament who have called for stricter limits on exposure to cell-phone radiation, which have been criticized by many scientists.)

Consumers Union believes a number of measures would benefit consumers:

  • The U.S. needs a national research program on cell phones and health. Rep. Kucinich has called for such an effort as part of his cell-phone safety proposals.
  • The FDA and the FCC should step up their efforts to provide better and more visible guidance to consumers on the risks, if any, of cell-phone radiation.
  • The FCC should mandate that the SAR information included with phones be more consistent. The information that's currently provided varies greatly in its format and detail, as the photographs below illustrate.

Bottom line

We will continue to track the research. In the meantime, if you are concerned about radiation, minimize exposure by using a speaker phone or hands-free headset, holding the phone away from the head and body (especially when a call is connecting), and reducing use, especially by children.