REPORT calls for more information on cell phones

Wednesday, May 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Unable to guarantee that cell phones are risk-free, congressional investigators are urging the government to provide more consumer-friendly and up-to-date information for the millions of Americans who use the devices.

A report Tuesday by the General Accounting Office found that federal agencies don't always provide the most current information on cell phone radiation and research, and often their materials are too technical for average consumers to understand.

The number of cell phone subscribers has surged to 115 million, making questions about their safety more pressing.

``Wireless service is less and less perceived as an ancillary, discretionary service,'' said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.

The report pulled together research by major health agencies, interviews with prominent scientists and other data to arrive at this consensus: Current research doesn't show that the energy emitted by cell phones has adverse health effects, but ``there is not yet enough information to conclude that they pose no risk.''

Long-term studies currently under way may offer firmer answers, but ``it will likely be many more years before a definitive conclusion can be reached on whether mobile phone emissions pose any risk to human health,'' said the report by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.

Until then, said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the government should educate consumers so they can weigh their options. People might decide to make shorter calls, use headsets and hold the devices away from their bodies or not change their behavior at all, Lieberman said, demonstrating the earpiece he uses with his wireless phone.

The lawmakers recommended that the Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration set up a Web site and call center to make it easier for consumers to look up the radiation level of their particular phone model.

Major manufacturers have started including such information voluntarily inside their phone packaging. The FCC has information on its site, but consumers need the individual phone's ID number to look up the radiation level.

Information provided by the agencies on cell phones _ and passed on to consumers by the industry _ also can be written too technically or does not contain the latest available research, the GAO said.

``We rely on government information,'' said Jo-Anne R. Basile of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, the leading industry trade group. ``We would welcome the government updating it on a regular basis and putting it in consumer-friendly terminology.''

The FCC, in its response to the GAO, said it was working already to make its Web site easier for consumers to understand.

The government also should standardize the testing process for determining whether cell phones comply with federal radiation limits, the report said. The FCC, in conjunction with engineering organizations, is currently working on that.

Congressional auditors also advised that the FDA keep the public aware of its major research initiative _ which is being paid for by the industry. CTIA is funding about $1 million in safety studies, with experts selected by the FDA choosing what to study.

Russell Owen, chief of the FDA's radiation biology branch, said his agency has reviewed research proposals made to the industry group for their scientific and technical merit. Once the cellular association signs contracts with researchers, the FDA will publicly announce whether CTIA's selections were in line with the government's advice, Owen said.

Separately on Tuesday, lawmakers introduced the first federal legislation banning another potential threat posed by cell phones: accidents caused when people talk while driving.

The measure sponsored by Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., would allow drivers to make calls, but only with a handsfree device like an earpiece or a speaker phone. The Senate version, offered by Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., would leave up to the states whether to include such an exemption to the ban.