GAO: More Data Needed on Cell Phone Safety

The findings of some studies on the health effects of using cell phones have raised questions indicating the need for further\r\ninvestigation, according to a Government Accounting Office \r\nreport.

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Scientific research to date does not demonstrate that the energy emitted from cell phones has adverse health effects, but the findings of some studies have raised questions indicating the need for further investigation, according to a Government Accounting Office (GAO) report.

Cell phone use is on the rise. Approximately 110 million Americans use wireless telephones today, compared to 16 million in 1994. By 2005, an estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide are expected to use cell phones.

The increase in use has been accompanied by fear that the devices could lead to brain cancer and other health problems. However, medical research has failed to confirm any of those fears.

The GAO report criticized the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for providing the public with out-of-date and difficult to understand information on the safety of cell phones.

"FDA has a consumer information update on mobile phone health issues, but it has not been revised since October 1999," said the report. "FDA told us that the update has not been revised because the scientific picture has not changed significantly since then."

The report also questioned the research partnership between FDA and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA). The GAO report acknowledged that while the agreement between FDA and the mobile phone industry may provide valuable research results, the initiative is funded solely by the industry.

The report was commissioned by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who in light of the report, called on the federal government to ensure that consumers are provided with accessible, easy to understand and up-to-date information on the possible health risks posed by cell phone use.

"Anytime health or safety concerns are raised about a widely-used product, consumers will naturally be on high alert and will want immediate answers," said Lieberman. "Hopefully, over time, a greater body of scientific evidence will lead to a definitive conclusion and put everyone''s anxieties to rest."

Lieberman and Markey said that it is the governments responsibility to educated consumers so that they can make informed decisions about their personal use of cell phones.

"While the studies continue, the public should be able to rely on its government to provide up-to-date information that is accurate and complete," said Markey. "We need to do more to merit that reliance."

As a result of GAO''s findings, in letters to the FDA and FCC, Lieberman and Markey requested the agencies improve their out-of-date information on cell phone use. They also asked the groups to create an easily understandable Web site that combines health information, explanations of radiation issues and access to information about emissions from different model phones.

In addition, Markey and Lieberman asked the FCC to expedite the establishment of standards for testing procedures to determine the radiation level of phones.

Finally, Lieberman is calling upon cell phone manufacturers and retailers to make product information already contained in cell phone packages, available to consumers in stores before they make a purchase.

Tom Wheeler, president and CEO of CTIA, called the GAO report both balanced and fair, and said CTIA will follow the recommendations to ensure that more research on cell phone use is available to the public.

"CTIA supports the recommendations for the FCC and the FDA to continue to provide full information to the public on wireless phones and health," said Wheeler. "We will follow FDA''s recommendations concerning what research is carried out, who will perform the studies and will ensure that the research is published."

Cell Phone Safety Concerns Prompt Legislative Proposals

The release of the GAO report came on the heels of new legislation announced this week by Sen. John Corzine, D-N.J., and Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., that would ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

"Accidents and near collisions are occurring all over our nation because too many drivers hold the wheel with one hand and their cell phone in the other," said Ackerman. "The primary function of government is to protect the safety of its citizens and we must act to ensure that our roads and highways are safe as and as more Americans take advantage of cellular technology."

Corzine added, "Simply put, this legislation is about saving lives. Just a few seconds of distraction while talking on a cell phone can mean the difference between safety and peril, between life and death. We must act to make our roads safer and this legislation goes a long way towards achieving this goal."

Under Ackerman''s measure, drivers are permitted to use their cell phones, provided that their vehicles are equipped with devices such as an earpiece or a speaker phone, leaving the driver''s hands free. Calls would have to be placed or answered by voice activation or while the driver was stopped.

Corzine''s bill would leave this decision up to the states if they determine that such use does pose a threat to public safety.

Differences between the two bills would be worked out in conference committee.

Both bills also allow each state to impose their own system of penalties whether they be fines and or points on the driver''s license. States that fail to implement the ban would lose a portion of their federal highway funds.

The proposed legislation is patterned after similar measures pending in 40 states, including New York and New Jersey.

Some counties in both states have already passed legislation that prohibits driving while talking.

The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), which represents the wireless industry, said that both legislative proposals fail to address the issues of education, data collection and the strict enforcement of existing laws that prohibit unsafe driving due to driver inattention.

"The reality of the situation from the current crash data available is that wireless phones aren''t contributing to a significant number of crashes," said CTIA. "Presently, 20 states collect information where a wireless phone or two-way radio was cited as a factor or driver action in a crash. However, of the 20, only four -- Oklahoma, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Tennessee have been collecting data long enough to have issued reports."

CTIA cited numerous studies and research on the subject of cell phones and driving safety to refute the legislative proposals.

For instance, the University of North Caroline (UNC) released the final results of its study on driver distractions commissioned by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

The UNC analyzed more than 32,000 traffic accidents and found that wireless phones contributed to less than 2 percent of total accidents analyzed while an outside object, person or event contributed to 29.4 percent and adjusting the radio, a cassette or CD amounted to 11.4 percent.

"The current crash data available reaffirms the wireless industry''s position that education is key in addressing the distracted driver problem," said CTIA.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 20 to 30 percent of all crashes are due to driver distractions.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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