Regulators have it easy when it comes to cigarettes. It's very difficult for somebody not employed by the tobacco industry to suggest that walking around with something in one's mouth that is red hot, emitting tons of smoke and ash, and staining everything in sight isn't bad news.
Cell phones are different, however. While the debate about their safety is as old as the industry itself, it still is impossible to definitively say whether walking through life with a cell glued to your ear truly represents a risk.
CNET's Marguerite Reardon does a tremendous job of taking a subject covered by a bit of fog and describing where things stand. The story starts off by describing the findings of an international conference sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences and the University of Pittsburgh, as wel as a hearing before the Senate subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services.
Reardon wades through a lot of material. One highpoint is that the Federal Communications Commission -- which, along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, controls cell phones-has issued no warning about cell phone use. The story says that the standard used to judge the safety of phones is the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), which essentially measures the heat the devices are emitting.
Experts say there are two problems with this. One is that there are potential dangers that aren't measured by the SAR rate. The other is that the acceptable SAR level is based on the heat that would soak into the head of a large adult male. The impact on smaller men, women and, particularly, kids (believe it or not, their skulls are thinner) could be much greater for the same amount of heat.
This clearly is a debate that will go on for a long time. The good news is that the uncertainty will drive manufacturers in a competitive marketplace to produce devices that emit less radiation, whether or not real danger is real. Today, some phones emit far more radiation than others. Thus, if a person assumes that radiation is a problem, there are phones to stay away from. The Environmental Working Group earlier last week released an online tool that rated more than 1,000 phones for their emissions.
This is an advance story for the conference. Judging by this and the fact that Congress convened a hearing on the matter, the bottom line seems to be that the pendulum-which a few years ago swung clearly towards the side suggesting that even a hint of insecurity about cell phone safety was seen as alarmist-is swinging back toward uncertainty.
The experts say that that the best idea is to err on the side of caution. This means that Bluetooth or other remote devices should be used. The jury still is out, they say, on whether these devices themselves represent a risk.