Oct. 17, 2011 -- A government test used to measure the radiation people absorb from their cellphones might underestimate the levels to which most adults and children are exposed, according to a group of doctors and researchers whose stated mission is to promote awareness of environmental health risks they believe may be linked to cancer.
Researchers from the Environmental Health Trust released a report this morning noting that the Federal Communications Commission test to determine radiation exposure is flawed.
The reason for the discrepancy, the group says, is that the process to determine radiation exposure from cellphones involves the use of a mannequin model that they say approximates a 6-foot-2, 220-pound person. Because the model represents only about 3 percent of the population, the authors report, the test will not accurately predict the radiation exposure of the other 97 percent of the population, including children. The group is pushing for a new testing system to measure radiation exposure in a wider range of consumers.
"The standard for cellphones has been developed based on old science and old models and old assumptions about how we use cellphones, and that's why they need to change," said Dr. Devra Davis, former senior adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services under the Clinton administration and one of the report's authors.
A different study cited in the report says a child's bone marrow absorbs 10 times the radiation as an adult. The authors also raise questions about long-term side effects, such as infertility in males who carry phones in their pockets, an exposure unaccounted for in the traditional certification process.
The authors suggest an alternative certification process, one that uses MRI scans to test real humans, including children and pregnant women. Such an approach would provide exposure data on a "Virtual Family," representing all ages, the authors say.
"What the 'Virtual Family' does is it uses anatomically based models that reflect the fact that children's brains are more vulnerable than adults," Davis said.
The Environmental Health Trust is a non-profit organization whose scientists have also leveled their gaze at environmental hazards such as asbestos, tobacco smoke and radiation from medical diagnostic equipment. In addition to Davis, the group also counts among its members Dr. Ronald Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, and Om Gandhi, a former scientist for Motorola who first performed the research establishing acceptable radiation risk. Both were also authors on the report.
The U.S. government has had no specific comment on the report. The cellphone industry group CTIA-The Wireless Association said that because members "are not scientists or researchers on this topic," the news media should contact experts instead.
But whether the low level of radiation from cellphones actually causes cancer is a question that has yet to be answered. "No scientific evidence currently establishes a definite link between [cellphones] and cancer or other illnesses," the FCC says on its website.
Independent scientists also said there are no conclusive studies that cellphone radiation causes cancer.
In May, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer placed cellphones in the same category as lead and engine exhaust, citing the possibility that exposure to cellphone radiation could have long-term health effects. But roughly 30 studies conducted thus far have failed to draw a conclusive link.
One study last year found a slight, statistically insignificant increase in risk in a rare form of brain cancer called glioma among cellphone users. Another study out of the National Institutes of Health Research found cellphone use was associated with increased brain activity. But whether that is linked in turn to an increased risk of cancer has yet to be shown.
Studies Show No Cellphone Radiation Dangers Yet
"While experimental evidence and very limited human studies suggest that we should be cautious, people should realize there are many things we are exposed to every day that also is classified by IARC as possibly carcinogenic," Dr. Peter Shields, chief of Georgetown University Hospital's cancer genetics and epidemiology program in Washington, D.C., told ABC News in May. "The classification used by IARC for cellphones is the lowest of all the carcinogenic classes, and no one should think that cellphones pose the same risk as smoking and asbestos."
Doctors appear to be split on the possibility of risks when it comes to their own cellphone habits. After the International Agency for Research on Cancer announcement in May, ABC News reached out to 92 physicians. Sixty-five of these doctors said they would continue to hold their cellphones up to their ear, but 27 said they would use hands-free devices to minimize their risk.