EWG's Guide to Safer Cell Phone Use
August 27, 2013

EWG's Guide to Safer Cell Phone Use: Where is EWG's Cellphone Database?

The Environmental Working Group has decided to suspend its publication of Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) values of cell phones in light of rapidly transforming mobile technology and the cloak of secrecy around it.

When EWG published its ground-breaking 2009 report on cell phone radiation, publicly available data supported our view that a government-mandated measurement called the Specific Absorption Rate for individual phones was an important factor that influenced the user's radiation exposure. This finding was based on multiple studies conducted around the world – and multiple national health services that advised consumers to buy low SAR phones, even though experts recognized that SAR values are just one of the factors determining radiation exposure.

As EWG pointed out, in 1996 the cell phone industry persuaded the Federal Communications Commission that for local exposure, such as at the head, people could safely absorb up to 1.6 watts per kilogram (W/kg) of body weight of cell phone radiation. The FCC's decision was based on short-term exposures, usually less than an hour in duration. Moreover, the FCC's method for measuring SAR allowed 20 times more radiation to reach the head than the body as a whole and did not account for risks to children's smaller bodies.

In those days, people didn't spend much time on mobile phones, because the devices were pricey, airtime was exorbitant and texting was virtually unknown. Few people were thinking about the potential long-term impacts of children's cell phone use when a new phone cost $2,000. Times have changed. But the FCC's regulations have not. They have never been updated to reflect the new reality of frequent daily cell phone use that for most people would last for decades and cell phone use by children and teenagers.

In addition to SAR, other factors that could affect the intensity and duration of emissions to which a person is exposed include frequency at which the phone operates, connection strength and distance between cell phone and the user's body. Yet FCC does not require cell phone manufacturers to conduct real-life SAR measurements and to disclose this information. Consequently, cell phone users and independent researchers do not have reliable information about cell phone radiation under specific conditions of use.

Industry research that has belatedly become public has shown that a consumer using the same phone on two different 2G (second generation) network technologies – GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) vs. CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) – could be subjected to radiation levels differing by a factor of 30 or even 300 (Kelsh 2011). This study, conducted by the cell phone industry in 2005 and 2006 but released only in 2010, demonstrated that network differences were the key factor determining the user's exposure to cell phone radiation.

CDMA-based technologies, including the original CDMA and its variations such as UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication System, 3G technology in mobile telecommunications) result in much lower user exposure to radiation (Georg 2006; Kühn 2009; Swiss Federal Office of Public Health 2011). In contrast, GSM, historically the world's most common 2G technology, is a higher-radiation technology (Ardoino 2004). According to studies that specifically focused on GSM, phones using this technology can emit the highest level of radiation during nearly half of the call time. In a multi-national study that involved more than 500 volunteers and 60,000 calls using GSM network technology, the average output power was 50 percent of the phones' maximum power level and ranged from 35 to 70 percent, depending on the country (Vrijheid 2009).

Yet despite these provocative finding, neither the industry nor other institutions followed up with published research on radiation levels in the next-generation network protocols that industry describes with a catchy title of Long Term Evolution, or LTE.

Cell phone makers are caught up in a race to produce faster, more powerful mobile devices – and no one is asking hard questions about the unintended consequences for human health of seemingly limitless growth of the wireless industry.

We are.

In the face of multiplying uncertainties, with virtually no data on network-dependent radiation levels, EWG has decided not to continue publishing its cell phone radiation guide. EWG intends this action as a statement of protest at the absence of authoritative, credible data that could help consumers make informed choices about the mobile communications devices they bring into their homes, schools and workplaces.

What can you do to help make full disclosure a reality? Click here to take action.


Ardoino L, Barbieri E, Vecchia P. 2004. Determinants of exposure to electromagnetic fields from mobile phones. Radiat Prot Dosimetry 111(4): 403-6.
Georg R. 2006. Bestimmung der spezifischen Absorptionsrate (SAR-Werte), die während der alltäglichen Nutzung von Handys auftritt [Determination of SAR-values occurring during the everyday use of mobile phones]. In German. Available: http://www.emf-forschungsprogramm.de/forschung/dosimetrie/dosimetrie_abges/dosi_050.html
International Telecommunications Union. 2011. The World in 2011. Information and Communication Technologies Facts and Figures. Available: http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/facts/2011/index.html
Kelsh MA, Shum M, Sheppard AR, McNeely M, Kuster N, Lau E, et al. 2011. Measured radiofrequency exposure during various mobile-phone use scenarios. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol 21: 343-54.
Kühn S. 2009. EMF risk assessment. exposure assessment and compliance testing in complex environments. Doctoral Thesis. Swiss Federal Institue of Technology (ETH). Available: http://e-collection.ethbib.ethz.ch/view/eth:1115
Swiss Federal Office of Public Health. 2011. Mobile phones. Available: http://www.bag.admin.ch/themen/strahlung/00053/00673/04265/index.html?lang=en
Vrijheid M, Mann S, Vecchia P, Wiart J, Taki M, Ardoino L, et al. 2009. Determinants of mobile phone output power in a multinational study - implications for exposure assessment. Occup Environ Med 66(10): 664-71.
WHO (World Health Organization). 2011. IARC Classified Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields as Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans. Press Release # 208. 31 May 2011. Available: http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2011/pdfs/pr208_E.pdf