The amount of radio frequency energy – a form of radiation emitted by cellphones and absorbed by the body – is nearly impossible to determine when buying a phone, a CBC-TV Marketplace investigation has found.
Some say that information is critical when choosing a phone.
“Consumers should have information on something that may be very important to them, and is very important to the health of Canadians,” said Rick Smith, the executive director of the environmental group Environmental Defence Canada.
“Also, making that information very visible could spur industry to improve,” he added.
On Monday, the World Health Organization released the largest study ever done on whether cellphone radiation causes brain tumours. The 10-year study left the question unsettled and did little to ease concerns about a possible link, concluding more research needs to be done.
Canadians are using 22 million cellphones.
Cellphones and radiation absorption
Marketplace found few consumers are aware of their phones’ “specific absorption rate,” or SAR, which is the amount of radiation the body absorbs when people use their phones.
The rate is measured in watts per kilogram of body weight. All phones in Canada and the United States have to have a rate of less than 1.6.
When Marketplace quizzed clerks at cellphone stores in Vancouver, none knew the SAR level of the phones they were selling.
Cellphone shopper Joanne Ward-Iaccino of Sarnia, Ont., couldn’t find out from store clerks either, so tried to locate the information on the internet.
What she could find was dispersed over many websites and the rates often differed depending on where she looked.
“If you can find out how energy efficient your appliances are, why can’t we know what’s coming out of our phones?” she said.
It’s a question U.S. Senator Mark Leno would like to see answered.
Legislation proposed in California
The California Democrat says there is a move in his state to require that cellphone radiation levels be listed on packaging as well as on websites that sell phones.
“It will require that this SAR be disclosed to consumers at the point of purchase, both on their website and at the retail location, on the packaging of the phone and all instruction manuals,” he said.
Even the current standard of 1.6 is in question.
The acceptable rate is based on animal studies done more than 20 years ago.
“So this standard was adopted decades before the concept of smartphones and devices so convenient that we carry them on our bodies continuously and use them for hours,” said Leno.
“And this standard has not been revisited since then.”
But Canada’s cellphone industry doesn’t believe labels listing a phone’s SAR are necessary, saying all phones operate within a safe range.
“There is no safer SAR level. They’re all safe. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s 1.6 or 0.08,” said Bernard Lord, the president and CEO of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.
However, recent studies in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and England have raised serious concerns about health risks in extended use and when used by children.
Despite assurances of safety, the cellphone industry does offer the following tips for reducing radiation.
    * Limit the amount of time talking on the phone.
    * Always hold the phone at least 25 mm away from the head.
    * Use a headset or speakerphone when possible
    * Don’t put the phone in a pocket. Keep it away from the body.