Is It Safe To Put A Cell Phone In Your Pocket? The FCC Doesn’t Know, Exactly

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A couple weeks back, on a lazy Friday, I heard someone on cable news say something about fine-print warnings on BlackBerrys that tell users not to put the devices within an inch of their bodies. It sounded odd to me, so I did a Google search, and low and behold, there it was. That afternoon I wrote an off-topic blog post sharing my discovery. Then I went home for the weekend.

But unanswered questions continued to nag me. Why is BlackBerry giving me this warning? Why does no one I know seem to know about it? Does any of this matter? I could not find any cogent explanation online, so I decided to figure it out myself. (One of the nice things about being the White House Correspondent for TIME is that usually your phone calls get returned.)

A dozen or so interviews later, I had discovered something that still doesn’t make any sense to me. The 2001 Federal Communications Commission testing guidelines for cellular phone radiation simply do not take into account the possibility that you will carry your phone in your pocket or otherwise close to your body. Your phone may be entirely safe in that position, according to FCC rules, or it may not. No one really knows. This is odd, considering the fact that the FCC boasts on its website that its radiation testing procedure is designed to measure the “most severe, worst-case (and highest power) operating conditions for all the frequency bands.” But since physics tells us radiation increases substantially as distance decreases, the test is not really a worst case test. As one current FCC official told me on the condition of anonymity, “Clearly a lot of people weren’t aware of this, and it probably does need to be addressed.”

As a result, the companies that make phones write legal disclaimers in their safety manuals that you probably won’t read or follow. As for the health effects of this complex legal and regulatory two-step, that remains a subject of much debate inside the scientific community. Carrying a phone in your pocket is probably not very harmful, most of the scientists I spoke with said, but nobody knows for sure. (Many studies remain “inconclusive.”) What is clear is that government enforcement of its own rules does not match the real-world conditions of how people use these phones.

To read my story on, click here.