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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Cordless Phone Users Cautioned

Lee Davis is an insurance agent in Tampa, Florida who one day last April picked up a ringing cordless phone at the home of a friend. As he put the phone to his ear, he heard a very loud shrill piercing noise. His ear has never been the same since. He has serious hearing loss and so much disorientation that he cannot fly his own plane anymore.

Being an inquisitive person, Davis started looking into the problem of ear-splitting noise from cordless telephones. He wrote the manufacturer of this equipment, Keytronics Company of Gardena, California, but to no avail. He then came upon a Professor of Otolaryngology, George T. Singleton, at the University of Florida who had documented 28 cases where patients suffered permanent hearing loss from cordless telephones. All patients experienced pain, loss of hearing, and ringing in the ears. There is no known cure for this hearing loss, coming as the result of the destruction of sensitive nerve endings by the loud noise.

Quite properly, the American Ontological Society is concerned about this new technology. About four million of these cordless telephones were sold in 1983 and seven million are expected to be marketed in 1984. Dr. Singleton says that “it is probable that we are just now seeing the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and it becomes imperative that all physicians and audiologists become aware of this potential hazard…”

Cordless telephones have a “flip switch” that is usually in a “standby” position and must be moved manually to a “talk” position. If the user forgets to flip the switch, says Dr. Singleton, the ringing continues directly into the ear because, except for one model, the sound device for signaling incoming calls and the intercom or page is located in the ear piece. The “crack” or loud pop may be some type of radio interference, he adds.

How loud is the loud noise? Well almost as loud as gunshot blasts or jet airplanes at takeoff. His tests (similar tests were conducted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in Washington) measured the rings at 137 to 141 decibels (dB). The CPSC results came in at a range of 123 to 135 dB.

The Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Devices and Radiologic Health is reviewing the data presented by the CPSC and the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery before deciding what to do. Mr. Davis would like to see defective cordless telephones recalled and repaired at a cost he estimates between $1.00 to $3.00 per telephone. All, not just some, cordless telephones should have warning labels as well.

Everyday customers are exposed to many advertisements selling convenience at quite a price. A few years ago Americans learned that fluorocarbon aerosols for deodorant or cleaning uses were, in their millions of cans, jeopardizing the ozone layer above the earth due to a chemical reaction.

Now the cordless telephone has to be debugged of its sharp, unexpected noise. The Food and Drug Administration needs to accelerate its inquiry and analysis. But as usual it will take some highly publicized manufacturers’ liability lawsuits and verdicts to generate the public demand that the federal regulatory agencies act.