California Cities Eye San Francisco Cell Phone Radiation Disclosure Law

In absence of federal or state legislation, more cities start researching ordinances based on San Francisco model.

by / July 14, 2010

On the heels of San Francisco's historic yet contentious law requiring cell phone retailers to post radiation information, two small California towns are considering similar disclosure laws.

The cities -- Arcata and Burlingame -- quickly took note of San Francisco's recently signed "Cell Phone Right-to-Know" law and are moving to research how such requirements would play out locally. But the cell phone industry isn't pleased with the San Francisco law -- thought to be the first of its kind in the nation -- and contends the ordinance is based on speculation.

"It's probably only natural for some other areas to look at this because of the nature of the action," said John Walls, a spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association. "But at the same time, we would hope that anyone who looks at this issue -- whether a consumer or policymaker -- would look at science and facts and base a decision on that."

The Washington, D.C.-based CTIA, which represents the cell phone industry, maintains that mobile devices are safe for consumers, as their radiation levels are regulated by the FCC. Retailers, under San Francisco's law, must post information next to phones in at least 11-point type, listing their specific absorption rate (SAR) -- which measures the rate at which radio waves from a cell phone are absorbed by a user's body. The FCC capped these rates at no more than 1.6 watts per kilogram -- and rates vary from phone to phone.

Arcata and Burlingame officials who are pushing for SAR disclosure laws say they are trying to protect the public.

"It's not about starting a war with the cell phone industry, it's about giving people the information they need to make responsible choices in their lives," said Arcata City Councilman Shane Brinton, who recently asked the council to consider reviewing San Francisco's ordinance and possibly enact a similar law. "Obviously I'm not a scientist. I'm a public policymaker, and I have to base my legislative efforts on the best science I can find ... and the best science out there is contradictory and unclear."

Those contradictions are seemingly at the heart of the debate. While the FCC and National Cancer Institute both concluded there is no direct link between cell phone use and increased cancer risk, research on the question continues.

Walls, who issued a bold statement following the passage of San Francisco's law, said the FCC and National Cancer Institute studies were "conveniently overlooked" for the sake of passing a law with unclear motives. "It certainly isn't based on the scientific evidence that exists today, and we think that's unfortunate and reckless actually."

That's debatable, according to the Environmental Working Group -- a nonprofit public policy advocacy group -- which urges consumers to purchase cell phones with the lowest SARs possible. "We at [EWG] can't be pried from our cell phones. But we're troubled by recent studies that have found significantly higher risks for brain and salivary gland tumors among people using cell phones for 10 years or longer," the group's website states. "More research is crucial."

That's why Burlingame City Councilman Michael Brownrigg is pushing for city staff to research the issue. "If all cell phones emitted the same amount of radiation, you might say, 'What's the point?' but that's not the case," he said. "That makes the publication of this information even more relevant to

consumers."

Arcata's Brinton said he's working under the "precautionary principle." If there's evidence of a potential threat -- however inconclusive -- "it's better to be safe than sorry," he said.

"Obviously more research needs to be done before we can draw any firm conclusions," said Brinton, adding that states like California and Maine have tried and failed to pass similar legislation.

"Ideally this would be done at the state or federal level, but in the absence of that, this is what cities are doing," he said. "Government has a responsibility to step forward and make sure consumers have the information they need to make informed choices for themselves and their families."

Brownrigg compared the publication of SARs to packaged food labels -- one can choose to act on such information or not. "If they don't publish the information on the package, you have no way of knowing how many calories there are in that bag of potato chips," he said. "From a staff resource point of view, we're fortunate San Francisco has pioneered this and done a common-sense approach."

But Walls said the labeling of mobile devices may incorrectly lead consumers into believing one phone's SAR is "safer" than another, when all meet FCC standards. Those standards are reviewed biannually in conjunction with federal health agencies, he added. "It's not as if this has been done in a vacuum, as some have portrayed it."

One ramification of San Francisco's headline-making law will likely be felt next year. The CTIA will move its annual Enterprise and Applications show from its traditional San Francisco locale to San Diego, Walls said.

"While we have enjoyed bringing our three-day fall show to San Francisco five times in the last seven years, which has meant we've brought more than 68,000 exhibitors and attendees and an economic impact of almost $80 million to the Bay Area economy, the Board of Supervisors' action has led us to decide to relocate our show," Walls said in a statement.

But that doesn't seem to be stopping these smaller cities. "We want to make sure this is something necessary for our community," Brinton said. "I believe it is, but I want to have that conversation. What I'm curious about is how involved the cell phone industry would get."

Photo: Lavalle PDX Creative Commons 2.0 Generic

Karen Wilkinson

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.