San Francisco Cell Phone Radiation Disclosure Law Challenged

Cell phone lobby group seeks to stop San Francisco from posting radiation levels, says law misleads public. Attorney's Office says right-to-know law informs consumers.

by / July 26, 2010
cell phone Photo: Lavalle PDX Creative Commons 2.0 Generic

A lobbying group that represents the wireless industry is taking its fight over San Francisco's recently adopted cell phone radiation disclosure law to the courts, claiming it misleads consumers and curbs their ability to make informed choices.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Friday, July 23, by CTIA -- The Wireless Association seeks to block the law's enforcement set to take effect late this year.

San Francisco's Cell Phone Right-to-Know law, which was signed in June by Mayor Gavin Newsom, is believed to be the first of its kind nationwide. At least two other California cities are researching the enactment of similar laws, though there's scientific uncertainty about whether there's a direct link between cell phone exposure and health risks.

Under San Francisco's law, retailers will be required to post information next to phones, listing their specific absorption rate (SAR) -- the measured rate at which radio waves emitted from a cell phone are absorbed by the user's body. The FCC capped these rates at no more than 1.6 watts per kilogram. Absorption rates vary from phone to phone, depending on the make and model.

The wireless industry group claims that the law flies in the face of the FCC's requirements. "San Francisco's attempt to regulate the sale of wireless handsets improperly intrudes upon the FCC's exclusive and comprehensive regulation of the safety of wireless handsets," the group stated in a press release. "The ordinance misleads consumers by creating the false impression that the FCC's standards are insufficient and that some phones are 'safer' than others based on their radio frequency emissions."

Not one to shy away from enacting groundbreaking, innovative and sometimes controversial policy, the consolidated city-county of San Francisco has already received some backlash, but is ready to defend its consumer-oriented law. CTIA in late June publicly vowed to pull its annual trade show out of San Francisco after this October. This lawsuit followed shortly thereafter.

"The cell phone lobby is arguing that improving consumer access to information will cause them to become frightened and confused and somehow that violates federal law," said Matt Dorsey, spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office. "We do not think that's sound legal theory. The reality is that San Francisco's Right-to-Know ordinance offers consumers access to the same information they can obtain elsewhere, but at the point of sale."

The CTIA countered that access to such information will help "consumer confusion" flourish. "The problem with the San Francisco ordinance is not the disclosure of wireless phone SAR values -- that information is already publicly available," a press release from the group stated. "CTIA's objection to the ordinance is that displaying a person's SAR value at the point of sale suggests to the consumer that there is a meaningful safety distinction between FCC-compliant devices with different SAR levels."

Newsom, however, expressed disappointment that the wireless industry is challenging the city's "landmark consumer information law," saying it's not an attack on the industry or its products.

"This is a commonsense measure which merely takes information already made available by these companies and makes it more accessible and easier to find by the point-of-sale consumer," Newsom said in a press release. "I am surprised that industry representatives would choose to spend untold sums of money to fight this in the courts,

instead of cooperatively working with San Francisco to comply with a reasonable law that provides greater transparency and information without putting any undue burdens on small businesses or discourage cell phone use in any way."

San Francisco's move toward disclosure has reinvigorated the conversation surrounding cell phone's effects on public health. Burlingame Councilman Michael Brownrigg, who wants the Bay Area city to consider a similar ordinance, said an informational meeting from experts on both sides of the issue is being scheduled for late summer.

"Once we have that input from people from both sides of the spectrum, we'll decide what's best for Burlingame," he said. "And obviously whatever the wireless industry does in that time will be part of that discussion."

This legal challenge didn't exactly surprise San Francisco officials, who are accustomed to being challenged in court over such cutting-edge laws and positions on health care, medical marijuana and gun control.

"We think it's a stretch to suggest, as the cell phone lobby is doing, that the public's right to know conflicts with an FCC determination or is somehow unlawfully misleading," Dorsey said. "We're not compelling anyone to reveal trade secrets or confidential information -- we're confident that Congress never intended to prevent localities from being able to make sure consumers are informed about too much radiation in their cell phones."

Photo: Lavalle PDX Creative Commons 2.0 Generic

Karen Wilkinson

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.