Michigan wireless network/Illustration by Tom McKeith Illustration by Tom McKeith Illustration by Tom McKeith

It has been a busy week for cellphone regulation.

On Monday, Aug. 6, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich introduced a bill that would put warning labels on all cellphones and create a national research program to study cellphone radiation. On Tuesday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report asking the FCC to revise its standards on cellphone radiation limits. And Thursday, the city of San Francisco met with the wireless industry in a court case that could determine whether the city will be allowed to force cellphone retailers to warn customers about potential cellular radiation risks.

Is it Safe?

There have been conflicting opinions on whether cellphone radiation is harmful to people since cellphones were first invented. According to the GAO, there is no evidence that cellphones cause cancer in humans, but the agency is asking the FCC to retool its policy on the issue based on modern research data and current technology, because the old standards are from 1996. The change may be tighter regulation or it could even increase the amount of radiation allowed – the GAO is simply asking for the FCC to take a second look at cellphones and update the law accordingly.

In 1996, the FCC set the maximum exposure limit on radio waves to 1.6 watts per kilogram, averaged over one gram of tissue. Cited in a 2006 GAO report, the IEEE suggested that 2.0 watts per kilogram, averaged over 10 grams of tissue, “represents a scientific consensus on RF energy exposure limits.” These limits are generally considered by experts to be a fiftieth of the level required to harm humans. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies cellphone use as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” and puts cellphone use in the same hazard category as drinking alcohol, being near coal burnt indoors, and contracting malaria.

Consumer groups tend to err on the side of the safety, agreeing with the WHO's stance that it's not yet clear whether cellphones are harmful or not.

If You're Going to San Francisco

A court case starting Thursday in the U.S. Appeals Court will decide how much power the city of San Francisco has over private businesses selling cell phones. Initiated by a piece of legislation approved in 2010 by then-mayor Gavin Newsom and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the law would require retailers selling cellphones to display posters that warn of potential risks caused by cellphone use, affix stickers to cellphone packages with specific absorption rate (SAR) levels for the devices as defined by the FCC, and offer a fact sheet that outlines potential risks and methods for reducing exposure.

The cellphone industry is being represented by The Wireless Association (CTIA), which is suing the city on the grounds that the city's requests violate First Amendment rights. “The government can't compel a private party to express an opinion that it disagrees with,” said Andrew McBride, an attorney representing CTIA's case, reported Cnet.com. McBride also added that the information the city is asking retailers to share is only opinion, not fact.

San Francisco Deputy City Attorney Vince Chhabria will argue that warnings are needed because research on the topic is inconclusive. "This (GAO) report confirms what was already obvious," he said. "New information keeps coming up about the relationship between cell phone use and health risks, such as cancer. And we think the public is better served if they're given the opportunity to take a closer look at this new information."

The Future of Cellphone Law

It's no coincidence that San Francisco's cellphone debate, the GAO's request for the FCC to rethink cell radiation limits, and Rep. Kucinich's bill come at a time when the FCC had announced they were planning to retool regulations. In June, the FCC issued a notice of inquiry that examined whether the agency's methods and standards needed updating since the last major standard was instated 15 years ago.

The idea that old regulations can be dangerous is the crux of Rep. Kucinich's bill calling for cellphone warning labels and the creation of a national research program to study cellphone radiation. The Cell Phone Right to Know Act would create a new set of regulations that would also require the Environmental Protection Agency to update the standards for SAR values, which indicate the amount of radio energy absorbed by a human body.

"It took decades for scientists to be able to say for sure that smoking caused cancer. During those decades, the false impression created by industry supporters was that there was no connection between smoking and cancer, a deception which cost many lives. While we wait for scientists to sort out the health effects of cell phone radiation, we must allow consumers to have enough information to choose a phone with less radiation," Kucinich said in a statement. "As long as cell phone users may be at increased risk of cancer or reproductive problems, Americans must have the right to know the radiation levels of cell phones."

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.