A San Francisco ordinance requiring retailers to post warnings about the potential health risks of cell phone use is under fire from the wireless industry.

CTIA-The Wireless Association filed a challenge to the law last week, arguing that San Francisco’s “Cell Phone Right-to-Know” ordinance is a violation of the First Amendment rights of cell phone retailers and conflicts with federal law regarding the safety of wireless devices.

The revised law — which will be effective at the end of the month — requires the San Francisco Department of the Environment to create materials that inform mobile device buyers that the World Health Organization has classified cell phone radiation as a “possible carcinogen.” Measures to curb exposure, including turning cell phones off while not in use, must also be provided.

This is the second consecutive year the CTIA has fought the ordinance. A previous version of the cell phone disclosure law would have mandated that radiation values of mobile devices be posted. San Francisco amended the ordinance in response after a lawsuit was filed by the CTIA in July 2010.

John Walls, CTIA’s vice president for public affairs, said the organization’s position on the ordinance remains unchanged from 2010.

“We’ve been unwavering in that we believe the ordinance is false and alarming in some respects in the way it represents information to the general public,” he said. “That it is in the public’s best interest that the information be conveyed truthfully and accurately — and that’s not the case.”

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement that the CTIA is “trivializing” the First Amendment by using it to fight the ordinance.

“I’m disappointed that the wireless industry is so bent on quashing the debate about the health effects of cell phone radiation,” Herrera said. “And I’m especially troubled that the industry is invoking the First Amendment. Freedom of speech is about encouraging the exchange of ideas, not about keeping people in the dark about vital health information.”

Various studies have come up with differing conclusions regarding the dangers of cell phone radiation. 

Should the varied study results give the wireless industry some pause over fighting the ordinance? Walls said no, maintaining that there is a “tremendous body of evidence” that there are no adverse health effects associated with the use of wireless technology.

Michael Altschul, senior vice president and general counsel of the CTIA, said the industry needs to rely on impartial experts such as the FCC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Criticism of what those bodies say should be directed at them, not the wireless community, Altschul said.

According to the FDA, it shares regulatory authority with the FCC for cell phones. But the FCC said it doesn’t review the safety of “radiation-emitting consumer products,” such as cell phones, before they are sold. “However, FDA does have the authority to take action if cell phones are shown to emit radiofrequency energy (RF) at a level that is hazardous to the user,” according the FDA’s website.

“The weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems,” according to the FDA.

“The fact they are not saying it’s safe, but they are saying they have not observed any public health problems, to scientists is a very high and reassuring statement,” Altschul said, adding that scientists typically “never say something is safe,” which often is interpreted by the public like they are hiding something.

Herrera's office was due to respond to the CTIA's preliminary injunction on Friday, Oct. 7. A hearing to discuss the issue before U.S. District Judge William Alsup is set for Thursday, Oct. 20, at the United States District Court Northern District of California in San Francisco.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.