July 14, 2010 By Karen Wilkinson
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