June 22, 2010 By Russell Nichols
As the debate rages on about the dangers of cell phone radiation, a new measure in San Francisco is causing a lot of static.
With its final approval June 22 by the city's Board of Supervisors, the landmark ordinance is on track to make San Francisco the first city in the nation to require retailers to display the specific absorption rate (SAR) of its products. (SAR measures the rate of energy absorbed by the body when exposed to radio frequency fields.) Mayor Gavin Newsom, who introduced the measure, is expected to sign it into law within 10 days, despite opposition from cell phone retailers and the inconclusive scientific support.
"The science on cell phones is all over the place," said Mark Westlund, communication/education program manager for San Francisco's Department of the Environment. "And it was the mayor's opinion that people have a right to know the levels of exposure. Since there was uncertainty, it is incumbent upon the government provide information to our citizens."
The legislation passed a preliminary vote by the Board of Supervisors last week, leading up to Tuesday's final vote. Once Newsom signs the proposal, the law will take effect in February 2011, and violators will face fines up to $500.
The city isn't the first to attempt such a measure, but it would be the first to succeed. Last year, a similar proposal never saw the light of day in the California Legislature after intense lobbying by the mobile phone industry. Earlier this year in Maine, lawmakers shot down a bill that would've required manufacturers to put warning labels on cell phones about the potential link between cell phone radiation and brain cancer.
It's no shock that San Francisco, a city known for pushing innovation and transparency, is now leading the charge on this issue. Leading the opposition is the CTIA, an organization that represents the wireless communications industry. Critics blasted the city's Board of Supervisors for approving such a proposal for no credible scientific reason.
"Rather than inform, the ordinance will potentially mislead consumers with point of sale requirements suggesting that some phones are 'safer' than others based on radio frequency emissions," said John Walls, CTIA vice president of public affairs in a statement. "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 had 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."
Consumers, critics say, don't need to fear cell phone radiation levels. By law, a phone marketed in the United States must meet federal limits approved by the FCC. According to the FCC, no cell phone sold in the country can have a SAR limit higher than 1.6 watts per kilogram.
"Measurements and analysis of SAR in models of the human head have shown that the 1.6 watts per kilogram limit is unlikely to be exceeded under normal conditions of use of cellular and PCS [personal communications service] handheld phones," according to the FCC website. "There is no scientific evidence to date that proves that wireless phone usage can lead to cancer or a variety of other health effects, including headaches, dizziness or memory loss. However, studies are ongoing and key government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration continue to monitor the results of the latest scientific research on this topic."
Users can already get SAR information for a specific cell phone by checking the FCC ID number for that model, and plugging it into the FCC ID Search on the Equipment Authorization page. The SAR may also be printed on the case, in the manual, on the device or the manufacturer's websites.
But San Francisco's law would make the SAR more visible to the public, Westlund said, and could signal a future trend that other cities -- and possibly states -- may follow.
"It's certainly an issue that's been talked about for years," he said. "It's not a new concern; it's just finally coming to a head."