By Carolyn Jones
Berkeley, undaunted by abandoned efforts in San Francisco, is attempting to become the first city in the nation to require retailers to put stickers on cell phone packaging warning people that the devices may emit cancer-causing radiation.
City officials say they have learned from San Francisco’s similar attempt in 2010, which ended two years later with a defeat in federal court and the Board of Supervisors ultimately withdrawing the ordinance.
“Cell phones are a risk, and I believe the public has a right to information that’s credible, readable and understandable about the device they’re using,” said Berkeley City Councilman Max Anderson, who is co-sponsoring the ordinance and has a background in public health. “I’m not intimidated by the cell phone industry. The legal department might be, but I’m not.”
To avoid the fate met by San Francisco, Berkeley is planning to consult a Harvard University law professor to draft the sticker language so it meets legal First Amendment guidelines. The wireless industry successfully fought off San Francisco’s attempt to force warnings in part by arguing that forcing manufacturers to issue warnings they disputed violated their First Amendment rights.
Radiation warning stickers
If the ordinance passes and survives the expected legal assault from the telecommunications industry, Berkeley would be the first city in the United States with such a policy.
The ordinance would require retailers to place stickers on cell phone boxes that warn consumers that radiation from cell phones may cause brain cancer. Berkeley, home to a 35,000-student university, an Apple store and dozens of wireless shops, sees more cell phone transactions than most Bay Area cities.
The cell phone industry was swift to respond to Berkeley’s proposal, sending a four-page letter to the City Council on July 3 stating that the proposal violates federal regulations and the matter has already been settled by the courts.
“Any attempt to place labels on cell phones or their packaging contradicts the clear message of federal regulatory agencies that have carefully considered this issue, which is that devices compliant with the federal standards are safe for consumer use,” wrote Gerald Keegan, senior director of legislative affairs for CTIA — The Wireless Association, an industry group.
According to the industry, radiation from cell phones falls well below federal safety limits, and no study has found evidence definitively linking cell phone use to cancer.
The National Brain Tumor Society is a little more cautious. While no studies have found a direct link, the possibility “has not been ruled out, either,” said spokesman Tom Halkin.
“Without conclusive results, the National Brain Tumor Society cannot say that cell phones cause brain tumors, and can only encourage continued further research into this topic,” he said.
One researcher’s certainty
Joel Moskowitz, head of UC Berkeley’s Center for Family and Community Health, has no such indecision. He’s been studying the issue since 2009, and has concluded that cell phones are “one of the top emerging public health risks.”
Studies cited by the cell phone industry are outdated, he said. Newer and more complex wireless technology, coupled with people spending increasing amounts of time on their phones, is almost certain to lead to an uptick in brain cancer, he said.
“It’s just a matter of time,” he said. “The evidence is a lot more compelling than it has been.”
Radiation from cell phones penetrates the skin and skull and absorbs into the brain tissue, having an adverse affect on cells, he said. Phone radiation can also affect sperm count among men who carry phones in their pockets, he said.
Consumers should wear headsets, use the speaker feature and otherwise keep phones away from their bodies, he said.
“With cell phones, distance is your friend,” he said.
The most vulnerable
Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable, he said.
A warning sticker should advise consumers that some studies link cell phones to rare but serious cancers, and they should take precautions, he said.
Berkeley’s City Council is scheduled to debate the issue at its Sept. 9 meeting.
Recent shoppers around Berkeley’s Apple Store had mixed reactions to the proposal.
Kayla Abruzzese of Emeryville, who serves in the Coast Guard, said a sticker would not deter her from cell phone use.
“My cell phone is like my lifeline,” she said.
Kim Ellis, a retiree from Piedmont, doesn’t use her phone much but worries about her grandchildren.
“They’re so screen-savvy,” she said. “I’d sure want to know what the health risks are. If nothing else, it gets people talking about it.”
— Reach Carolyn Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org