San Francisco is well known for being a progressive city, often leading the way in environmental and humanist issues and historically unafraid of making waves. However, in the instance of the recently signed cell phone radiation law, the SF Board of Supervisors are being reminded that sometimes it’s best to not rock the boat – especially when you’re the one sitting in it.
Late last month the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to pass a bill, proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, which would require cell phone retailers to post the radiation absorption levels emitted by cell phone handsets. While cell phone manufacturers such as Apple and Verizon, and telecom giants AT&T, TechAmerica and CTIA, have successfully lobbied against similar bills in both California and Maine earlier this year, they were apparently unable to sway the city by the bay. Their response was to promptly pack up their toys (i.e. the annual CTIA convention) and go home, saying “We felt they sent us a message about how they felt about the industry and the technology. And if that’s how the city feels, then we have to look at other viable options.” They’re also encouraging other companies (Apple and Cisco have both been name-dropped) to join them in a boycott. As the CTIA convention has brought “more than 68,000 exhibitors and attendees and $80 million” to the city’s coffers, this may prove to be a not only a costly reminder to San Francisco law-makers –but also an unfortunate blowback to the tech-savvy residents of the city.
While many web commenter’s wasted no time in decrying the decision as a waste of resources and nanny state b.s., Newsome’s camp defended the law as being “a basic information transparency law” even though all phones sold in the US have already passed the FCC standards (with information on SAR rates often easily found either online or in a handsets manual). Current U.S. standards require the SAR (specific absorption rate) of a handset to stay within a range of 0.2watts to 1.6 watts per kilogram of body tissue – which is the general rate at which radio frequencies penetrate body tissue. The wireless industry says they’re concerned that the “landmark requirement” will spark fears that cell phone radiation causes cancer. The word “cancer” is not found in the legislation and the official statement from the World Health Organization is: “To date, no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use.” The important words here are “to date.” In 2006, a report from researchers in Sweden found that “adults who used cell phones for more than 10 years had an increased risk of some forms of brain cancer” which resulted in a slew of public health alerts in European nations. The same researchers published a study three years later that found that younger (teenaged) cell phones users increased their chances of acquiring brain cancer by four times.
However, in a recent study the International Journal of Epidemiology found no evidence of a link between certain brain cancers and mobile phone use – but they did conclude that more information was needed. The Economist points out that computer monitors were also thought to cause harm to the human body when they initially became common in the workplace and there are certainly plenty of other devices used daily (microwaves, baby monitors, etc) that could also be culprits. It’s also important to note that scientific methods are not designed to prove a negative - which means if there is no health hazard, all the research in the world would be unable to prove it. The one member of the Board of Supervisors to vote “No,” Sean Elsbernd, explained his vote by saying “It’s a slippery slope. I can go on Google right now and find you a study that says there’s a problem with the Starbucks you’re drinking.” The warring sides of the issue were highlighted earlier this year in an article that explored the history of the fight over SAR and its potential risks; giving weight to the theory that there is much that we, as consumers, are not being told.
While any potentially negative effects can be mitigated by using a hands free device, some manufacturers have already responded by issuing guidelines – Nokia’s 1100 comes with a warning that it meets radio-frequency guidelines only when held 1.5 centimeters away from the body, while RIM warns Blackberry 8300 users (in the manual) that its handset should not be worn or carried on the body sans the approved belt clip. But, of the mobile market’s 5 billion subscribers , how many actually read their manuals? If the industry has been erring on the side of caution, and these guidelines are intended to be read by users, then why such fuss over posting the information in a more prominent manner?
The perfunctory actions of CTIA have invited comparisons to Big Tobacco – ironically, exactly the type of association the industry didn’t want – with the Huffington Post asking “why is the cell phone industry so defensive? Why is it taking pages from the tobacco lobby’s playbook?...(Their) reflexive stance has been to deny the slightest possibility that cell phone radiation, high, love or mid-range could ever be harmful.” Mayor Newsom response to CTIA’s actions was similar: “Since our bill is relatively benign, it begs the question, why did they work so hard and spend so much money to kill it? I’ve become more fearful, not less, because of their reaction.” Indeed, their reaction has done more than just strike a blow to the San Francisco economy – it’s resulted in MORE legislation being introduced, with both Senator Leno and Representative Kucinich introducing bills to highlight information found in handset manuals and calling for fresh federal research on the matter (respectively) and Senator Leno saying “People need to know, to make informed decisions. They don’t need a multibillion-dollar corporate structure saying, ‘Oh no, it will only confuse you.’ “
Realistically speaking, how many cell phone users will find themselves taking SAR into consideration when they purchase their next phone? Will this truly affect consumer shopping habits or has San Francisco legislated itself into a losing position? Will the concern over SAR extend to the rest of our electronic devices? The New York Times concluded their coverage of the issue by pointing out that “we don’t yet really know the physical and psychological impact of being slaves to technology. We just know that technology is a narcotic.” And if that is case, it’s unlikely to make a difference if the SAR is printed on a handsets package or inside a manual – we’re unlikely to give up the addiction, regardless of the costs.