Fast Company

San Francisco's Cell Phone Radiation Law: Fear or Science?

cellphone radiationSan Francisco's cell phone radiation signage law has passed, ready to scare and confuse consumers about the so-called dangers of phones. Why is it confusing? Because there's no scientific consensus that a problem even exists.

As the The New York Times report about the new law notes, it's being heralded as a victory for the consumer by politicians including mayor Gavin Newsom. The actual requirement is that retailers must display a note next to the sales detail of every phone (in a font of at least 11 points high) that describes the specific absorption rate--SAR--of the device. Backers of the legislation see this as a great thing, as it'll inform consumers of the "risks" of using a particular phone, in the same way that warning labels on cigarettes or foods work.

But the new labeling law creates an illusion that some phones are "safer" while other phones are more "dangerous." There is no conclusive proof that cell phone radiation of any intensity, big or small, causes harm to humans. What's more, the average member of the public won't know what SAR figures mean, and just sees a number that somehow relates to health and danger: Explaining that it's a measure of electromagnetic radiation power absorbed per kilo of body tissue is beyond the purview of a tiny sign in a store display.

Let's look at what we do know. The most recent large-scale study, dubbed Interphone, which hit the news just last month, was based on long-term usage studies in several nations. While it found a correlation between elevated cell phone usage and certain types of brain cancer, there was no causal link established--meaning that other aspects of the lifestyle of the patients may also be the root cause. And another study, published in January, actually found a positive link between cell phone radiation and improvements in the brain function of mice suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Meanwhile, a different study that hit the news two years ago suggested that cell phone radiation may adversely affect sleep patterns.

This lack of consensus is what permits the San Francisco law to exist. It also lets companies sell devices like the WaveShield, which notionally protects "your family" from the radio waves emanating from your phone by somehow diverting them away from your head "without affecting the call quality"--the scientific explanation for this mechanism is unclear. The best description of the situation is perhaps this meaningful quote from an episode of This American Life given by neuroscientist Leif Salford: "This is really the largest biological experiment ever, because we don't know what the long-term effects are going to be" from extended cell phone use by so many people around the world.

The conspiratorially minded among you might wonder whether the scientific study confusion is being sown by people with a stake in the outcome--that is to say, cell phone manufacturers. And given the possibility that there is a danger from cell phone radiation, you may as well use speaker phone or a headset when making calls. But the new labeling law relates to a perceived danger that is scientifically unsubstantiated, and instead is founded more on fear (or perhaps fear of litigation).

Will it help consumers in any way? Probably not. And cell phone manufacturers are sure to mount a challenge to the law as misrepresenting their products.

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7 Comments

  • Winston Court

    Everyone does realize that the frequencies of radio waves which are used by cell phones have many of the same qualities as those frequencies of radio waves your microwave oven uses, right? And, among those qualities is the quality to cook food, or specifically meat! Although the power levels that phones emit are only a small fraction of the power levels used in microwave ovens, I would personally consider it nice to know the levels the phones are emitting. And, yes, those levels might influence my purchases of phones. One example would be, in the city with easy access to cell towers, why not go with the lowest possible emission levels and worry about my health. However, if I lived in a remote location I would have to accept higher levels and use a bluetooth device to keep the phone away. But yes, I think the cell makers should have the radiation levels available for their phones. If not a sticker right on the phone, then the phones documentation should contain these specifications. And, there should be standards in play, so one phone can be compared against another in a meaningful way. As, I would highly suspect that cell manufacturers would want to play games with these figures. But, figure it out for yourself. The cost of cell phone manufacturers to provide this data would amount to a penny or two per phone, so why are they so loath to provide the data? And, yes, I do know there are federal regulations which set allowable levels. Having been involved in industries utilizing various levels of radio frequencies in the microwave bands, I am also aware that these levels of radiation allowed are MUCH TOO HIGH, in my opinion. And, maybe cooking your head will cause cancer, maybe it won't, and once your head is cooked, maybe you won't care. ROFLOL

  • XSportSeeker

    Well, considering how scare tactics, misinformation or information put in the wrong context is a huge commodity these days, I'm shure publicity companies will make good use of that too.
    I'm thinking nutricion facts, megapixels on cellphone cams, organic and overall "green" labels among several other types of information that has been put in products over the years. Some of these are real but useless to the overall uninformed consumer, some of these are pure misinformation.
    All in all, on the bright side, that radiation might not be proven harmful, but I'm pretty shure it isn't really benefic to our organisms... so this might create a push for companies to reduce it, which isn't really bad.
    Problem is that lots of consumers might elect them as prime point when choosing what to buy, overlooking other far more important items...

  • rintile

    I'm impressed that they are the 1st in North America to do this. In fact the truth is already out there and most people don't want to believe it's true. Tink about it if cell phone companies and governments admit this is true they will be sued, remember what smokers and non smokers did. We have a family of lab proven devices that work. In fact tested against most of the competition to be the only one that works. Since 2002 these products have been sold across Europe and are now available in the USA and Canada, The website is full of information that proves what radiation(microwave and radiowave) does to our blood and bodies in only 5 minutes. Even driving in a hybrid car effects us in the same way.
    Memon Transformers has the answers and solutions.
    www.memonyourharmony.com

  • Marni Andrews

    I think the new law is fantastic. As I'm a writer, when I was looking to buy my smartphone last year, I researched and found a list of SAR ratings of phones and ended up with the BB Storm in large part because it ranked as one of the lowest for emissions. I passed on the iPhone for the same reason. While the cell phone usage study conclusions may be somewhat inconclusive at the moment, remember that it's only been about a decade since people started using these things really heavily (as cell plans became cheaper and telecommunications infrastructures in the developed world were built out). I think history will show that this fullscale rush to have phones stuck to our heads for large parts of the day and widescale wireless blanketing of many urban areas will prove very foolish as usage studies WILL confirm a linkage between use and occurrence of brain tumors, etc. The type of tumor that Ted Kennedy died from, a glioma, has been linked with heavy usage in studies out of Europe.

    Why would anyone be decrying this law to offer consumers choice in an area that is so new that no one can say cell phones are safe? At least one generation of use, I think, will be needed to provide the necessary data. In the meantime, why not be safe rather than sorry? Oh, and by the way, for the commenter who sarcastically mentioned power lines, etc., it's well documented that there are more birth defects and "irregularities" nearest power lines. Generally homes located nearest to them sell for less than other homes because of this reason.

    Wake up and let the conspiracy theories go. This is about free choice, which I thought was an integral tenet of democracy? I'm a Canadian and a libertarian, but I fully support legislation in areas such as this where the consumer has been given no choice to avoid wireless saturation in many cases and where there's darn little information being provided in the supposedly objective media about possible dangers in such an area like this. Thank god that some legislators are long-term thinkers rather than just concerned about the next two- or four-year election cycle.

    The Hegelian dialectic suggests that ideas go through the process of first being proposed (thesis) then ridiculed (antithesis) until they achieve some sort of stasis somewhere in the middle (synthesis). The world is involved in a very large situation of antithesis regarding the cell phone industry. Until I hear differently, I use my phone as infrequently as possible and make sure it sits at least 8 inches from me when on my desk. I also use a plugged-in phone in my bedroom rather than a cordless since all cordless phones above 900 MHz emit radiation at all times, not just when in use. I suspect I'll have the last laugh on this issue.
    M.

  • Chris Reich

    This piece reminds me of every "keep the government out of my life" twitch written in the last 30 years. Can't smoke in a bar? Why there's no proof that second hand smoke harms anyone. Global warming? Al Gore and his scare tactics will put us in the stone age. Pollution? Mother Nature can take care any so-called pollution man makes. Have you been to Alaska? You wouldn't know any oil ever spilled there! Now we're not supposed to eat meat because of "bad cholesterol"? What's next? "Sugar"?!

    While the jury is indeed out whether there is a direct correlation of cell phone use to brain cancer, there is no doubt cell phones are making people dumber. I see them in the grocery store calling home to ask what to buy for dinner. They post pictures of that dinner and the cat on their Facebook page taken with their I-Phone purchased for "work". The same people will cause 100 accidents sending text messages on their way to work today.

    No, I think warning about brain damage and cell phone use is a good thing.

    Now, where did I leave my cell phone?

    Chris Reich
    www.Teachu.com

  • C Mac

    So what’s next, microwave ovens??? What about landlords with apartments or home near power lines??? Should Wal-Mart and Century 21 now be required to display the amounts of radiation from products they sell??? US government interference is swinging far to the left.