San Francisco has once again waded into a controversial debate by passing novel legislation. Is the city crying wolf or protecting its citizens?

There have long been safety warnings on dangerous products, like cigarettes and alcohol. Now, in San Francisco at least, there are also warnings on cell phones.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted ten to one yesterday in favor of a law that would require cell phone retailers to disclose the amount of radiation emitted by their cell phones. Mayor Gavin Newsom has indicated that he will sign the law. The law requires retailers to notify customers of the specific absorption rate, or SAR, of each cell phone. SAR measures the maximum amount of radiation absorbed by a person using a handset. The Federal Communications Commission limits SAR to an average of 1.6 watts per kilogram of body tissue. Information concerning SAR emissions, however, is not usually readily available to people who purchase cell ephones in stores.

San Francisco has recently been on the cutting edge of environmental and consumer protection. This is the first law in the nation mandating the disclosure of information about cell phone emissions. The city also recently enacted regulations banning plastic grocery bags, ending municipal use of bottled water, making composting mandatory, and requiring the posting of nutritional information in restaurants.

Reaction to the law has been mixed. The Environmental Working Group, an organization that releases studies every year on the radiation levels emitted by cell phones, supports the measure. Alex Formuzis, director of communications for the EWG hopes that the law leads cell phone manufacturers to build lower emitting devices and told E-Commerce Times that “having this information at the point of sale will be a tremendous educational tool.”

The wireless industry, which lobbied hard against the passage of the law, argues that a warning or label on cell phones will only serve to confuse consumers. Some have pointed out that cell phone emissions already have to adhere to the standards set by the FCC, which have been judged to be safe levels of radiation. The new law, they argue, will give consumers the false impression that some phones are safer than others.

Then of course there is the fact that the connection between cell phone use and brain cancer remains unproven. John Walls, a spokesperson for industry trade group CTIA-The Wireless Association, complained that the city was “responding to unfounded concern.” Harvard University Instructor David Ropeik, who studies risk perception, also questioned the need for the law and the motives behind it. “This is a response to public fear, not actual evidence of risk,” Ropeik said.

The scientific results concerning the dangers of cell phone radiation are as varied as the reaction to the law. A United Nations study released last month found no clear link between cell phones and developing brain cancer. In May of this year, however, a study released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer suggested that cell phone use for as little as thirty minutes may increase the chances of getting a brain tumor. Lawsuits brought by plaintiffs claiming to have been harmed by cell phone emissions have also met with mixed results.

The important question, of course, for both consumer and industry advocates is whether or not the warnings will have any impact on consumer choice. Many of the most popular cell phones, including smart phones, have the relatively high SAR levels. Would you base what kind of cell phone you buy on radiation levels? Would anyone?

Jeremy Francis

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