San Francisco needs to reach out and touch reality on mobile phone radiation

John Stephenson Contributor
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Paul Kanter, a musician who helped found the pioneering psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane and a native of San Francisco, once said: “San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality.” There is a lot of evidence to back up Kanter’s statement. San Francisco has devised new ways to impose taxes on hotels. The city has also not been shy about regulating everything within its jurisdiction, from mandating composting to declaring a complete ban of McDonald’s Happy Meals. But nothing proves Kanter’s point more than San Francisco’s mobile phone labeling law.

In June 2010, San Francisco’s city council enacted a law requiring mobile phone retailers to display — in at least 11-point type — information about the phone’s specific absorption rate (SAR), the rate at which radio waves emitted by the phone are absorbed into the body’s tissue. Although the SAR can vary depending on the type of phone, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the federal agency that regulates the wireless industry, requires that all mobile phones sold in the U.S. have a SAR no greater than 1.6 watts per kilogram.

At the time the city enacted the ban, San Francisco officials said the goal of the law was to inform consumers. “It’s information that’s out there if you’re willing to look hard enough,” said Tony Winnicker, a spokesman for then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, at the time the city enacted the law. “And we think that for the consumer for whom this is an area of concern, it ought to be easier to find.”

But what was really driving the law was the government’s desire to placate a small but very vocal minority’s unshakable belief in a link between the radio waves emitted by mobile phones and brain cancer despite a clear lack of scientific evidence.

One of the strongest proponents of measures like San Francisco’s labeling law is a group called MobileWise, a charity based in the United Kingdom dedicated to “increasing public awareness of potential risks to children from using mobiles and the measures that can protect them.” The MobileWise website declares, “There is now a large and growing body of evidence suggesting mobile phone use might be harmful for children. The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined mobile phone radiation as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans.’”

MobileWise’s decision to cite the WHO is strange, since only months before its researchers released the results from a decade-long study undertaken by teams in 13 countries that found “no adverse health effects could be associated with the use of mobile phones.”

Whatever the reason behind the WHO’s reversal, what those from MobileWise to the city of San Francisco either don’t know or choose to ignore is the simple, scientific fact that radio waves, like those emitted by mobile phones, cannot physically cause cancer. Radio waves occupy the lower end of the electromagnetic spectrum and, therefore, are not as powerful as x-rays and ultraviolet rays and can’t produce the ionizing (atom-changing) radiation that can cause the mutations in human cells that form cancers.

More recent scientific studies have dismissed the mobile phone-brain cancer link. A study released last month by the Danish Institute for Cancer Epidemiology, which spanned 18 years and examined 350,000 mobile phone users, concluded that long-term exposure (13 years or more) to radio waves emitted by mobile phones did not lead to a higher incidence of cancer. One researcher, Hazel Nunn, head of evidence and health information at Cancer Research UK, described the study as “the strongest evidence yet that using a mobile phone does not seem to increase the risk of cancers of the brain or central nervous system in adults.” The FCC and the National Cancer Institute, the federal government’s cancer research agency, have reached similar conclusions.

So far, San Francisco is the only jurisdiction to enact such a labeling law. Although the law is being challenged in federal court, San Francisco is not the only government trying to enact such a law. Before San Francisco’s city council passed the ordinance, an even more wide-ranging bill was considered by the California State Senate before it was ultimately rejected. The Maine Legislature also rejected a bill in March 2010 that would have required mobile phones to have labeling similar to cigarettes.

What is so troubling about San Francisco’s mobile phone labeling law is that it is feeding an unjustified fear about technology. Much of the hyperbole from MobileWise and others about the threat of brain cancer from mobile phones borders on panic. At a time when Americans have lost a lot faith in government to check demagoguery and there is a clear need for rationality in decision-making, the last thing our society needs is government giving into irrationality and fueling a panic.

It is high time for San Francisco’s city government to put a stop to the fear and get in touch with reality about its cell phone labeling law. Of course, San Francisco can always do what it does best: continue to deny reality.

John Stephenson is director of the Telecommunications and Information Technology Task Force at the American Legislative Exchange Council.