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San Francisco considering cellphone warnings

Mayor Gavin Newsom plans to propose an ordinance that would require retailers to display radiation levels. Studies on the health risks are not conclusive, one environmental group acknowledges.

December 23, 2009|By Maria L. La Ganga

Reporting from San Francisco — San Francisco officials are debating whether to make this famously liberal city the first in the nation to require retailers to prominently post the amount of radiation emitted by cellphones.

Although there is no scientific consensus that the ubiquitous devices cause health problems, Mayor Gavin Newsom plans to call for an ordinance next month that would require the conspicuous display of radiation levels wherever the phones are sold.

Some hail the proposal as evidence of San Francisco's long tradition of environmental activism; this was the first city in America to ban plastic bags and prohibit a class of chemicals called phthalates from use in children's products. Others view the move as proof of the increasing nannification of government, or as one online critic said, "Thank Newsom we will be saved from our own dimwitted choices."

The city's Commission on the Environment has been drafting a series of recommendations, which include a call for the federal government to reevaluate its limits on cellphone radiation and require warning labels on cellphone packaging. The resolution passed its first hurdle last week.

The proposal credits France for inspiration, because that country's Senate "is considering legislation that would restrict the promotion and sale of cellphones for use by children and would require companies to offer headsets for each phone sold."

A few days after San Francisco's action, a state legislator in Maine introduced a bill to make the Pine Tree State the country's first to require that the phones themselves be labeled.

The bill calls for "a warning label that advises people that the device emits electromagnetic radiation and exposure could cause brain cancer," said Rep. Andrea Boland, a Democrat and the measure's author. "It goes on to say that users, especially children and pregnant women, should keep [cellphones] away from the head and body."

This bicoastal legislative targeting of mobile devices comes as policymakers and consumers await the results of Interphone, an international study of cellphone radiation and brain tumors.

Some components of the study -- the United States did not take part -- have been released, although full publication has been delayed.

"The short-term studies [in Interphone] generally did not find risk," said Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization. "The long-term studies did."

CTIA, the trade group representing cellphone makers, opposes the San Francisco plan. John Walls, the group's vice president for public affairs, said in a written statement that his industry has "always been guided by science and the views of impartial health organizations."

Walls, who would respond only via e-mail, said "the peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices do not pose a public health risk. In addition, there is no known mechanism for microwave energy within the limits established by the FCC to cause any adverse health effects."

The Environmental Working Group, which launched an online guide to radiation and wireless devices and published its own cautionary report in September, acknowledged that the most recent science "is not conclusive."

But the Washington, D.C.-based group, which is consulting with San Francisco on the city's proposed ordinance, believes that recent components of the Interphone study "raise serious issues about the cancer risk of cellphone use that must be addressed through further research."

The National Cancer Institute takes a similar cautious approach. Although studies "have not shown any consistent link between cellular telephone use and cancer," according to a statement on its website, "scientists feel that additional research is needed."

The Federal Communications Commission, with the Food and Drug Administration's support, has set limits for safe exposure to so-called radiofrequency energy -- the radiation emitted by a mobile phone and absorbed by the body.

The unit of measurement is called the specific absorption rate, or SAR, and the FCC limit is an SAR level of 1.6 watts per kilogram of body tissue.

"Any cellphone at or below these SAR levels -- that is, any phone legally sold in the U.S. -- is a 'safe' phone, as measured by these standards," according to the FCC website. The FCC did not return phone calls for comment.

The Environmental Working Group's online guide to radiation by cellphone models lists the Samsung Impression as the lowest emission model, with 0.35 watts per kilogram when held up to the ear.

The Motorola VU204, the T-Mobile myTouch 3G and the Kyocera Jax S1300 top the organization's list of phones with the highest radiation, emitting 1.55 watts per kilogram when held to the ear.

That's the kind of information that San Francisco officials want consumers to see when they are shopping for a mobile phone.

Newsom "believes this is the next frontier in terms of consumer safety," said Brian Purchia, the mayor's spokesman. "San Franciscans should have access to the same information given to the federal authorities about radiation from cellphones."

The mayor has no plans, however, to give up his iPhone.

In fact, the last thing the city wants to do is tell people that "they should stop using their cellphones," said Debbie Raphael, toxics reduction program manager for the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

"If you are worried," she said, "there's a lot you can do to minimize your exposure: You can use a headset, you can text, use a speakerphone or a land line."

maria.laganga@latimes.com

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