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Cell phone radiation and the law that died

San Francisco was right to shelve its law requiring retailers to post a cell phone's SAR. But as the debate continues, the CTIA's reaction will be telling.

The strange tale of San Francisco's "Right to Know" ordinance finally came to an end last week when city officials permanently shelved the legislation in its current form. Indeed, it was a quiet end to a groundbreaking law that drew not only worldwide interest, but also the fervent opposition of the wireless industry.

Passed almost a year ago, the ordinance would have required cell phone retailers to display a cell phone's Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) at the point of sale and make available consumer information materials on cell phone radiation. The law (PDF) was the first of its kind in the country and it significantly influenced the ongoing debate over whether cell phones could be hazardous to your health. Other cities, a few states, and even a handful of countries began to contemplate similar legislation, and public health groups used the ordinance to press for more research.

That might have been the end of it, but the ordinance quickly drew a lawsuit from the wireless industry's lobbying arm in Washington, D.C. The CTIA also moved its annual trade show to San Diego and threatened that the city could be liable for any legal fees if the trade group won its suit. So after delaying the implementation several times and holding two closed-door meetings with the city attorney's office, a new board of supervisors consisting partially of members who never voted on the measure in the first place changed its mind. City officials won't offer specifics, but it's clear that they decided the ordinance wasn't worth the trouble.

After almost 20 years living in San Francisco, I was surprised the city backed down. San Francisco has, after all, never shied away from controversial laws, whether or not they lead to change in other places. And in banning things like Happy Meals, plastic bags, and bottled water from city-owned vending machines, the mayor and the board have often pressed ahead despite legal challenges and jokes from late-night talk show hosts. This time, however, things were different. And though Supervisor John Avalos has promised to introduce revised legislation, there's little doubt that the SAR labeling mandate is gone for good.

In fact, it was the SAR provision that induced the CTIA's most intense ire. The organization argued that the city was misleading customers by encouraging them to consider a phone's SAR when making a decision. And in that sense, the CTIA was not off-base. There is no guarantee that a phone with a lower SAR is inherently safer. More importantly, the SAR listed in a phone's user manual and in CNET's cell phone radiation charts is the highest possible number that the handset reached during FCC tests. During a call, however, the phone may never reach that amount and the SAR can change constantly depending on the frequency used and your distance to the tower. So while buying a phone with a lower SAR may make you feel better, we don't know that it really is. Even Devra Davis, an environmental health researcher who's been one of the most forceful advocates for more research, told me last year in an interview that, "I don't think it's a bad idea, but I don't think it's a guarantee."

By including the SAR mandate in the ordinance, San Francisco pretty much doomed the legislation the moment it passed. Instead of simply making consumers aware of radio frequency energy and encouraging them to educate themselves on possible effects, the city treaded dangerously close to interpreting science on which there is little consensus. Granted, the legislation didn't say that a lower phone SAR was safer, but the supplemental materials that were to be made available to consumers didn't offer the proper context as to what a SAR really means.

So, no, the SAR mandate wasn't the best course of action. Yet, I've always thought the "Are cell phones dangerous or not debate?" is one worth having. What's more, the CTIA's reaction to the ordinance was rather extreme. Suing the city was one thing, but moving the trade show just seemed rather petty. The organization also argued that the law infringed on the First Amendment rights of cell phone retailers by forcing them to give out information. That's pretty ridiculous considering that we see consumer warnings on products all time time. True, things like cigarettes have been proven to be dangerous, but issuing such warnings isn't an unprecedented role for government to take

In the end, the CTIA wants to have it both ways. It doesn't want consumers to consider a phone's SAR except to remember that anything under 1.6 watts per kilogram is considered safe by the FCC. But in an upcoming special report from CNET news writer Marguerite Reardon, she points out that the SAR may be based on outdated information. The actual rating system comes from animal behavioral studies conducted in the 1980s and it's not based on any biological studies that would show changes at the actual cellular level, something that some scientists question. The CTIA also says it favors more research, but I don't see an honest conversation about the issue beyond "Don't worry, the FCC says they're safe!" Yes, some studies suggest that they are, but others cast doubt.

So in the end, the Right to Know ordinance was a tale of a poorly written piece of legislation. But San Francisco will be back for more and states and other cities will follow with watered-down versions (California is one). Until we know more (and I realize that we may never get there), government needs to be careful when legislating on this issue. And the CTIA needs to recognize that public concerns can't be stopped with a lawsuit.