SF tries again with cell phone radiation law

After an industry lawsuit forced it to shelve a sweeping cell phone radiation law passed last year, San Francisco is back with amended legislation.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
3 min read

Almost three months after it shelved a controversial cell phone radiation law, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is keeping the issue alive, but adopting a different strategy for doing so.

At its meeting tomorrow, the board will vote on amended legislation that would require retailers in the city to post informational notices on radiofrequency (RF) exposure and offer fact sheets to consumers that request them. Proposed by Supervisor John Avalos, the revamped "Right to Ordinance" won unanimous approval last week from the board's City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee.

An Avalos spokeswoman told CNET that the ordinance is designed to provide basic information to consumers about RF energy and ways to limit exposure without declaring whether cell phone use is dangerous. "It's about the public having the right to know this information," said Frances Hsieh, a legislative aide. "This is public information and we want to make sure that folks are aware."

As it was originally written (PDF) and passed by the board last year, the ordinance would also have required retailers to post the specific absorption rate (SAR) of each phone sold in the store. It was the first law of its kind in the country, and it won praise from environmental groups and spawned similar legislation in states and other cities.

Yet, it also raised the ire of the CTIA, the wireless industry's lobbying arm in Washington, D.C. In addition to moving its annual trade show to San Diego, the organization quickly sued San Francisco on the grounds that the ordinance was unconstitutional, it was misleading to consumers, and that it infringed on the First Amendment rights of retailers. City officials subsequently delayed the ordinance's implementation date several times before finally putting it on hold on May 6.

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Ellen Marks, the director of government and public affairs for the Environmental Health Trust, supports the amended language even after strongly lobbying for the original SAR provision. "Now, especially in light of the World Health Organization classifying cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen based on studies proving long-term use causes lethal brain tumors, this legislation is most definitely warranted," she wrote in an e-mail. "Consumers have the right to know at the point of sale this device emits RF energy, which is absorbed by the head and body, and the precautionary steps they and their children can take to use the device safely."

The CTIA, however, continues to oppose the ordinance. Gerry Keegan, the CTIA's director of external and state affairs, attended Tuesday's committee meeting where he argued that the law places an undue burden to retailers and that it's unnecessary since all cell phones sold in the United States currently meet federal standards for RF safety.

"With no explanation, the proposed San Francisco ordinance assumes the [Federal Communication Commission's] national standards are not sufficient," he said in a statement. "If the ordinance is passed, employees would be required to explain scientific information and answer any questions from consumers about this issue...In addition, the ordinance misleads consumers by creating a negative perception of a product that already complies with federal standards and is deemed to be safe by the FCC and FDA."

Hsieh, however, disputed those points. Instead of forcing retailers to develop the fact sheets, they will be made available, and will be prepared and carefully reviewed by the San Francisco Department of the Environment. "The department is making sure the materials are consistent and available," she said. "Retailers are only required to make them issue them to consumers upon request."

Update on Tuesday, July 19 at 8:30 p.m. PT: At its June 19 meeting, the 11-member board unanimously passed the revised resolution.