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Wireless industry attorney: San Francisco phone law 'laughable'

CTIA attorney urges judge to freeze city ordinance requiring phone retailers to disclose possible health risks. San Francisco stands by its law, saying people should be educated about ways to reduce risk.

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Updated at 12:56 p.m. PT: with additional information and background

An attorney representing the wireless industry said Thursday that San Francisco's attempt at educating the public about cell phone radiation was "laughable," asking the court to put a hold on the city's ordinance requiring cell phone merchants to distribute the materials until the industry is able to challenge the information.

The city's representatives continued to stand behind the ordinance, adopted in 2010, that created these fact sheets.

The two sides laid out their arguments before a judge during a hearing in the federal appeals court in San Francisco on Thursday regarding a preliminary injunction to stop the city temporarily from forcing retailers to distribute the sheets.

Andrew McBride, who represents CTIA, the group lobbying on behalf of the wireless industry, said fact sheets created by the city to caution consumers about cell phone radiation were misleading and would force retailers to convey a message with which they disagree.

"To call this a fact sheet is almost laughable, it's like calling the Communist Manifesto a treaty on economics," McBride told the court.

San Francisco Dep. City Attorney Vince Chhabria rejected the CTIA's description of the law and said the language on the fact sheet tells people there is a possible risk and also suggests ways they can reduce their exposure to potential radiation.

"They're saying we can't do that unless we can proved somebody has actually died?" he said.

Chhabria pointed to California's Prop. 65, which requires the state to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm. Businesses must label products or post warnings if a businesses knows or thinks that a listed chemical has been used.

Chhabria gave the example of Starbucks, which has to post a warning since a chemical produced in the coffee-making process is known to cause cancer.

McBride said the materials created by the city are not that same as a warning label on food. He said the materials are alarming, telling people to limit cell phone use for children. He continued to argue that he should have a chance to argue the merits of the revised materials before they go out to the public.

The court is expected to issue its decision soon. Depending on what the judges decide, the parties could take the matter to the Supreme Court of California or go back to the district court to continue their arguments.

The case's outcome will affect how cities and states across the nation handle the controversial issue of cell phone radiation and its possible health effects. Several pieces of legislation have been proposed, including one for a federal law.

CITA filed the suit after the city and county of San Francisco approved the Right to Know ordinance, an ordinance requiring cell phone merchants to post informational notices on radio frequency (RF) exposure and offer fact sheets to consumers who request them.

The original ordinance -- which required retailers to inform customers of a phone's Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) when they purchase a phone, and distribute materials educating consumers about cell phone radiation -- upset the CITA. The industry group filed suit against San Francisco, alleging the law was unconstitutional because only the FCC and FDA have oversight over radio frequency emissions, and that the SAR provision was misleading to consumers and that it infringed on the First Amendment rights of retailers.

San Francisco officials revised its ordinance as a result of the CITA's lawsuit, but cell phone industry reps voiced concern again.

Ultimately, a U.S. district court judge ruled in favor of the city while also scaling down the materials required to be distributed under the law. This outcome prompted both the CITA and San Francisco to appeal the case.