Cell Phones -- Read the Fine Print

Last week the technology world stood on notice as a fiercely independent state legislator bucked the Maine political establishment and proposed to place visible warning labels on cell phones.
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Last week the technology world stood on notice as a fiercely independent state legislator, Democrat Andrea Boland, bucked the Maine political establishment and proposed to place visible warning labels directly on cell phones. "Cell phones emit electromagnetic radiation, exposure to which may increase the risk of brain cancer. Users, especially pregnant women and children, should reduce their exposure."

In the nineteenth century, the outcome of September's state-wide elections in Maine regularly predicted November's national results, giving rise to the statement, "As goes Maine, so goes the nation." Whether this remarkable modern effort in Maine presages a national turn of events remains to be determined, but in fact, it is consistent with similar efforts around the world, including a recent resolution of the European Parliament and national advisories issued in Finland, France, Israel, England, Russia, and China.

Across the country in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsome, who first became interested in cell phone radiation when his wife was expecting their first child, is proposing a much more modest requirement -- that retailers post information on the amount of radiation cell phones emit -- called the Specific Absorption Ratio(SAR). In fact, buying a lower SAR phone and using it (as many do) for hours a day held next to the head, will not protect the user from exposure, and may well increase the risk of brain tumors, neurological disorders, memory loss. Of course, many legislatures are acting to eliminate the most immediate risk of cell phone use -- car crashes.

The Cellular Telecommunications and Industry Association (CTIA) opposes providing warning labels that can easily be seen on cell phones. In fact, Boland's proposal makes it more likely that the harried public will actually see what the manufacturers of phones have quietly begun to tell us. New phones today come with warnings that few ever see, advising that the phone be kept some distance from the body -- the Motorola V 195 has a restriction of one inch, the Blackberry 8300 0.98 inches, the Nokia 1100 one-fourth of an inch, and the iPhone five eighths of an inch. In addition, several of these phones include statements that "phones SHOULD NOT be used or carried on the body."

A warning found on a pamphlet for the HTC Eris Droid cell phone from Verizon, recommends " that no part of the human body be allowed to come too close to the antenna during operation of the equipment," found on page 11 of the phone's "Product Safety and Warranty Information" booklet. A customer query about this was referred to an online appendix which explained on page 219: "To comply with RF exposure requirements, a minimum separation distance of 1.5 cm must be maintained between the user's body and the handset, including the antenna."

When the urbane Dane Snowden, Vice President for External and State Affairs of the CTIA, was asked at the Maine committee hearing by Representative Peter Stuckey to explain why cell phone manuals included such warnings today, he replied he would have to get back to the committee. Snowden certainly has experience with consumer matters, having previously served as Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission.
In fact, standards for cell phones were set in 1997, at a time when few people owned phones, and were based on a six foot tall man weighing two hundred pounds with an eleven pound head, who talked for six minutes. The warnings found deep inside the packaging of all modern phones today use this same big guy model. Today three out of every four twelve year olds have a phone, as do half of all ten year olds.

For the past decade, there has been no independent research underway on cell phones in the U.S. and there is no ongoing health surveillance, a subject about which I and others testified at the U.S. Senate Hearings in September held by Senators Harkin and Specter. In countries where phones have been used more heavily and for longer periods of time, independent scientists have found four-fold increased risks of brain tumors in those who began to use phones regularly as teen-agers. Others have found doubled risks in adults who are long term users.

The tough-minded and forward-looking Boland argues that her bill does nothing other than mandate that the public be able to read what cell phone companies are softly saying in fine print within their manuals. "Industry is doing the least they can. They are printing the tiniest notices buried deep within manuals in packaging that nobody keeps. All this does is bring the phone to a point where it just barely passes the standard emission allowed for large men and cannot protect children, pregnant women, and the rest of us."

Representative Boland takes her job as citizen legislator seriously. She and other members of the Maine Senate and House are appalled by the disingenuous of the industry. CTIA has countered her proposed bill, by bringing in the top gun lobbyists of the state to crush the effort. Their health experts invoke decades old research on outmoded cell phones as providing assurance that new phones are safe. The Maine state legislature may well catch up with the state of science around the world today. They all just may be surprised.