The World Is Watching San Francisco on Cell Phones

Three years ago, San Francisco passed the Cell Phone Right to Know Act, requiring phone sellers to tell consumers about safer uses of phones prior to purchasing them. At that time, Israel, U.K. and France had taken similar steps and the average age at which a child got a cell phone was 16; today most 10 year olds have phones. New scientific studies published since 2010 only strengthen the case for giving people information about ways to reduce their exposures to microwave radiation. Now all smart phones actually contain warnings, often deeply embedded within the devices themselves that are worded like those that the city proposes to make public through this law.

After years of legal wrangling the City stands poised to cave. At this moment, the federal courts have found that the public's right to know is trumped by industry's right not to be compelled to provide information about their product. While the city may have lost in the court of law, it has won in the court of public opinion and in the actions of industry itself.

Since the City passed this law more than two dozen sophisticated nations have issued advisories to their citizens to use headsets and speakerphones and protect children and pregnant women. Looked at from the point of view of what we know now and what has happened on this issue around the world the City's law looks prescient, courageous and right on the money. Since then, an expert group of the World Health Organization has deemed cellphone and other wireless radiation a "probable human carcinogen," and many studies have found that cell phone radiation can damage men's ability to become fathers and the brains and behavior of children whose mothers are exposed.

In fact, the Federal Communications Commission itself has shifted and issued a notice that it would consider the mounting evidence on cell phone risks on the late afternoon of Good Friday, March 29, when much of American media was decidedly out to lunch. In 1996, the last time the standards for cell phones were set cicadas flooded Washington DC streets and parks, gas cost $1.22 a gallon, and a stamp was 32 cents.

Gas prices are not the only things that have changed quite a bit in the past two decades. The users of cell phones are much younger and smaller and the uses of these devices are also radically different than when our approach was last laid down. Radiation from these two-way microwave radios was tested originally for military and medical adult male users, weighing well over 200 pounds having 11 pound heads. Plastic baby rattle iPhone cases and thousands of apps for infants and toddlers could not have been imagined back then.

In a world that has more cell phones than people, today's testing methods are grossly outdated. A recent Nielsen survey finds that American teenage girls talk about 750 minutes a month, send more than 7,000 text messages, and often keep radiating phones next to their ovaries or under their pillows. European researchers report that those who start using phones as teenagers have 4 to 8 times more brain tumors within a decade.

Phones are not tested as most of us use them--in the shirt or pants pockets--but only when kept about half an inch or more off the body. Industry studies find microwave radiation exposures can be four to eight times higher when kept next to the body than when held about an inch from it --the mandated distance. Eyeglasses, metal cases, earrings, or wired bras can all change the amount of radiation absorbed.

San Francisco's law made sense at the time it was passed and makes more sense now. And even if the city decides to stop reinforcing this particular law, they still have the power to inform the public through ad campaigns that rely on old and new social media. The City can carry out its responsibilities to protect public health in this instance, just as it does by issuing no smoking signs and advisories about bike safety.

Smart phone manufacturers understand this and now include fine print (or deeply embedded) warnings to keep phones off the body. Apple advises that iPhones are tested and should be used--at least 10 millimeters away--advice that can be found within the phone by going to settings/general/about/legal/radiofrequency radiation. Blackberry urges its users to keep phones an inch from the body and avoid exposure to the pregnant or teenage abdomen.

Based on these and other developments, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Environmental Medicine have also issued precautionary advice about phones and other wireless devices. Israel, France and Finland are among those nations urging that phones be used with speakerphones or headsets, that wired connections are safer, faster and more secure. And following in the footsteps of France, Belgium and Turkey have banned sales and advertising of phones for young children.

It's about time that the FCC is asking whether it makes sense to rely on 20th century methods to handle 21st century technology. We are paying the heavy price now for having delayed efforts to control tobacco and asbestos.

San Francisco is taking steps to see that we do not go through a similar experience with cellphones and can and should protect public health on this matter using whatever tools are available to do so.