San Francisco’s City Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday to revoke an extremely controversial statute — the first of its kind in the U.S. — that would have mandated health warnings to customers for mobile phones. Specifically, the law would have required retailers to inform consumers about the potential threat of cancer due to radiation levels from these devices.
Of course, this didn’t please the CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association). The organization — which includes companies like Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Samsung and Apple — sued to block the ordinance, claiming it violated the group’s right to free speech. Exactly how that legal argument would’ve ultimately fared may never be known. Facing an enormous legal battle that could’ve easily escalated into a half million dollars, the city’s leaders settled the case by yanking the ordinance.
The issue is that the city couldn’t prove a consensus regarding the potential threat posed by cell phone usage. The scientific community has long been divided about officially classifying radiation from cell phones a genuine health hazard. At most, the World Health Organization cancer experts call it “possibly carcinogenic.”
But research like that of Dr. Gabriel Zada is also hard to ignore. A neurosurgery professor at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, Dr. Zada conducted a 2012 study that examined malignant brain tumors. In the areas closest to where people hold their phones, incidences of tumors rose sharply from 1992 and 2006 in California. However, even Dr. Zada wouldn’t draw conclusions about any direct ties between cell phones and cancer.
As it stands, mobile devices are required to conform to Federal Communications Commission standards to make sure emissions fall within official safety limits. Every phone in the U.S. must be deemed safe by the FCC before it can be sold. But those guidelines were set 17 years ago, long before modern smartphones entered the market. Not only have technologies advanced, but the studies didn’t account for common usage scenarios, like carrying the devices in pockets while using an earbud, says a Government Accountability Office report.
Prior to this recent development, the FCC said last month that it would consider revising its 1996 standards. But even if the commission moves forward on that, it would take time before those findings could affect policy.
While legislators and scientists hesitate to alarm the public, change can’t come too soon for the Environmental Working Group, which advocated for the right-to-know law. “If the nation’s experience with tobacco taught us anything,” says Renee Sharp, EWG’s research director, “it is that it is dangerous to wait until there is scientific consensus about a potential health threat before providing consumers with information on how they can protect themselves.”