Moral Low Ground

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U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup Delays San Francisco Cell Phone Radiation Warning Law

A first-of its kind law that would require San Francisco wireless phone retailers to post radiation warnings has been delayed by a federal judge.

Moral Low Ground attended a hearing yesterday in San Francisco at which U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup asked to postpone implementation of the “Right to Know Ordinance”, set to go into effect on October 25, which would force wireless retailers to display posters, stickers and provide handouts detailing possible dangers, including cancer, of cell phone use. Deputy City Attorney Vince Chhabria agreed to the delay.

(Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt)

CTIA- The Wireless Association, a Washington-based lobby group that represents wireless manufacturers such as Apple, Google and Nokia, is seeking to sink the San Francisco law, calling the warnings, which show cell phones emitting red, orange and yellow rings by the head and groin of users, “alarmist,” “misleading” and “untrue.”

“The warnings will create uncertainty and fear and discourage the use and purchase of wireless products and services,” CTIA said in a statement.

Chhabria dismissed that assertion. “In this age of cell phone ubiquity, it strains credulity to speculate (as CTIA does) that the materials would cause consumers to forego cell phones altogether,” his filing stated. “After all, the materials inform people how to mitigate possible risks, so why, armed with these tips, would people want to forego the phones?”

Olga Milan-Howells, a concerned citizen who is backing the city’s ordinance, is not part of any “Right-to-Know” group. “But I have been a cell phone user for at least 10 years, and as such I do have the right to know,” she told me, disagreeing emphatically with the notion that people will stop buying wireless products because of the warnings. “The information will help me to take precautions such as using old-fashioned ear phones to decrease the chances of getting cancer or brain tumors,” she said.  “I would also use my land line whenever I am at home.”

At yesterday’s hearing, CTIA attorney Andrew McBride declared that “all phones are safe.” He argued that requiring warning labels about possible health risks would be akin to going to McDonald’s and seeing a warning poster declaring that “eating at a fast-food restaurant  is not consistent with a healthy lifestyle.”

“The city is setting the agenda, and that’s not right,” McBride asserted. “How many mothers are going to walk into a store and say ‘I’m not going to buy a phone for my 13-year-old daughter because of these warnings?'”

CTIA attorneys argued that the San Francisco law also violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment free speech rights because it forces wireless retailers to disseminate the city’s opinion. “The city has basically taken over the store to deliver its message,” McBride said. Chhabria dismissed these First Amendment concerns. “Our regulation is not triggered by speech, it is triggered by the sale of a product,” he argued. “It is a disclosure regulation.”

The industry lobbyists also point to Federal Communications Commission studies that concluded there is no scientific evidence linking cell phone use with cancer.

“The city’s conclusion that FCC-compliant cell phones are dangerous is well outside the scientific mainstream, highly controversial and in conflict with the statements and orders of the federal government,” a CTIA statement said.

But the city points to World Health Organization (WHO) research that found cell phone usage can increase possible cancer risk. The WHO lists cell phone use in the same “carcinogenic risk” category as lead, engine exhaust and chloroform. The European Environmental Agency says that more studies are needed and that cell phones could be as big a public health risk as smoking, asbestos and leaded gasoline.

When you look at cancer development — particularly brain cancer — it takes a long time to develop. I think it is a good idea to give the public some sort of warning that long-term exposure to radiation from your cell phone could possibly cause cancer,” University of Washington researcher Dr. Henry Lai, who has studied radiation for more than 30 years, told CNN.

Of particular concern are the effects of radiation on the brains of children.

“Children’s skulls and scalps are thinner. So the radiation can penetrate deeper into the brain of children and young adults. Their cells are at a dividing faster rate, so the impact of radiation can be much larger,”  Dr. Keith Black, chairman of neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told CNN.

The subject of radiation’s effects on children came up during yesterday’s court hearing, with Judge Alsup, who said he knows a thing or two about radio frequencies, questioning the scientific basis of children’s developing brains and think skulls increasing cancer risk. Alsup was dismissive of the WHO in a manner more reminiscent of a Texas Republican who doesn’t believe in evolution than of an impartial judge.

“They’re just the WHO,” he remarked, drawing a murmur from the public gallery. “Where to they get off contradicting the FCC?” He seemed to be saying: “USA good… world bad.”

Still, when Alsup asked if Chhabria could cite “one case where someone’s gotten cancer” from using a wireless device, the city attorney could only reply that “it can’t be proven either way.”

“You can’t prove that a single person in the history of the universe has gotten cancer from a cell phone,” Alsup declared. “Anything’s possible… It’s possible UFOs could come down,” he added dismissively.

Yes, it is possible. But that’s another story…

 

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