A handful of U.S. cities may follow San Francisco’s example in trying to make information on mobile- phone radiation levels readily available to consumers, setting the stage for a broader showdown with the wireless industry.
San Francisco aims to become the first city in the country to require large wireless retailers to prominently display a device’s specific absorption rate, which measures how much energy emitted by a phone is absorbed by the body. The ordinance goes into effect on Feb. 1, unless it’s stopped in the courts.
Lawmakers in Oregon and the California cities of Burlingame and Arcata have expressed interest in similar ordinances. The possible regulations underscore growing speculation that long- term use of mobile phones increases the risk of certain types of cancer, even though the Federal Communication Commission declares the devices it approves to be safe.
“We ought to seriously consider following San Francisco’s lead,” said Michael Brownrigg, a lawmaker in Burlingame, 15 miles south of San Francisco. The city council plans to review medical and industry research relating to mobile-phone emissions next month. “For some consumers, this will be helpful information to have.”
In Jackson, Wyoming, the mayor has declared October “Cell Phone Awareness Month” and urges citizens to learn about potential health risks.
The CTIA wireless association, which represents carriers, phone makers and suppliers, filed a lawsuit July 23 in federal court in San Francisco, seeking to scrap the law, saying the city is “unlawfully interfering” with the FCC’s authority.
The ordinance, “by conveying a misleading impression about the relative safety of wireless phones, will hinder -- rather than assist -- consumers in making their choices,” CTIA said in announcing the lawsuit.
“It could certainly have a purchasing impact” because it may push some consumers to seek phones with lower emissions, said John Walls, vice president of public affairs at CTIA.
In Portland, Oregon, State Senator Chip Shields is drafting a phone-labeling bill that may be similar to San Francisco’s. The Arcata city council listened to public comments last month on a labeling draft ordinance submitted by Councilmember Shane Brinton.
Arcata’s staff also will investigate the matter. The city, home to about 18,000 residents and Humboldt State University, is located in the northern part of California.
“San Francisco has stepped forward, and we should step forward as well,” Brinton said during a council meeting. One of his proposals would go further than San Francisco by potentially adding explicit health warnings to phone labels.
A study released in May by the International Agency for Research on Cancer found no link between mobile-phone use and brain cancer. Still, Christopher Wild, director of the Lyon, France-based agency, said further investigation is merited. About a quarter of the study’s funding came from the wireless industry.
“Consumers have a right to know whether they are buying the phone with the lowest -- or the highest -- level of exposure to cell-phone radiation,” U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Ohio, said in a June statement. He plans to introduce a national bill stipulating warning labels on phones.
Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit public-health and environment advocacy organization, lists emissions levels of more than 1,000 models on its website and offers recommendations on “safer” phones. The level of the specific absorption rate, or SAR, varies widely among devices on its lists.
With phones like HTC Corp.’s Nexus One, Motorola Inc.’s Droid and Research In Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry Bold 9700, “consumers pay a hidden price: exposure to the highest legal levels of cell-phone radiation,” Washington, D.C.-based EWG said.
Keith Nowak, a Bellevue, Washington-based spokesman for HTC, said his company ensures that phones follow safety standards.
“All HTC products meet all international guidelines for cell-phone emission,” he said.
The same is true of Motorola, according to Juli Burda, a spokeswoman for the Schaumburg, Illinois-based company.
“Although SAR values for products vary, all SAR values for Motorola products are within safe exposure limits, and all products are considered equally safe,” she said in an e-mailed statement.
Samsung Electronics Co. had five of the 10 phones that the group listed as having the least radiation, including its Rugby and Memoir models. The Sanyo Katana II had the lowest level.
Samsung declined to comment on SAR ratings. RIM, which makes the BlackBerry, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The U.S. District Court will likely hear the case by next summer, Jonathan Kramer, principal attorney at Kramer Telecom Law Firm in Los Angeles, said in an interview. A federal appeal, if it follows, could add another six months, he said.
The CTIA may seek to delay the ordinance’s implementation until trial, Kramer said. If the wireless association succeeds in blocking the law, it may set a precedent for makers of other products -- from computers to semiconductors -- to withhold public information from labels and stores, Kramer said.
If the association’s lawsuit fails, “some other cities will probably adopt similar ordinances,” he said.
San Francisco wants to make information that’s already public more readily available, because it’s often difficult to find now, City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in an interview.
“The ordinance affords consumers the same information they can find on the FCC website or elsewhere,” Herrera said. “All the city wanted to do is make sure that information is out there in a transparent way. We are on sound legal ground.”