Concerns over Industry Influence Mount in Cell Phone Right-to-Know Fight

In an effort to ensure mobile phone buyers can make informed choices, the city of San Francisco recently passed an ordinance requiring retailers to label cell phones with the amount of radiation the devices emit. In retaliation, a wireless industry trade group announced it will no longer hold its trade shows in San Francisco and filed a lawsuit to block enforcement of the ordinance. The fight has caused right-to-know advocates to raise concerns over the extent of the wireless industry's influence over regulators.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, citing "the potential harm of long-term exposure to radiation emitted from cell phones," voted 10-1 in favor of the "Cell Phone Right-to-Know Ordinance," which requires cell phone retailers to display the radiation levels for each phone model. Cell phone radiation is measured using a specific absorption rate (SAR), calculated by the amount of the phone's radiation energy (in watts, W) absorbed per kilogram of body tissue (W/kg). SAR levels for cell phones are already publicly available through the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) website. The FCC sets acceptable radiation standards for cell phones.

Members of the public may search for the SAR of a particular cell phone model on the FCC's site. However, the site's searchability has been criticized, as searching is too difficult and time-consuming. The website requires users to enter the product's FCC ID number, usually found inside a phone beneath the battery.

Despite providing cell phone SAR values to the public, the FCC recently deleted information on how consumers can protect themselves from exposure to radiation from cell phones. The commission's website currently states:

Some measures to reduce your RF [radiofrequency energy] exposure include:
  • Use a speakerphone, earpiece or headset to reduce proximity to the head (and thus exposure). While wired earpieces may conduct some energy to the head and wireless earpieces also emit a small amount of RF energy, both wired and wireless earpieces remove the greatest source of RF energy (the cell phone) from proximity to the head and thus can greatly reduce total exposure to the head.
  • Increase the distance between wireless devices and your body.
  • Consider texting rather than talking - but don't text while you are driving.

However, as recently as Sept. 17, the FCC website had included the following text as an additional precaution, information that has since been deleted:

Buy a wireless device with lower SAR. The FCC does not require manufacturers to disclose the RF exposure from their devices. Many manufacturers, however, voluntarily provide SAR values. You can find links to manufacturer Web sites providing these SAR values on the FCC's Web site at

Advocates of the San Francisco right-to-know ordinance suspect industry influence may have pressured the FCC into removing information from its website.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit public interest group, recently submitted a FOIA request to the FCC requesting all agency communications with the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), the wireless industry's trade association, regarding the San Francisco ordinance. EWG is seeking disclosure of calendars, meeting documents, and e-mails between CTIA and the FCC. The consumer watchdog group is concerned that "CTIA wants the FCC to intervene in its lawsuit with San Francisco. And, in fact, the FCC has a history of siding with industry in legal disputes concerning cell phones."

CTIA is headed by Steve Largent, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma who served on the telecommunications subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

According to CTIA, "The ordinance misleads consumers by creating the false impression that the FCC's standards are insufficient and that some phones are 'safer' than others based on their radiofrequency (RF) emissions." The industry group criticizes the city of San Francisco for requiring disclosure of information that will confuse consumers and condemns the ordinance for intruding on FCC's "exclusive and comprehensive regulation of the safety of wireless handsets." The ordinance is also unconstitutional, violating the Supremacy Clause in Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, according to CTIA.

A spokesman for San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, a supporter of the ordinance, countered industry complaints, stating, "This is a modest and commonsense measure to provide greater transparency and information to consumers." The ordinance does not make any judgment on the relative safety of various SAR ratings or phones, and only requires retailers to post information that is already available publicly – although not easily – through the FCC.

There currently is no conclusive evidence showing that mobile phones are dangerous. However, a number of scientific studies have identified links between cell phone use and human health problems.

In September 2009, EWG released a report reviewing the scientific literature regarding cell phone radiation and human health effects. The report raised concerns about the safety of cell phone use over many years. EWG observes that a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assertion on the safety of cell phone use failed to consider the long-term impact of the devices. (FDA has authority to take regulatory action if cell phones are shown to emit RF levels hazardous to the user.) The report goes on to identify studies linking cell phone radiation to increased risk for brain cancer, salivary gland tumors, behavioral problems, and migraines and vertigo. The report also cites a 2008 National Research Council study that raised concerns about the impact on children's health of cell phone radiation. Children are more susceptible to the effects of radiation than adults.

Despite the health concerns identified by EWG's analysis of scientific studies, the federal government continues to defend the existing SAR standard, 1.6 watts per kilogram, as safe. According to the FDA, "The weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems." The FCC maintains that "currently no scientific evidence establishes a causal link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses."

The mayor and Board of Supervisors of San Francisco recognize that product labels are one of the most effective ways to provide crucial information to the public. The city has taken publicly available information that had been difficult to access and is making the data more easily available. It is in the best interest of the public to have relevant data easily accessible so consumers may make their own decisions, especially considering the incomplete and sometimes contradictory scientific data on the safety of long-term cell phone use.

EWG also maintains a searchable database listing SAR levels for cell phones, including smart phones, available on its website. The database allows users to compare the radiation levels of different models and includes lists of "best" and "worst" phones ranked by radiation levels.

Image in teaser by flickr user williamhartz, used under a Creative Commons license.

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