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San Francisco Passes Cellphone Radiation Law

Avalos says measure could "save lives," while wireless industry calls it "unnecessary yet harmful"

San Francisco supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved legislation aimed at helping consumers reduce their exposure to cellphone radiation, a move that industry groups denounced but that Supervisor John Avalos said could "perhaps save lives.”

The new law revises a measure passed last year that was left in legal limbo after CTIA, the wireless telecommunications association, challenged it in a lawsuit. No other city in the nation has passed similar legislation.

While the original ordinance would have required retailers to display each phone's radiation level, the new version, sponsored by Avalos, mandates only that stores provide customers with general information and tips on how to reduce radiation exposure.

That change might actually be beneficial to consumers, because experts say the way cellphone radiation is measured can be unreliable. Exposure depends on many factors, including distance from a cellphone tower, battery life and how close the phone is to one's body.

The law mandates that retailers display educational posters in their stores and hand out an in-depth explanatory fact sheet with each cellphone purchase, but does not require any mention of cancer.

Research findings on the health effects of cellphones are mixed. Cellphone radiation recently landed a spot on the World Health Organization’s list of “possible carcinogens,” joining the ranks of engine exhaust, pickled vegetables and coffee. But the WHO's review of hundreds of scientific articles also called for “further study,” noting that an increased risk of brain tumors was “not established.”

“There’s no black or white here,” said Renee Sharp, California director for the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy nonprofit. “If you use a headset, it’s definitely better, but maybe it’s not better if you’re putting your phone in your pocket. If it’s not your head, it’s your reproductive organs.”

Doctors generally advise precaution, especially for children, whose thinner skulls and still-developing brains leave them more susceptible to the possible health effects of prolonged cellphone use. Industry ratings for cellphone radiation are based on studies of large, adult males, Sharp said.

In the U.S., more than half of children 12 years and older own cellphones, and that number is growing. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of American cellphone users almost tripled to more than 300 million. Approximately 5 billion people own cellphones worldwide. 

In light of the possible health risks, San Francisco officials said the new law is well worth the trouble it will cause the industry.

“It really is a minimal impact on the retailers with a huge public benefit of providing the 'right to know' information,” said Melanie Nutter, director of the city’s Department of the Environment, which is responsible for enforcing the new law.

But the cellphone industry argued the city's approach will add confusion to the already-murky debate surrounding cellphone radiation.

Missy Johnson, vice president of the California Retailers Association, dubbed the ordinance “unnecessary, confusing and misleading," noting that retailers who violate it could face hundreds of dollars in fines.

“The concern from our perspective is, it’s a slippery slope,” Johnson said. “There are a number of things that are possible carcinogens, but are we then going to be required to post warnings for those things, like coffee that people drink every day? Where does it end? That’s our concern.”

CTIA, the wireless association, expressed similar objections. 

“During these difficult economic times, it is inconceivable that San Francisco would pass an unnecessary yet harmful ordinance,” John Walls, vice president of public affairs for the CTIA, said in a statement.

It was unclear Tuesday whether the CTIA would take legal action against the new law.

The board is scheduled to take a final vote on July 26. If the ordinance passes, as expected, Mayor Ed Lee will have 10 days to sign it into law.

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