BERKELEY, Calif. — The city of Berkeley is preparing to take on the telecommunications industry in the fall by requiring retailers to put stickers on cellphone packaging to warn people that the devices may emit cancer-causing radiation.
City officials are undaunted by San Francisco’s similar attempt in 2010, which ended two years later with a defeat in federal court and the board of supervisors ultimately withdrawing the ordinance.
“Cellphones are a risk, and I believe the public has a right to information that’s credible, readable and understandable about the device they’re using,” said Berkeley City Councilman Max Anderson, who’s co-sponsoring the ordinance and has a background in public health. “I’m not intimidated by the cellphone industry. The legal department might be, but I’m not.”
To avoid the fate met by San Francisco, Berkeley is planning to consult a Harvard University law professor to draft the sticker language so it meets First Amendment guidelines. The wireless industry successfully fought off San Francisco’s attempt to compel warnings in part by arguing that forcing manufacturers to issue statements they disputed violated their First Amendment rights.
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If the Berkeley ordinance passes and survives the expected legal assault from the telecommunications industry, Berkeley would be the first city in the United States with such a policy.
The ordinance would require retailers to place stickers on cellphone boxes that warn consumers that radiation from cellphones may cause brain cancer. Berkeley, home to a 35,000-student university, an Apple store and dozens of wireless shops, sees more cellphone transactions than most Bay Area cities.
The cellphone industry was swift to respond to Berkeley’s proposal, sending a four-page letter to the City Council on July 3 stating that the proposal violates federal regulations and the matter already has been settled by the courts.
“Any attempt to place labels on cellphones or their packaging contradicts the clear message of federal regulatory agencies that have carefully considered this issue, which is that devices compliant with the federal standards are safe for consumer use,” wrote Gerald Keegan, senior director of legislative affairs for CTIA — The Wireless Association, an industry group.
According to the industry, radiation from cellphones falls well below federal safety limits, and no study has found evidence definitively linking cellphone use to cancer.
The National Brain Tumor Society is a little more cautious. While no studies have found a direct link, the possibility “has not been ruled out, either,” said spokesman Tom Halkin.
“Without conclusive results, the National Brain Tumor Society cannot say that cellphones cause brain tumors, and can only encourage continued further research into this topic,” he said.
Joel Moskowitz, head of the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Family and Community Health, has no such indecision. He’s been studying the issue since 2009, and has concluded that cellphones are “one of the top emerging public health risks.”
Studies cited by the cellphone industry are outdated, he said. Newer and more complex wireless technology, coupled with people spending increasing amounts of time on their phones, is almost certain to lead to an uptick in brain cancer, he said.
“It’s just a matter of time,” he said. “The evidence is a lot more compelling than it has been.”
Radiation from cellphones penetrates the skin and skull and absorbs into the brain tissue, having an adverse affect on cells, he said. Phone radiation can also affect sperm count among men who carry phones in their pockets, he said.
Consumers should wear head sets, use the “speaker” feature and otherwise keep phones away from their bodies, he said.
“With cellphones, distance is your friend,” he said.
Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable, he said.
A warning sticker should advise consumers that some studies link cellphones to rare but serious cancers, and they should take precautions, he said.
Berkeley’s City Council is scheduled to debate the issue at its Sept. 9 meeting.
Recent shoppers around Berkeley’s Apple Store had mixed reactions to the proposal.
Kayla Abruzzese of Emeryville, who serves in the Coast Guard, said a sticker would not deter her from cellphone use.
“My cellphone is like my lifeline,” she said.
Kim Ellis, a retiree from Piedmont, doesn’t use her phone much but worries about her grandchildren.
“They’re so screen savvy,” she said. “I’d sure want to know what the health risks are. If nothing else, it gets people talking about it.”