How dangerous is your cell phone? The unfortunate reality is that you can’t really know. Even so, only one year ago, progressive San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome proposed an ordinance that would have required that all retailers inform consumers about the amount of radiation that cell phones emit. Material printed in 11pt. type would have been posted next to phones disclosing their specific absorption rate (“SAR”), which is a measure of radio frequency energy (radiation) absorbed by the body. Last Thursday, however, the City postponed enacting the law, which would have been trendsetting in the United States. The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page called the City’s decision “a big disappointment, especially for a city that prides itself as willing to take on powerful interests for a social good.” (May 6, 2011).
According to the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”), SAR is “a straightforward means for measuring the radio frequency exposure characteristics of all cell phones to ensure that they are within the safety guidelines of the FCC.” The FCC, which has been setting those guidelines since 1996, has set a ceiling of 1.6 watts per kilogram (w/kg) of energy as the highest amount of radiation that a phone may emit and still be sold in the United States. The FCC reports that cell phone manufacturers must conduct their SAR testing under “the most severe, worst-case (and highest power) operating conditions.”
The fact is that the scientific jury is still out on the effects of cell phone-emitted radiation. Several studies suggest that cell phone users have a “significant risk” of developing brain tumors, salivary gland tumors, and eye cancer. Not so, reports the FCC — its maximum SAR exposure standard
"is set at a level well below that at which laboratory testing indicates, and medical and biological experts generally agree, adverse health effects could occur."
Cell phones have only been part of our daily lives since the mid-1990s. As a result, neither scientists nor the FCC nor cell phone manufacturers have been able to confirm their studies based on even one generation of long-term cell phone users. Such a data set (in crude terms) doesn’t really exist. Yet both the FCC and cell phone manufacturers are concerned. The FCC cautions:
"For users who are concerned with the adequacy of this standard or who otherwise wish to further reduce their exposure, the most effective means . . . are to hold the cell phone away from the head or body and to use a speakerphone or hands-free accessory."
The advice continues:
"Consider texting rather than talking — but don’t text while you drive."
Why do I feel as though I’ve just opened a dust-covered issue of National Geographic with June Cleaver advertising Whirpool on one side and the Marlboro man riding into the sunset on the opposite fold?
What’s interesting to me, as the Chronicle points out, is that “almost all manufacturers include advice for customers to limit their exposure to radiation in user guides,” including limiting the length of calls. Let’s look at this. Why is it that manufacturers who (1) advise customers to limit exposure to radiation simultaneously (2) defeat what would have been a purportedly “business-killing” law that wouldn’t even have gone that far? How can we reconcile those two positions? In the short-term, their lobbying efforts paid off. San Francisco gave in. Now let’s assume — assume — for the sake of argument that scientific studies within the next 15-20 years demonstrate within the mainstream of scientific thought that radiation from cell phones does indeed cause the negative health effects discussed above.
What then? Are you going to sue the business interests that caused consumer-oriented laws to be pushed aside? But wait, those same interests provided you written information advising you to limit the length of your calls, perfectly in line with guidance provided by the FCC.
Did you not know or should you not have known then (now) about the health risks associated with your cell phone use? Because if so, then your statute of limitations — the time within which you can seek legal remedies — likely will have expired.
So text, don’t talk.