Leno cell-phone bill faces crucial test


By Brittany Baguio

The State Senate is set to vote as soon as June 3rd on legislation that could require cell phone companies to disclose the level of radiation their devices emit. The bill, by Sen. Mark Leno, is the latest effort to expand consumer awareness of a potential problem that become the center of a heated scientific debate.

Leno’s measure, SB 1212, would mandate that manufacturers and phone providers disclose radiation levels, or Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), on their Internet websites and online user manuals. The SAR would be placed next to the purchasing price. They would also be required to state the maximum SAR value, and what it means.

“The federal government has set a standard for this type of radiation and already requires reporting,” Leno told us, “At the very least, consumers should have the right to know about the relative risks of the products they're buying.”
There’s a similar measure in the works in San Francisco. The Board of Supervisors City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee May 24th passed Mayor Gavin Newsom’s plan to require retailers in the city to reveal the amount of radiation released by cell phones. That would make San Francisco the only city in the United States mandating that retailers acknowledge radiation information.

Leno’s bill is a response to studies suggesting that radiation levels emitted from cell phones have potential to cause brain tumors and other health problems.

The most recent and largest study focusing on cell phone radiation, the Interphone Study, was released this year. Conducted by 21 scientists, with Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom all participating, the study looked at the long-term risks of certain brain cancers.

The results are mixed and a bit confusing. The study found some results of increased risks of tumors, although the authors could not agree on how to interpret the results

The researchers surveyed 5,000 brain-cancer patients, and found that people who were “heavy” cell-phone users (defined as using the phone 30 minutes or more a day) had a slightly higher risk of some kinds of cancer. And, as an Environmental Working Group analysis of the study noted, “most of the people involved .... used their cell phones much less than is common today.”

Cell phones emit radio waves through their antennas, which in newer models are often embedded in the phone itself. The closer the distance from the antenna to a person’s head, the more exposed he or she is to radiofrequency energy.

However, as the distance between the antenna and a person’s body increases, the amount of radiofrequency energy decreases rapidly. Consumers who keep their phones away from their body by doing activities such as texting are absorbing less radiofrequency energy.

The Federal Communications Commission has set a safety level for Standard Absorption Rate --  a measure of radiation energy -- at 1.6 watts per kilogram of bady mass. All cell phone manufacturers must produce phones at or below this level.

The intensity of radiofrequency energy also depends on signal strength. When a person makes a call, the antenna sends a signal to its closest base station antenna and is then transferred to another person’s cell phone. The further the distance between the cell phone and the base station, the more power it takes to keep the call going.

A study done by Joachim Schuz in Germany in 2006 found a 120% increased risk for a brain tumor, glioma, among people who had used cell phones for at least 10 years. In addition, a study done in 2005 by MJ Schoemaker in Sweden suggested an 80% increased risk of acoustic neuroma, an intracranial tumor, on the side of the head of people who continually used cell phones for at least 10 years.

A study done by Siegal Sadetzki in Israel in 2008 suggested that there was a 49 to 58% increased risk of salivary gland tumors among frequent cell phone users on the same side of the head where the phone is used.

But there are some studies that suggest that cell phones pose no significant health effects to its users. According to California’s Environmental Working Group director, Renee Sharp, those studies produced such results because they focused on acute and medium term effects rather than long term effects. “We aren’t trying to say that cell phones are dangerous because we don’t have definite answers yet and we need more research done,” Sharp told the Guardian, “But when you look at studies with long term use of 10 years of longer, you see increases in certain kinds of brain tumors. We are trying to give people as much information as we can to make informed decisions because it may or may not impact their health.”

Part of the reason consumers are unaware of the radiation levels emitted from their cell phones is that cell phone manufacturers aren’t required to disclose that information directely to phone buyers. Instead they send the data to the FCC. Although the FCC makes this information available on its website, the information is not easily locatable and some links direct visitors to a manufacturer’s website that contains no SAR information. A list of cell phone model SAR information compiled by the Environmental Working Group can be found here.

Based on the Environmental Working Group’s cell phone list, some of the most popular cell phones emit the most SAR. For example, the Apple iPhone 3G can emit from 0.24 W/kg to 1.04 W/kg. The HTC Droid Eris emits 1.19 W/kg. The T-Mobile Sidekick emits 1.34 W/kg. But the award for the cell phone that emits the most radiation goes to the Blackberry 8820, which emits 1.28 to 1.58 W/kg -- just below the federal safety limit. The more power a cell phone requires to load extra features and applications, the more radiation the cell phone emits.

According to Sharp, another part of the problem is the FCC’s standards are not protective enough. “The FCC set SAR standards 14 years ago and has not updated them since then,” Sharp told us. “This was before we found out that children have thinner skulls and are more susceptible to radiation effects and before phones developed and exploded into what they are now.”

Other countries echo Sharp’s concern for public safety. Although no country in the world has officially adopted a law requiring a disclosure of cell phone radiation information, some countries have already taken steps make consumers more aware of the potential danger radiation can cause. Consumer advocates in France a pushing a law that would ban advertisements promoting the sale of cell phones to children younger than 14. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, and Finland have all created recommendations to prohibit children from using cell phones, only use cell phones if necessary, and to use hands free devices to talk on the phone.

The cell phone industry is strongly opposing Leno’s bill. Representatives from Tech America, which represents the industry, and AT&T, a major political player in Sacramento, could not be reached for comment.