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Poor Reception 

Cell phone industry lawsuit puts skids on proposed Arcata radiation labeling ordinance

"Ideally, this type of legislation would not be something that local government would pass," said Councilmember Shane Brinton during the Arcata City Council's regular meeting last Tuesday, as he pushed his fellow members to consider an ordinance that would require cell phone merchants to label the radiation output of their product.

"This sort of labeling law, in my opinion, really should be the responsibility of the state and federal government. However the cell phone lobby is very strong, and certainly just as with the tobacco industry or any other industry, until the science is absolutely definitive you better believe they are going to be protecting their interests."

Three days later, the industry did just that, filing a lawsuit seeking to overturn the San Francisco ordinance that Brinton and his council colleagues had voted unanimously to emulate.

Last month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved its "Cell Phone Right-to-Know Ordinance," which directed all stores selling cellular phones within the city limits to publicly post the radiation levels of each model on offer. These radiation levels, measured in units of Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) -- the amount of radiation, in watts, absorbed by an average kilogram of head-flesh during use -- are already widely known, as the Federal Communications Commission tests all new models before approving them for sale. New phones must have an SAR of less than 1.6 watts per kilogram before the FCC will consider them safe. San Francisco's ordinance merely required that stores offer this information to customers while they are shopping.

In its lawsuit, though, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), an industry group representing phone manufacturers, charges that San Francisco -- and, by extension, any local government -- has no standing to force vendors to disclose that information at the point of sale. The CTIA maintains that the industry is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission only, and that any additional local regulations -- even modest ones, such as mandatory disclosure of known facts -- are unlawful intrusions upon the FCC's authority.

Such an outcome was considered at last Tuesday's Arcata City Council meeting, where the council voted 4-0 to direct City Attorney Nancy Diamond to draw up an ordinance similar to San Francisco's that Arcata might consider at a future date. (Councilmember Mark Wheetley was absent.) Brinton noted that the CTIA had recently sent a notice to Arcata, and possibly to other cities as well, threatening legal action if any of them were to follow in San Francisco's footsteps. But there was broad agreement that this was mere saber-rattling, at least in the current instance. For one, the industry hadn't yet filed suit against San Francisco. For another, with that action Arcata was merely researching a possible ordinance, not enacting one. Finally, though, council members just couldn't understand what the big deal was.

"We're just talking about people having a deeper understanding of a tool they're using, and a little more information about it," said Councilmember Susan Ornelas. "I don't see how that's a problem. It doesn't fly in the face of the FCC -- it's just information."

With that in mind, the council decided to move ahead based, in part, on the testimony of people like resident Lisa Brown, co-owner of Solutions, a store offering nontoxic alternatives to common household products. Brown noted that more and more children are using cell phones more and more often, and that parents are not aware that there is such a wide disparity in the amount of radiation emitted by various models.

"Basically, as I see it, this is going to be a tool for parents," she said.

Councilmember Michael Winkler, an engineer, related that he had worked on some of the very first commercial cellular phones when he was employed by Motorola 30 years ago. "Even at the time, in the late ’70s ... we were aware that there was danger from the frequencies that cell phones operated at," Winkler said. "Especially for children -- there's a lot of strong evidence that there can be some severe problems."

Indeed, there is little doubt that pointing electromagnetic radiation at someone's head on a near-continual basis can, in theory, lead to health problems, including tumors of the brain. Such is the rationale behind the FCC regulating the wattage of energy that cellular phones are permitted to inject into each kilogram of brain. However, there is some scientific dispute over whether the FCC regulations are sufficient to provide total safety in all circumstances, and under all conditions of use. Of particular concern is the effect of adult-safe levels of radiation on the thinner skulls and smaller brains of younger phone owners. The FCC's watts-per-kilogram benchmarks suppose a fully grown head.

Brinton told the Journal Tuesday that there was no reason to give up on the idea yet. In light of the industry's lawsuit against San Francisco, though, he and the city attorney are going to slow down and see what shakes out of the courts before drafting an ordinance for Arcata.

"I don't want to take the city of Arcata into a fight that San Francisco's already fighting," he said. "They have the resources. Whatever we do needs to complement their strategy."


CNET, a technology news service and website, maintains a constantly updated list of cell phones sold in the United States and their Specific Absorption Rate ratings. Below are the five phones with the lowest SAR ratings currently on the market. For the entire list, visit

Beyond E-Tech Duet: D8 0.109

Samsung Eternity SGH-A867: 0.194

Samsung Blue Earth: 0.196

Samsung SGH-G800: 0.230

Samsung Soul: 0.240

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