On Tuesday, the city council of Berkeley, California, will vote on a cellphone "right to know" law that would be the first safety ordinance of its kind in the country. It would require cellphone retailers to include a city-prepared notice along with the purchase of a cellphone, informing consumers of the minimum separation distance a cellphone should be held from the body.
The Federal Communication Commission recommends keeping your phone 5 to 25 millimeters away, depending on the model, to limit radio frequency (RF) exposure to safe levels.
"If you carry or use your phone in a pants or shirt pocket or tucked into a bra when the phone is ON and connected to a wireless network, you may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure to RF [radio frequency] radiation," is part of the proposed language. Retailers would be prohibited from selling phones that do not bear the warning: "This potential risk is greater for children. Refer to the instructions in your phone or user manual for information about how to use your phone safely."
Berkeley might become the first city to adopt such an ordinance, but it's not the first place to try. Health groups and consumers have been campaigning for cellular safety regulations for years now.
A cellphone warning label bill was introduced in Maine in 2010 by former state representative Andrea Boland, who says the public deserves to know about the potential risks associated with cellphone radiation. "Obscure warnings in tiny print or embedded deep in phones can only protect manufacturers from users," Boland points out, "not users from potential harm like cancers, Alzheimer's, learning disabilities, reproductive issues, etc."
Her bill was not enacted, but a 2015 version is currently awaiting a floor vote. It would require cellphone manufacturers to print safety notifications on the outside of the packaging or add a "Safety Notice" label directing consumers to read the safety information in the owner's manual.
The city of San Francisco came closer on this front, approving regulations in 2010 that mandated cellphone retailers display the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) -- or the amount of radio frequency (RF) energy absorbed by the body -- for each phone sold. The Cellular Telephone Industries Association immediately sued the city,claiming the law would confuse consumers by implying that lower radiation levels are safer, and the ordinance was thrown out.
Now the Berkeley proposal seeks to address concerns that even as cellphones become ubiquitous in our lives, many people remain unaware of basic safety recommendations.
An April 30th survey funded by the California Brain Tumor Association (CABTA) found that 70 percent of Berkeley adults did not know about the FCC's minimum separation distance. And 82 percent said they would like information about how far the phone should be kept from the user's body.
Ellen Marks, executive director of CABTA, endorses cellphone "right to know" laws, pointing out that while the majority of cellphone manufacturers include such safety information, it can be very difficult to find. For example, she notes that BlackBerry manuals tell users, "Keep the device at least 0.98 inches (25mm) from your body when the BlackBerry device is turned on and connected to a wireless network." But it takes 5 steps to find the warning -- you must click on settings, general, about, legal and RF exposure -- and most users don't even know it's there. "The public deserves the right to know that there is safe distance information required by the FCC hidden deep in the phone or in the manual," Marks said.
The radiation guidelines, established by the FCC in 1996, assumed users would carry their cellphones at least a small distance away from the body, in a holster or belt clip, which was common practice at the time. Health activists warn cellphone users today tend to keep their phones in pockets, which means they could be exposed to much more radiation -- possibly 2 to 7 times more.
To further reduce RF exposure, the FCC suggests using a speakerphone, earpiece or headset, or texting rather than talking.