Last Tuesday San Francisco’s Board of Supervisor’s passed its widely publicized "Cell Phone Right to Know" ordinance. The bill, which was endorsed by popular San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, passed 10-1.
Now that the bill has passed, by February of 2011 "no retailer within the city may sell or lease… any cell phone to the public without disclosing the SAR value for that phone." The "SAR" value is short for specific absorbtion rate and measures how much radiation is absorbed by the body.
The government has required cell phone makers to disclose their phone’s SAR rating, and has posted the information on the Federal Communications Commission website. Cell phone makers, however, are not required to disclose the information to cell phone consumers at the point of sale.
A May 2010 World Health organization Interphone study, which included 13 countries and over 5000 subjects, concluded, "There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma, and much less so meningioma, in the highest decile of cumulative call time."
The possible link isn’t new to scientists and government agencies alike, however. In a memo dating back to 1993, the Federal Drug Administration concluded, "Of approximately eight chronic animal experiments known to us, five resulted in increased numbers of malignancies, accelerated progression of tumors or both.” Currently, however, the FDA argues, "The weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems."
"All phones sold legally in the U.S. must comply with the Federal Communications Commission’s safety standards for RF emissions," the CTIA – The Wireless Association, an industry trade group, wrote in a press release after the Board of Supervisor’s decision. "According to the FCC, all such compliant phones are safe phones as measured by these standards."
The jury on whether the limits set by the FCC are within the bounds of "safe" is still out. Ronald Herberman, a doctor at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute who testified in the 2008 Domestic Policy Subcommittee hearings on cell phone radiation, also sent out an internal memo to his staff raising concerns about cell phone safety. In the memo, Dr. Herberman laid out 10 recommendations for cell phone use. These recommendations ranged from keeping your phone off of your bed or nightstand at night to only allowing children to use cell phones in the case of an emergency.
"I am convinced that there are sufficient data to warrant issuing an advisory to share some precautionary advice on cell phone use," Dr. Herberman wrote in the memo.
Other scientists are also convinced. In a 2009 study appearing in the Journal of Surgical Neurology, researchers concluded, "If the epidemiologic data [regarding the link between cell phone use and cancer] continue to be confirmed, then in the absence of appropriate and timely intervention and given the increasing global dependence on cell phone technology especially among the young generation, it is likely that neurosurgeons will see increasing numbers of primary brain tumors."
Of course, questions remain about the quality of studies undertaken, and the WHO concluded that in spite of some indications in its May study, "to date, no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use."
Still, it may be worth heading the words of our friend Aristotle, and use the cell phone in moderation. Indeed, too much of anything is undoubtedly bad.
Maureen Dowd synthesized society’s lack of techonological moderation best in this Sunday’s New York Times column, "We don’t yet really know the physical and psychological impact of being slaves to technology. We just know that technology is a narcotic. We’re living in the cloud, in a force field, so afraid of being disconnected and plunged into a world of silence and stillness that even if scientists told us our computers would make our arms fall off, we’d probably keep typing."