Beginning today, potential cell phone buyers in Berkeley, California will be greeted by a salesperson and a warning concerning potential radiation exposure. Under the Right to Know ordinance passed unanimously by the Berkeley City Council back in May, cell phone retailers are required to inform consumers that by carrying a cell phone on your person (in your shirt pocket, pants, or bra), “You may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure.” The warning further states, “The potential risk is greater for children.”
Already, there are federal regulations in place meant to warn cell phone users of the limits of safe radiation that can be expected from normal cell phones and cell phone usage, but under this new set of guidelines, Berkeley lawmakers are heightening the level of concern surrounding mobile devices.
The science around cell phone radiation has long been a contentious subject — whereas some dismiss claims of cell phone dangers as unwarranted hysterics, others insist that the lack of testing when it comes to cell phones in close proximity with our bodies has stunted the amount of information available. According to Environmental Health Trust’s Senior Medical Advisor, Dr. Robert Morris, “If industry does not want to advise people about the fact that phones are not tested next to the body, then they should get the FCC to change its requirements for radiation testing. They cannot do this because, if phones were tested next to the body, they would be found to emit too much radiation to pass current standards.”
Certainly, there have been a number of studies that seem to link heavy cell phone usage with certain medical side effects. For example, studies in both Australia and India have found that men who use their cell phones most frequently (and keep them in their pants pocket) had lower sperm counts than those who used cell phones less often. Other studies have also suggested a link between radiation exposure from cell phone usage and certain types of brain cancer.
Still, the skeptics remain thoroughly unimpressed, and even the American Cancer Society has noted that cancer cases observed in people who carry cellphones may be coincidental or anecdotal. And as Dr. Jerrold T. Bushberg, a medical physicist and a professor of radiology and radiation oncology at the University of California, Davis, told the New York Times, “We’ve been looking for signs of adverse effects at low levels for over 50 years without success. We can’t say it’s impossible, but if there is a risk it would be very, very low, or we would have seen an increase in brain cancers.”
Proponents of the new Berkeley ordinance, however, say that they’re simply exercising extra caution — after all, the warnings aren’t impinging upon anyone’s right to buy a cellphone. As Dr. Morris stated, “Over the past twenty years, cell phone use has exploded to the point where it is almost universal, but we have limited understanding of the potential risk caused by these devices. This may well be the largest uncontrolled public health experiment in human history.” Morris noted that the health risks were uncertain, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, part of the World Health Organization) determined that the radiation emitted by cell phones was a possible cause of cancer.
Morris concluded that until more definitive research was conducted, “… it seems prudent to reduce exposures, especially when doing so can involve something as simple as using headphones. Improving consumers’ access to warnings about potential risks, warnings that are already in the phones, is a no-brainer.”
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