As Berkeley waits on passing cellphone sales guidelines, some fear potential health risks

Photo: Studies indicate a possible connection between cellphone usage and brain tumors.
Michael Gethers/Staff
Studies indicate a possible connection between cellphone usage and brain tumors.

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As buzz regarding the potential health effects of cellphones rapidly builds across the nation, the city of Berkeley's possible move toward new guidelines for phone sales is slowing.

Originally looking to follow in the footsteps of San Francisco - the first city in the nation to pass an ordinance in June last year requiring cellphone retailers to display the level of radiation emitted by each phone it sells - the Berkeley City Council decided in December to draft an ordinance that would mandate a similar disclosure for cellphone sales in the city. The council had planned to vote on it in the following months.

But now, San Francisco's ordinance - initially set to take effect in February - has been challenged by CTIA-The Wireless Association, the organization that represents the cellphone industry. As San Francisco works to revise its legislation, Berkeley has decided to wait before taking any further steps.

"It doesn't make sense to invite a lawsuit against the city of Berkeley unnecessarily," said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. "We have enough financial problems … we will get the answer pretty soon without spending any money."

While the city awaits the changes by its neighbor across the bay, some worry that cellphone users could be putting themselves at risk.

"The cellphone industry is not being forthright with what's really going on with cellphones - they're hiding the safety information inside the package manual," said Ellie Marks, director of government and public affairs for the Environmental Health Trust, a nonprofit research and educational organization that worked with the city of San Francisco to implement its legislation.

That safety information is the specific absorption rate - a measure of how much radio frequency energy is absorbed by the body - which is usually found in manuals that customers receive upon purchasing cellphones. If the San Francisco ordinance had been implemented, that number would have been displayed in stores near phones for sale.

But what the detrimental health effects from cellphones are - or whether they even exist - remains unclear.

"The peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices, within the limits established by the Federal Communications Commission, do not pose a public health risk or cause any adverse health effects," said John Walls, CTIA-The Wireless Association vice president of public affairs, in a statement.

However, Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, said there is not enough research to definitively determine anything specific.

Based on the results of some studies, Moskowitz said it seems­ that there is a connection between cellphone usage and certain kinds of brain tumors, and possibly even sperm damage. Although Moskowitz is uncertain which aspects of cellphones - the radiation level, the antennae location, the type of technology, the size of the cellphone, distance from the body or hours of use - are the main causes of health problems, he said that it is wise to keep the phone away from the body.

"Until we get a good handle on what the risks are, you should try to minimize your exposure, and distance is the key," he said.

Moskowitz and Marks, who are both in support of Berkeley's potential guidelines, compared the developing research on cellphone usage to that of tobacco from more than 50 years ago, pointing out that people were once skeptical that cigarettes could have any negative health effects.

"It's challenging and frustrating," Moskowitz said. "I'm trying really hard not to inflate the problem or scare people, but just get them to take some caution and think about how they use their cellphones."


Soumya Karlamangla is the lead environment reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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