Opinion

Op-ed: Support Berkeley’s important cellphone safety bill

Working at schools sites across Berkeley, I constantly see students carrying cellphones in their pockets and using them when they should be in class. It seems every year, younger and younger children are using cellphones.

Yet how many people are aware of the fine print safety warnings hidden in nearly every cellphone manual? Some manuals such as the BlackBerry even instruct users to keep the “device at least .98 in. (25 mm) from your body (including the abdomen of pregnant women and the lower abdomen of teenagers).”

Why are cellphone companies hiding statements like this in their manuals?

Some companies make it even more difficult. Take for example the iPhone 5– to find the required separation distance warning, you must go through these menus – Settings>General>About>Legal>RF Exposure. Who would know to do this? Finally, you come across this message: “To reduce exposure to RF energy, use a hands-free option, such as the built-in speakerphone, the supplied headphones or other similar accessories. Carry iPhone at least 10mm away from your body to ensure exposure levels remain at or below the as-tested levels.“

As you might know, cellphones constantly send and receive signals from cell towers whenever your cellphone is turned on. Even when not on a call, small radiation emissions are being absorbed into our bodies. 10 mm is a little less than ½ inch. It doesn’t sound like a big deal to have to keep this much distance between your body and your phone, but following the laws of physics, even separation distances as small as ¼ inch can make a significant reduction in the amount of radiation exposure we receive.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that every cellphone must pass radiation exposure guidelines in order to be sold in the U.S. These federal regulations were developed in 1996, years before the advent of the smart phone and wearable tech.

These safety standards have never been updated since implementation, and even more surprising is the fact cellphones are not tested directly against the body. Because of this, cellphone manufacturers are required by the FCC to warn consumers to always maintain a specific distance between the phone and the body. However, these warnings are deceptively hidden in fine print or buried in
the phones themselves where no one will see them.

Since the 1990s, there have been hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies showing that long-term exposure to cellphone radiation can possibly result in reduced fertility, damage to fetuses, cardiovascular problems, brain cancer, and other harmful health effects.

In 2011, the World Health Organization declared the radiation emissions from cellphones as a possible carcinogen. Since their announcement, numerous other countries have passed cellphone safety legislation including: England, Germany, Switzerland, Israel, France, and Finland.

Recently, the Government Accountability Office criticized the FCC’s testing procedure for cellphone radiation and suggested they revise their test to be reflective of a modern cellphone user. The American Academy of Pediatrics added wind to the fire by writing a letter urging the FCC to reconsider its radiation standards.

The cellphone industry has already threatened to sue the City of Berkeley if they pass this ordinance. The legislation to be considered by Berkeley simply requires that retailers inform their customers about information that is already provided in their user manuals.

Esteemed Harvard Constitutional Law Professor Larry Lessig has expressed his opinion that this draft ordinance does not violate industry’s legal rights. Professor Lessig feels strongly that citizens have the right to be informed of this important safety information, and he has agreed to defend it pro bono all the way to the Supreme Court if industry files a lawsuit.

On October 28, the Berkeley City Council will hold a meeting to consider a proposal to have cellphone retailers give consumers a handout informing them to not carry or use a cellphone in a pants or shirt pocket and to refer to their phone or user guide for the required separation distance.

It’s been nearly 20 years since our national government first implemented radiation standards for cellphones. Instead of waiting for federal legislation, it’s time for our local government to protect our health and that of our children. Please write to your council member and join us on October 28 to support this important ordinance. Thank you very much for your time and support.

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related, local authors are preferred, and we don’t publish anonymous pieces. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

Kevin Kunze is an award-winning Bay Area filmmaker and Berkeley resident. His recent documentary, 'Mobilize,' explores the possible long-term health effects from cellphone radiation and the influence companies can have on public health.