San Francisco backs off controversial cell phone radiation ordinance

by on May 10, 2011 · 4 comments

San Francisco, often the breeding ground for “interesting” public policy proposals, decided recently to back off its mandate the would have required retailers of cell phones to label them with radiation levels and pass out material explaining the level of SAR in each device (SAR= Specific Absorption Rate).

This has not been done anywhere else and faced stiff opposition from the wireless industry, which filed suit against the ordinance last year.

We’ve commented on the ridiculous nature of this ordinance before. Suffice to say, in the year since this issue hit, there has still been no evidence offered that cell phones pose any sort of carcinogenic threat. This great piece in the NY Times Magazine goes into more detail on the problems of testing this hypothesis but also highlights the common error of confusing causality with coincidence. The author’s main point:

“In truth, many substances of modern life do not — cannot — cause cancer. Some do, and it’s absolutely critical to identify and reduce exposure to them. Other’s don’t, and it’s absolutely worthwhile identifying these, so that we can focus on the real carcinogens around us. If we lump everything into the category of “potentially carcinogenic,” from toxic potatoes to McCarthys grave, then our scientific language around cancer begins to degenerate. The effect is like crying “wolf” about cancer…” (emphasis added)

An interesting factoid pointed out in the San Francisco Chronicle’s article (one that I must admit I had been previously unaware) was that Specific Absorption Rate measures the peak output of electromagnetic radiation. This could lead to consumers thinking that the lower SAR rate is the end-all-be-all statistic they should take into account if they are concerned with radiation.

In fact, while SAR measures peak radiation levels, it does not measure average SAR levels. So, it’s highly possible that a handset that emits higher SAR levels has a lower overall SAR average output, while a lower SAR handset may actually have a higher average SAR level. Therefore, the customer could end up purchasing a handset that emits more radiation than they think. Again, numerous scientific communities and the FCC have concluded that cell phone radiation does not cause cancer.

We’re seeing a “precautionary principle” develop in the technology/digital arena and the result is this type of policymaking. An upcoming paper of mine will explore how this is taking place and why it’s not a good thing for technology or innovation.

The bottom line is San Francisco moved forward with this ordinance because it thought regulations like these would help people decided for themselves which handset to purchase. But failing to incorporate science and plain facts created even more confusion and stoked unnecessary fears. There really are genuine health concerns in our environment, ones that have a strong correlation with cancer, and we should remain focused on those and not waste time trying to make politicians look good.

Previous post:

Next post: