Bloomberg News

Wireless Group Aims to Block San Francisco Radiation Warning

October 20, 2011

(Updates with lawyer’s argument in third paragraph.)

Oct. 20 (Bloomberg) -- A group representing Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Nokia Oyj asked a federal judge to block enforcement of a San Francisco law requiring wireless phone retailers to post what it called “alarmist” warnings about radiation from mobile devices.

The first-of-their-kind warnings, which say radio emissions are a possible carcinogen, may discourage consumers from buying and using mobile phones, CTIA-The Wireless Association, a Washington-based organization representing wireless carriers and device makers, said at a hearing today. City officials say the rule helps keep residents informed about possible health effects from mobile phone radiation.

“How many mothers are going to walk into a retail store and say, I’m not going buy a phone for my 13-year-old because the city has given me this warning,” Andrew McBride, a CTIA attorney, said at a hearing in federal court in San Francisco. “We feel these materials are alarmist, they contain false statements and will harm our business.”

The group is seeking a court order halting enforcement of the rule pending the outcome of its lawsuit challenging the ordinance. The city agreed at the hearing to delay enforcement until U.S. District Judge William Alsup rules on the group’s request, which Alsup said could happen within two weeks. The law was scheduled to take effect Oct. 25.

Today’s hearing revives debate among lawmakers, researchers and wireless companies about whether frequent mobile phone use can lead to cancer or other illnesses. Lawmakers in Washington said more research was needed after some studies suggested a link between wireless phone radiation and cancer, while the industry’s trade association said scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that mobile phones don’t pose a health risk.

‘Right to Know’

The nation’s first mobile phone “Right to Know Ordinance,” approved by San Francisco city supervisors last year, requires retailers to use posters, factsheets and display stickers saying emission of radio frequency energy by mobile phones is absorbed by the head and body, such energy has been classified by the World Health Organization as a possible carcinogen and consumers should reduce their exposure, according to court filings.

The ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech because it forces retailers to disseminate the city’s opinion, CTIA said. It’s also outweighed by federal radio-wave exposure standards that ensure all mobile phones sold in the U.S. are safe for consumer use, the group said in court documents.

Biological Damage

Radio waves from wireless phones don’t have enough energy to cause the kind of biological damage that radiation from X- rays can cause, the group said. The Federal Communications Commission said there is currently no scientific evidence establishing a link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses.

“What do you say about” that? Alsup asked lawyers for the city. “The best thing the World Health Organization can say is that it’s a possible. Anything is possible. Let’s put out a brochure about UFOs.”

The comparison “belittles” the work of researchers that have studied the possible health effects of mobile phone emissions for decades, said Vince Chhabria, deputy city attorney.

The information that retailers are required to disseminate is accurate and doesn’t violate free speech rights, Chhabria said.

‘Editorial Content’

“This is not a situation where the city is requiring somebody to alter their editorial content,” he told Alsup. “It’s requiring a company to provide information about a product in connection with the sale of the product.”

CTIA takes issue with 11-inch by 17-inch posters created by the city’s Department of Environment that show mobile phones emitting bright red, orange and yellow rings that penetrate the head and midsection the body and suggesting consumers keep phones away from the body. Retailers that don’t display the posters can be fined as much as $100 for the first violation.

Alsup questioned the suggestion on the factsheet that mobile phone users wear the devices on belt clips to reduce exposure.

“You are saying an eighth of an inch makes a difference?” Alsup said. “I don’t understand the science behind that suggestion.”

User Manuals

Chhabria said manufacturers’ own user manuals make clear that small distances make a difference with long-term health effects.

“The statement about keeping phones away from your body is not inaccurate, it’s not misleading,” said Chhabria.

Words used on the posters, such as “precautions” and “away from the body,” are the same terms used by manufacturers in their user manuals, he said in court filings. CTIA wants that information to remain in the fine print, and not be called out in posters buyers might see when perusing the displays at the local Verizon Wireless store, according to the filings.

“In this age of cell phone ubiquity, it strains credulity to speculate (as CTIA does) that the materials would cause consumers to forego cell phones altogether,” Chhabria said in the filing. “After all, the materials inform people how to mitigate possible risks, so why, armed with these tips, would people want to forgo the phones?”

The case is CTIA v. San Francisco, 3:10-cv-03224, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

--Editors: Peter Blumberg, Michael Hytha

To contact the reporter on this story: Karen Gullo in San Francisco at kgullo@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net


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