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20 April 2017

How This Sign Put Berkeley in the Center of the Cellphone Safety Debate

How this sign put Berkeley in the center of the cellphone safety debate
by Natalie Brunell, kcra.com, updated:
10 April 2017

City of Berkeley becomes the first to require cellphone retailers to display warnings about radiation
If you’re in the market for a cellphone or tablet in the City of Berkeley, you will probably notice a sign displayed near the register of a cellphone retailer, or on store shelves.

It’s a flier alerting customers of possible radiation exposure from mobile devices.

“Berkeley is the first city in the country to get stores to post warnings. It’s a small step, but it’s an important step,” said Joel Moskowitz, PhD, director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Family and Community Health at the University’s School of Public Health.

In 2009, Moskowitz turned his focus from scientific research on the health effects of tobacco to cellphones after a visiting scholar from the National Cancer Center in South Korea exposed him to scientific literature looking at whether mobile phone use increased the risk of tumors.

“The cellphone manufacturers want you to keep a minimum distance away from your body and you should find out what that distance is,” Moskowitz said. “If you keep the device by your body you will exceed the safety limits provided by the FCC.”

That message is what Berkeley officials say is the purpose behind the city’s “Right to Know” ordinance: To educate the public that information on radiation exposure from mobile devices can be found in phone, tablet and laptop manuals.

“We’re just saying let’s take the information that’s buried in your cellphone and buried in the manual, and put it where someone might have a chance to read it,” said Berkeley councilman Kriss Worthington, who co-sponsored the ordinance with former councilman Max Anderson.

The city council voted unanimously to pass the ordinance in May 2015.

That law now has the city in the middle of a federal lawsuit brought by the CTIA, The Wireless Association.

The CTIA is a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents the cellphone industry and is fighting in court to stop retailers from displaying the warnings.

A spokesman for the CTIA said the signs violate their First Amendment rights by compelling them to say something they don’t agree with.

“It sort of still surprises me that it could become the subject of a federal lawsuit and have so much money spent against it,” Worthington said. “We’re not trying to tell the cellphone companies to say something horrible about themselves. And the information isn’t even horrible, it’s basically saying be prudent, be careful.”


Radiation from a phone is measured through something called the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR). It measures how fast a given amount of energy is absorbed by the human body, and it’s measured in watts per kilogram.

Since 1996, the FCC has required that all cellphones sold in the U.S. not exceed an SAR limit of 1.6 watts per kilogram over 1 gram of tissue.

Mobile devices are tested and must meet the applicable limits for radio frequency exposure at a certain distance from the body.

Senior Research Fellow and cellphone safety advocate Lloyd Morgan says most people don’t know radiation warnings exist in a series of sub-menus in their mobile devices.

“There’s a 'stay-away distance,' my vocabulary, for a cellphone. You can’t keep it closer than 'X' without exceeding the exposure limit,” Morgan said. “Good luck finding where that is in a phone.”

For example, in an Apple iPhone, you follow these steps to find the information:
Settings > General > About > Legal > RF Exposure

The iPhone 7's instructions say, “Carry iPhone at least 5mm away from your body to ensure exposure levels remain at or below the as-tested levels.” The iPhone 5 instructions suggest at least 10mm.

Apple iPads say: “Orient the device in portrait mode with the home button at the bottom of the display, or in landscape mode with the cellular antenna away from your body or other objects.”

Apple iPads also warn “a small percentage of people may be susceptible to blackouts or seizures.”

“You’re being exposed throughout the day as long as the device is on, so you want to keep it away from your body, especially when you’re making a call,” Moskowitz said. “There’s a variety of simple things you can do to reduce your exposure.”


Beside keeping the phone from directly touching your head, cellphone safety advocates suggest the following precautions for minimizing exposure to RF radiation:

1. Using earbuds or a wired (non-Bluetooth) headset
2. Turn the device off or set it to Airplane Mode on your nightstand when you sleep
3. Put the device in a purse or backpack instead of carrying it in a pocket
4. Be especially careful when cell signals are low, because cellphones emits more RF radiation when they’re trying to communicate with a cell tower, according to Moskowitz.

The CTIA continues to challenge the City of Berkeley's disclosure ordinance. It refused a phone interview, but issued the following statement:

"We are challenging the City of Berkeley’s disclosure ordinance because it violates the First Amendment and contradicts binding court decisions. In fact, the Federal appeals court in California previously invalidated a very similar cellphone ordinance in San Francisco. The scientific evidence refutes Berkeley's ill-informed and misleading mandatory warnings about cellphones, according to the FCC and other experts. For example, as the Food and Drug Administration states on its website, '[t]he weight of scientific evidence has not linked cellphones with any health problems.' With these realities on our side, we are confident that we will prevail.”

Berkeley officials say the city wasn’t taking a stance on the science.

“There will be continuing research, and we all will be learning more as things go along. In the meantime, I think it’s prudent to stop and think and not to be alarmist, but just be careful,” Worthington said.

But Moskowitz and Morgan, who say they have been closely following the scientific research on cellphones and health, compare the battle for public awareness about RF radiation to the history of tobacco.

“The cellphone industry is using the same playbook that the tobacco industry used successfully for decades. They’ve war-gamed the science,” Moskowitz said.

Moskowitz has focused much of his career studying Big Tobacco, the tobacco control movement and the public health impacts of tobacco.

“Some scientists tried to argue that cigarette smoke was good for you, citing health professionals saying cigarettes were good for you,” Moskowitz said. “And cellphone industries have some research, and it’s pretty poor research, that suggests that cellphone radiation may be good for you.”

“There’s a long tradition of industries being able to delay a major public health problem from common knowledge for decades,” Morgan said. “It took 50 years to get tobacco, to get asbestos. Hopefully, this will be faster.”


Moskowitz has been fighting a legal battle of his own, trying to bring cellphone safety information to the public.

In 2016, he sued the California Department of Public Health.

It started with an insider tip urging Moskowitz to do some digging for a document on cellphones and health prepared by health professionals with the CDPH.

“In early 2014, I submitted a public records request for this document, which had originally been prepared, I later found out, in 2010,” Moskowitz said.

The document is currently marked ‘Not for Public Release.’

“It’s really a fact sheet about cellphone radiation, which summarizes the research briefly and provides a set of recommendations to the public,” Moskowitz said.

The document gives an overview of EMFs, the electromagnetic radiation emitted by some consumer electronics like cellphones. It acknowledges studies that show a link between EMFs and brain cancer and EMFs and fertility problems.

It provides tips on how to lower your risk of over-exposure by keeping a distance between you and your phone or tablet, much like the guidelines that exist within cellphone manuals.

It also says children and teens may be more sensitive to EMF exposure.

“They do not want to admit there is any kind of problem,” said Lloyd Morgan.

Morgan closely studies the ongoing scientific research into how EMFs affect the human body.

Learning the CDPH document exists, but was kept in the dark, infuriates him.

“You can’t just place a phone against your head. Or against your body,” Morgan said. “They know there’s a problem. And eventually, the public will know.”

The Department of Public Health denied all the public records requests Moskowitz filed starting in 2014.

According to Moskowitz, officials told him they wouldn’t release the document because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued similar guidelines on their website.

“I felt the document belongs in the hands of the public. I couldn’t understand, and in fact the informants couldn’t explain, why the document was suppressed,” Moskowitz said.

Moskowitz decided to file suit.

“This is a very serious issue,” Moskowitz said. “I thought it would be in the public interest to see if I can make this document see the light of day.”

The case was filed in the Sacramento County Superior Court, assigned to Judge Shelleyanne Chang.

In its opposition briefs, the CDPH asserted the “public’s health may be harmed” if the document is released and that it will “needlessly confuse and possibly alarm cellphone users.”

It goes on to speculate the document might even cause people to flood doctors’ offices concerned about their devices.

“The final explanation which came out during the lawsuit was, well, this wouldn’t be in the public interest to put this information out there because the cellphone industry is part of the public and they would not be happy to see this information reaching the public,” Moskowitz said, citing page 15 of the opposition brief.

In March, the department released the watermarked draft version of the Cellphones and Health guidelines to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled in Moskowitz’s favor.

“She saw no reason why the department should not release the document to me. She also ruled in her final ruling that the state could not mark up the document,” Moskowitz said.

The California Department of Public Health refused an interview with KCRA.

A spokesman said via e-mail:

"The document has not been released before because it was the subject of pending litigation. We’ve now had the hearing and received the court’s final ruling on the hearing, but the formal order has not yet been issued. We will comply with that order when it is issued, and if it requires us to release all versions of the drafts, we will do so, but attached is one of the drafts from 2015. Please note the draft notation on the document is original as it existed in 2015.

Please also note the information contained in this document by the California Department of Public Health’s (CDPH) Division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control is not original research. CDPH employees examined then-existing scientific research on the potential health effects of cellphone use. The Department also reviewed existing guidance documents (e.g., international, national, state and local public health agencies) at that time and prepared a draft of guidance based on that review. However, the guidance was never finalized or adopted by the Department. The project was discontinued when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued national guidance on the same subject."

“Most of the reasons turn out to be quite bogus when you really inspect them,” Moskowitz said.

The public will soon have access to the CDPH document.

In her final ruling on March 13, Judge Shelleyanne Chang ruled that the CDPH must now release the cellphone guidelines without a watermark.

Moskowitz is still waiting.

“I’ve been studying this issue for eight years now and I believe the risk could be quite profound from a health and public health standpoint," Moskowitz said.


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