Berkeley drafts cell phone health warnings

Sep 24, 2014

Do you hold your cell phone against your ear? Your user manual probably warns against it.

Bret Bocook knew how to use a cell phone. So he didn’t bother to look at the instruction manual until five years ago – after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

“I consider myself a very informed person,” he said. “And I still was not aware of the fact that I was effectively smoking three or four packs of cigarettes a day when I was using my cell phone for 20 years, as far as cancer risk.”

Bocook spoke at a San Francisco news conference a year after he collapsed in the shower because a brain tumor the size of a baseball had stopped his heart.

This month, the 50-year-old Palo Alto lawyer and father of three young children was diagnosed with a second brain tumor.

He blames the cell phones that he pressed against his ear for hours a day for decades. And he believes the warnings buried in tiny type in printed user manuals and behind layers of menus on smart phones should be posted on stickers right on the devices, or at least on their packaging.

On Oct. 28, the Berkeley City Council will consider legislation that could make it the first U.S. city to require retailers to warn consumers that radiation from cell phones may be hazardous to their health.

Mounting evidence suggests that mobile phone use could increase the risk of brain tumors, breast cancer, and male infertility.

Bocook no longer holds his phone against his head. Instead, he texts, uses the speaker, and limits the amount of time he uses his mobile phone.

“These are all basic precautions that if I would have been told about over the last 20 years, I wouldn’t have found myself with a brain tumor and put my life in jeopardy,” he said.

Is it safe?

Cell phone user manuals advise a range of precautions. The iPhone 5 manual, for example, recommends talking hands-free and carrying the phone at least 10 millimeters – nearly half an inch – away from your body.

If your cell phone’s in your pocket, it’s too close, according to Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

“There's a fairly consistent picture that cell phone exposure damages sperm,” Glantz says.

He details evidence of reproductive harm from cell phones in his textbook, Primer of Biostatistics.

“When I'm teaching, I tell my students a cell phone isn't good enough to use as contraception, but if you want to have kids, I wouldn't leave it turned on in my pocket,” he says.

Women should think about where they carry their phones too, according to Bay Area breast surgeon Dr. Lisa Bailey.

Speaking at an Environmental Health Trust program in San Francisco in April, Bailey said she had seen “some very unusual breast cancers,” in women who carried their cell phones in their bras, including two breast cancer cases in 21-year-old women, which she called “a highly unusual age for women to develop breast cancer.”

Concerns about the possible health dangers of cell phones prompted Berkeley City Council members to call for warning labels on cell phones. Councilman Kriss Worthington says the proposal is quite simple.

“This is consumer information that people can get if they work hard to find it,” he said. “So why not make it easy for them to find it?”

The cell phone industry claims there is no need for warning labels, and an industry group is poised to file a lawsuit.

When San Francisco passed cell phone warning legislation a few years ago, CTIA – The Wireless Association sued. The group alleged that the ordinance violated its free-speech rights. The city lost a round in court, and fearing a prolonged legal battle, revoked the law.

Do customers care?

At a Sprint store on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, concern about cell phone radiation seems to be the last thing on the minds of customers like Calvin Womble, a marketing consultant from El Cerrito.

He says he doesn’t know much about the issue.

“I have read that cell phones, because of the frequencies, can cause brain damage and other things,” he says. “I don't know because I haven't read any data about it that shows conclusively this has happened.”

Cell phones emit radio frequency, RF, energy. That’s radiation. If Berkeley enacts the proposed law, warnings about the possible dangers of RF emissions could confront customers when they shop at retail outlets.

A CTIA spokeswoman declined to comment on Berkeley’s proposal. But the association did send a letter to the mayor and the city attorney.

It says, “Leading national and international health and safety organizations have concluded that there are no known health risks associated with the use of wireless devices.”

But in 2011, a World Health Organization panel of 31 scientists from 14 countries classified wireless phones as “possibly carcinogenic.”

Joel Moskowitz directs the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health. An examination of the overall body of the scientific literature, he said, shows no association between cell phone radiation and brain cancer.

“But, if you partition the studies based on the quality of the research or the funding source,” he told the Berkeley City Council, “you see distinctly different patterns.

“There is clear evidence of increased tumor risk – brain tumor risk, parotid gland tumor risk – particularly for people who have used cell phones for 10 or more years, especially on the side of the head on which they use the cell phone.”

The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, adopted current cell phone radiation standards in 1996. At that time, an estimated 44 million American adults owned a cell phone.

Today, there are 327 million cell phone subscriptions in the U.S. – more than one for every man, woman and child.

Now the FCC is reassessing safe radiation exposure limits. Those pushing for precautionary warnings don’t expect much, however.

President Obama appointed Tom Wheeler chairman of the FCC last year. Before that, Wheeler spent 12 years as president and CEO of the Wireless Association, the same group that sued San Francisco and appears ready to sue Berkeley.

Back at the Sprint store, sales representative Krizia Daniels predicts her customers would disregard warning signs.

“I think it's a good idea, but at the same time, people are just going to ignore the warning labels,” she says. “At the end of the day, it's a phone, and they want the newest and bestest phone, no matter what the cost is.”

“So it's like, okay, I know that cell phones cause radiation and cancer and that you die, but I want this new phone now. So what?”

For tips on smart cell phone use, see the Environmental Working Group’s tips on smart cell phone use.