Berkeley’s new cell phone safety warning one step closer to reaching shoppers… maybe

Oct 8, 2015

Have you ever taken a close look at the documentation that came with your phone?

If you're like me, probably not. The manual is voluminous, and safety information is hard to find.

Last May, the Berkeley City Council decided they wanted to make warnings about RF frequencies clearer to consumers. They passed an ordinance requiring retailers to share the information with customers at the point of sale.

However, an industry lawsuit called the ordinance “scientifically baseless.” And a district court blocked Berkeley from making the information more accessible.

But on Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council unanimously voted to remove seven words from its cell phone ordinance, thereby establishing a national precedent for consumer safety information.

What seven words about cell phone radiation did they cut?

“This potential risk is greater for children.”

And what did they keep?  

Basically,” says Dr. Joel Moskowitz, director of the University of California Berkeley Center for Family and Community Health, you shouldn’t keep the phone in your pocket, breast, or pants pocket, or in your bra. You should not keep it directly next to your body. These warnings were required by the federal government, the FCC. Currently, they've been hiding these safety instructions. They bury them in the manual or in the phone itself. And they don't want the consumer to see this information.”        

But the CTIA-Wireless Association sees things differently. The industry group claims that Berkeley’s cautions are false, and that retailers cannot be compelled to say something they do not believe in.

CTIA-Wireless Association attorney Theodore Olson says, “Berkeley is perfectly capable and quite free to express its own opinions in its own way. But it can't make someone else carry their messages.”

On September 21, A U.S. District Court Judge backed Berkeley with one exception. That exception is still “a matter of scientific debate.”

Berkeley City Council member Kriss Worthington says,The judge indicated that one sentence needed to be removed from the city’s  'Right to Know' ordinance, and that’s a small price to pay, so we are delighted. It’s not a problem to remove it.”

It could be the kind of groundbreaking consumer health legislation that Berkeley has pioneered. In 1977 it passed a ban on smoking in restaurants. Last year, it passed a tax on sodas. City officials say the process to enact the cell phone ordinance could be completed in a matter of weeks. That is, of course, unless the cell phone industry takes more legal action.

Attorney Theodore Olson says, If every city in California and every city in Texas and every city in every other state comes up with a different warning label, it's going to be impossible to market that product. And then you are going to pay a lot more for your cell phone. And the FCC does not want that.”

So what do Berkeley cell phone retailers and shoppers think? Salespeople and store managers at six stores along Shattuck Avenue did not want to go on-the-air with their views. But they all told me that it’s the rare customer who expresses concern about cell phone safety.

Shopper Laurel Sharp was looking for wireless headphones at one store. Outside, she expressed a thought echoed by many.

“I feel like cell phone radiation is a well-know idea and that it doesn’t matter,” she says. “People are not not going to use their cell phones. There’s so much information about things that are bad for you. But I do think it’s great that people are concerned that you would have a right to know, and so I think it should be the law.”

For now, in Berkeley, that’s close to being the case.