With the number of cell phones worldwide estimated to be around the same number as the global human population, there is reason to raise an eyebrow, especially considering that these devices potentially pose a hazard to human health. The big question is: Are cell phones dangerous, and if so, what needs to be done to prevent people from being exposed to these hazards?
The city of Berkeley is taking this threat seriously, and according to an article recently published in California Magazine, has proposed a new city ordinance that would make it compulsory for every new cell phone that is sold in the town to carry a label advising users that according to the World Health Organization the device could potentially cause brain cancer. If adopted, Berkeley would be the first US city to require warning labels on cellular handsets; but it is anticipated that the ordinance will face a hefty legal challenge.
Are Cell Phones Dangerous?
Three years ago the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a subsidiary of the World Health Organization, warned that Radio Frequency (RF) Electromagnetic Fields (EMFs) were ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’. Their warning follows three decades of controversy, with researchers and medical doctors declaring that cell phone emissions can cause a range of health problems, including cancer, while cell phone manufactures and other players in the industry, including some scientists, deny these claims, denouncing them as nonsense.
While scientific evidence is conflicting, the link to brain cancer is more substantial, leading to the IARC’s unanimous decision to list cell phones under Group 2B as a ‘possible’ carcinogen, recognizing that even though there is some uncertainty, there is still evidence that cell phones do pose a potential health risk. Under the IARC’s ranked list of harmful agents, cell phones rank one step lower than ‘probable’ and two steps lower than other known carcinogens included in Group 1, such as X-rays, tobacco and asbestos.
A supporter to this ordinance is Joel Moskowitz, Director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley, who although initially skeptical about the hazards associated with cell phones, now acknowledges that this is most likely. “None of us say we need to ban this technology,” he explains. “I have a cell phone on my desk. But we are arguing for safer use.”
The issue with these forms of cancers tend to have a long latency period before they appear. Consequently, we may only see health impacts after many years of use, or later in life. If we do nothing in the meantime to prevent potential health risks, it may be too late further down the line. As Moskowitz so aptly puts it: “In our society, the precautionary principle does not resonate well. We want to see a body count first.”
What Makes Us Vulnerable to Cell Phone Radiation?
Cell phones are considered potentially hazardous due to the fact that they emit not only Radio Frequency (RF), but Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) radiation as well, and they are held and used close to the body. We talk with our phones held close to our ears, we carry them in the pockets of our jeans, or in the case of women, sometimes slipped inconspicuously under a bra. Some teenagers even go to sleep with their phones tucked under their pillow. Yet, while the adult cell phone market is pretty much saturated, the potential for market expansion lies in broadening the user-base to include more widespread use by children, who are particularly vulnerable to radiation from cell phones.
Is the Ordinance Likely to be Passed?
This proposed ordinance will be considered by the Berkeley City Council at a meeting to be held on September 9th. If enacted, they will no doubt have to content with major players in the wireless industry, which is valued at around 195 billion. This is not the first time such an ordinance has been proposed; in 2010 San Francisco proposed a similar law, but the CTIA – The Wireless Association — contested this, winning their court battle, which blocked the labeling requirement on the grounds that retailers would be compelled to label devices with information that was considered controversial, yet the devices met guidelines set out by the Federal Communications Commission. However, supporters of the ordinance are ready for a fight. Lawrence Lessig, a professor of Law at Harvard, has offered his services pro bono in support of efforts to get the ordinance passed.
In the meantime, the question still remains. Are cell phones dangerous, and if so, whether we live in Berkeley or anywhere else in the world, what can we do to protect ourselves from harmful mobile phone radiation?