Judging by this Berkeley gate, it's clear that there will be at least some support in the city for new required warnings, under consideration by the city council, about cell phone use. Photo: Fragmentary Evidence
Judging by this Berkeley gate, it’s clear that there will be at least some support in the city for proposed required warnings, under consideration by the city council, about safe cellphone use. Photo: Fragmentary Evidence
Judging by this Berkeley gate, it’s clear that there will be at least some support in the city for proposed required warnings, under consideration by the city council, about safe cellphone use. Photo: Fragmentary Evidence

The city of Berkeley is investigating whether to require retailers to hand out radiation-related safety sheets to customers who buy cellphones in town.

Last week, a Berkeley City Council majority — with seven in favor and two opposed — voted to have staff prepare language for the new cellphone law. But whether council ultimately will vote to adopt that law is unknown.

The cellphone ordinance — brought forward Nov. 18 by council members Max Anderson and Kriss Worthington — would require vendors to hand out an info sheet to consumers to remind them to study up on device-specific safety standards for radio-frequency (RF) energy emissions. In particular, customers could be advised not to hold or carry the phone close to the body while using the device, and directed to consult the manual to learn the “recommended separation distance” between the phone and one’s body. Anderson said he has been working on the law for several years.

Exactly what the information sheet might say remains to be seen, but the city plans to work with political activist and Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig to come up with an “ordinance and disclosure language that is the most defensible” and as “effective as possible,” according to the motion approved by council last week. Lessig has volunteered to work on and defend the issue for free, according to Anderson’s agenda item.

About 10 members of the public — including Professor Joel Moskowitz of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, and others directly or indirectly impacted by cancer they said was caused by cellphone use — testified about what they believe to be the potential negative impacts of close physical contact with mobile phones. They asked the city to protect the public and stand up against the cellphone industry. At least one likened the fight to the battle against cigarette manufacturers in the 1950s.

Moskowitz, who said he has studied the cellphone safety issue for four years, said the “right to know” ordinance is a natural step for Berkeley given the city’s long history as a strong advocate for public health. He described the new law as a “simple factsheet” for consumers telling them to read their user manual to learn about safety considerations related to the distance between one’s body and their devices.

At least three people spoke against the proposal, including CEO Polly Armstrong of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce and Dmitri Belser, president of the Ed Roberts Campus and executive director of the Center for Accessible Technology. Belser spoke against the ordinance, noting that brain cancer rates have not gone up in recent decades despite the huge increase in cellphone use. He said science has not shown a direct link between cancer and the technology.

See what the FDA has to say about radiofrequency energy and cellphones.

Gerard Keegan, who works for wireless communications industry rep CTIA-The Wireless Association, told council the federal government is already actively looking at the issue, and asked the city to let that process play out. He said the United States already has “the most stringent standards in the world” for cellphone emissions, which include a 50-fold safety margin “that can well accommodate a variety of variables.”

(The FCC asserts that “mobile phones marketed in the U.S. are required to meet safety limit requirements regardless of whether they are used against the head or against the body.” A list of frequently asked questions about the issue, compiled by the FCC, is available online.)

Councilman Gordon Wozniak — in his final meeting after an eight-year run representing District 8 — voted against the proposal, as did Mayor Tom Bates. Wozniak called the item “a misguided effort” and said he was concerned because, even though Lessig has volunteered to help craft and defend the cellphone ordinance, the city would still be on the hook should legal claims result from the new law.

Councilman Anderson bristled at Wozniak’s dismissal of the idea, and said the issue is not about diseases or the available health data, per se, but about making safety guidelines readily accessible to consumers. Anderson said he had been frustrated, looking at his own mobile phone, by how difficult it is to find safety information, and that he wants to make it easier for local shoppers to be informed: “You have to go five pages deep into the iPhone in print that’s very small,” he said, adding that the city has an ethical obligation to draft the new ordinance.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said the push for transparency is something she could easily support: “Regardless of whether there’s science to prove it, I do favor the consumer’s right to know,” she said.

Councilwoman Linda Maio provided her colleagues with alternative language to Anderson’s, which she said the city could also use to craft the ordinance. Other council members said they wanted to give credit where it was due, however, and ensure Anderson’s original proposal was given ample consideration.

Ultimately, council voted to have staff work with Lessig and consider both Anderson’s and Maio’s language, which city attorney Zach Cowan said would be used to come up with an ordinance that would be as “ironclad” as possible.

Council did not set a date to bring back the item, and would still need to vote on the law before it could go into effect.

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Op-ed: Support Berkeley’s important cellphone safety bill (10.17.14)
The lowdown: Berkeley council on cellphone safety stickers, e-cigarettes, parking, more (09.08.14)
Berkeley Hills residents may get new AT&T cell antennas (09.13.13)
3 new AT&T cell antenna sites approved in Berkeley (04.26.13)
AT&T antennas likely to go on Oaks Theatre despite glitch (11.09.12)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...