Workers Health & Safety Centre

Cell phone radiation exposure: U.S. court ruling supports public right to know about risks

Cell phone
A recent U.S. Court of Appeal ruling upheld a Berkeley, California Ordinance calling on cell phone retailers to clearly display safety information relating to radiation exposure.  
“The City of Berkeley simply required that hidden information about tested distances be made publicly accessible,” commented Harvard Constitutional Law Professor Lawrence Lessig who defended the Ordinance on behalf of the city as the cell phone industry trade group attempted to block it in court. “The manufacturers themselves advise consumers to not keep phones next to their skin. Most people are not aware of that, and we were just arguing that the public has a right to know this when they purchase the cell phone.”
The court affirmed the Ordinance explaining that “an injunction would injure the public interest in having a free flow of accurate information.”
The city Ordinance requires cell phone retailers to post the following notice:
To assure safety, the Federal Government requires that cell phones meet radiofrequency (RF) exposure guidelines. If you carry or use your phone in a pants or shirt pocket or tucked into a bra when the phone is ON and connected to a wireless network, you may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure to RF radiation. Refer to the instructions in your phone or user manual for information about how to use your phone safely.
Dr. Devra Davis, President of Environmental Health Trust and noted cancer researcher commented, “This is a great day for the American public and for all those concerned with preventing harm and protecting our children. People have a right to know that the radiation levels of cell phones are tested with a distance between the phone and their bodies, a way that does not reflect how people commonly use their phones.”

Health risks from radiation

In 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer evaluated and classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs) as possibly carcinogenic to humans. This was based upon evidence of increased risk for glioma, a type of brain cancer, linked to wireless phone use. A growing body of research also shows links with reproductive issues, autism, adverse effects to the brain and electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

Excessive radiation levels

Earlier this year, CBC news program Marketplace explored the issue of radiation from cell phones. Independent testing commissioned by Marketplace found three of the most popular phones were within allowable exposure guidelines when tested at a distance of five to 15 millimetres, the typical gap used when manufacturers perform their tests.

Additional tests were performed without the gap to actually simulate how most people carry and use their cell phones—directly next to the body or ear. The results showed radiation absorption increasing three to four times compared to how manufacturers perform tests and exceeding the allowable exposure guidelines.
Dr. Davis was asked why manufacturers test for radiation using the gap. She offered that “If phones were tested the way they were used none of them would pass.”

Consumer right to know

Manufacturers are required to share details about the precautions necessary to reduce exposure to radiation. Still, more than 80 per cent of Canadians surveyed had never seen this information. Equally troubling, when told that advice about safe use is available through their cell phone, most could not find the information.  
As mentioned above, the Berkeley Ordinance is simply a means to share essential safety information in a more up front manner.  

Public right to be protected

In her press release about the Ordinance, Dr. Davis cited a recent advisory from the Israeli Health Ministry that students and teachers not be permitted to use microwave radiating phones in schools, noting growing scientific evidence of harm from such exposures. She also mentioned a recent court ruling in Italy granting workers compensation to a man who developed a brain tumor that caused him to go deaf after he was required to use his phone regularly for work.
“These developments should send a wakeup call to schools and employers around the world,” explained Dr. Davis. “Before requiring students and workers to use these devices, institute simple programs of safety.”
Closer to home, a 2015 Canadian government committee report recommended greater precaution and tougher exposure guidelines to protect Canadians against radiation from wireless devices. These have yet to be acted upon.
Want to know more about the U.S. Court of Appeal ruling on the Berkeley cell phone Ordinance?
Want to view the CBC Marketplace program exploring cell phone radiation?
Want to read about 2015 Canadian government report warning of health impacts of wireless technology?
Other related resources:
Radiofrequency and Microwave Radiation in the Workplace | Ontario Ministry of Labour
CAREX Canada--Radiofrequency Radiation profile
Canadian Teachers' Federation-The Use of WiFi in Schools
Canadians for Safe Technology
WHSC offers a wide range of training programs, including EMF’s and Dirty Electricity, as well as resources to help workplace parties understand their legal duties and responsibilities related to workplace hazards. Many of these resources also offer essential insight into the information and tools needed to eliminate or reduce harmful workplace and environmental exposures.
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