By Theodora Scarato
Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
The Supreme Court is poised to consider an issue close to our hearts — our cell phones.
When we go in a store to buy a new cell phone, should we be informed that the phone has very specific instructions — usually buried deep in the manual, like on page 50 — to keep the phone at a distance from the body?
And furthermore should we be informed that if we don’t follow these instructions we could be exposing our body to radiation at levels that violate U.S. government limits?
After Berkeley, California, passed their Cell Phone Right To Know Ordinance in 2015 informing people, “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,” the wireless communications industry lobby group the CTIA immediately slapped the city with a lawsuit. It lost.
Now the CTIA is petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case arguing that the ordinance violates companies’ free speech rights. Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, representing Berkeley pro bono, argued that the information is factual.
I imagine most of the public is unaware of the manufacturer’s instructions to keep a distance from our cell phones. While over 20 nations categorically advise people to reduce cell phone radiation exposure, and some countries even issue multiple pages of information, the U.S. Center for Disease Control just provides two simple tips “if you are worried.”
No U.S. agency is telling the public that there are actual instructions, and not only for cell phones but for almost all the wireless devices we use every day.
Israel is one of those countries that clearly recommends people keep mobile phones at a distance from the body. Their health ministry cautions people not to carry a phone against the body in a pocket. More importantly, for over a decade, Israel has had consumer protection laws in place that mandate “clearly displayed” information at the point of sale informing the buyer that cell phones emit non-ionizing radiation.
Israel also ensures that the buyer is informed of a phone’s specific absorption rate (SAR) value so consumers can compare phone radiation emissions. Every phone has an SAR measurement meant to represent the intensity of the radiation absorbed into human tissue. Phones cannot go into the market of a country unless they comply with the SAR limit.
Manufacturers test their phones for radiation but – and most importantly- , they test the phone at a distance from the body and the manufacturers themselves pick that distance. The French government became concerned about how people use phones in contact with the body and decided to do its own independent testing. What they found might concern us all.
The results were a landslide. When tested in body contact positions, the majority of phones had SAR cell phone radiation values exceeding allowable limits.The French government tested the phones at three distances from the body — at the distance stated in the instruction manual for the phone, (often around 15 mm), at 5 mm and at 0 mm — meaning at body contact, like when you rest your phone on your chest at night, or tuck your phone into your tight pants. When scientists converted the numbers to U.S. limits, some had over nine times the allowed limit. The French physician who pushed the government to release the information has dubbed the situation “phonegate” comparing it to the Volkswagen dieselgate scandal. Last month a company recalled phones due to these revelations.
Several years ago the Israeli government conducted research with the Holon Institute of Technology and found that when the phone was held close to the head, the actual SARs were much higher than stated by the manufacturer. The study also found many phones exceeded government SAR limits after they were repaired.
Engineers and researchers have been warning us for years about this fact and are especially concerned about children. Cell phone test methods were developed decades ago when people carried phones on belt clips. The way we use phones has drastically changed and U.S. policy is lagging behind.
Last year when I visited Israel, I was privileged to hear Israeli physicists present their state-of-the-art research on the biological effects of millimeter waves, the higher frequencies to be used in 5G technology that will tie together the Internet of things – meaning interconnected wireless devices from toothbrushes to self driving cars to virtual reality. In their most recent publication the scientists concluded, “We are raising a warning flag against the unrestricted use of sub-THz technologies for communication.” In addition, Israeli epidemiologists presented their findings that young Israelis working in the military with radar- the same type of radiation as used in wireless communications — were at higher risk of cancer.
Last month, the U.S. National Toxicology Program findings of cancer development in the largest and most expensive U.S. animal study ever done on cell phone radiation were deemed “clear evidence of cancer”. At the same time, a large scale Italian animal study by the Ramazzini Institute found the very same types of tumors the US researchers found in their exposed rats, yet the Italian study used much lower radiation exposures.
The California Department of Health, American Academy of Pediatrics and even the Maryland Advisory Council on Children and Environmental Health Protection have officially recommended we reduce exposure to cell phone radio frequency radiation. How much research needs to pile up before the federal government takes action?
In 2015 the Harvard Center for Ethics published an expose revealing the financial ties between the U.S. government and the wireless industry. This year The Nation published an investigative report featured on NPR which documents about how the Wireless Industry borrowed the playbook of doubt and disinformation from the tobacco and fossil fuel industries and developed a massive public relations campaign to confuse the public into thinking cell phones were safe decades ago.
I remember when my family would drive across the country without seat belts and when high schools had smoking areas. Public health protections can take decades. Yes, cell phones are everywhere, and so is lead paint. I wrote Chancellor Kirwan about this issue several years ago when Yale research found that mice exposed to cell phone radiation in utero developed hyperactivity and memory problems. The upcoming Supreme Court decision will be a pivotal moment for the United States. I hope it ignites the interest of the public this important issue.