San Francisco's Cell Phone Radiation Law Goes Wrong

It's a good thing the CTIA is suing San Francisco over an inane law that will publicize cell phone radiation levels in stores, because this a rare case where more information is too much.

Wireless industry trade group CTIA argues that San Francisco's law is unconstitutional because it steps on the Federal Communications Commission's ability to decide what's safe. I'm not a legal scholar, so I can't predict how the case will shake out, but as a consumer -- and one who's usually in favor of disclosing more information -- I'm hoping CTIA wins.

Artwork: Chip Taylor
When it comes to disclosing things that might kill you, California already has a TMI problem, as I've discovered in my two years of living in Los Angeles. Sometimes, when you walk into an apartment, a big sign in the lobby announces that the residence is loaded with chemicals known to cause cancer. Ditto with seemingly innocuous household products, leading to a moment of crisis when my wife and I shopped for pots and pans; apparently that non-stick material can be your undoing.

Most of California's cancer hysteria comes from Proposition 65, a 1986 law that mandates warning labels for anything containing chemicals known to cause cancer. Like San Francisco's cell phone radiation law, it's worthless information to the casual consumer. Should I abstain from buying non-stick cookware? Should I retreat from the supposedly chemical-ridden apartment building? Of course not. California's warnings become noise, and I've learned to tune them out.

Cell phone radiation labels could suffer the same fate in San Francisco. Radiation levels are not like calorie counts displayed in restaurants -- California's got a law for that, too -- where people generally have an idea of what's excessive. Without context, consumers won't know what to do with the radiation information.

Here's the context: the FCC already regulates cell phone radiation, so no phones have a Specific Absorption Ratio of more than 1.6 watts per kilogram. There are other factors to consider, such as how the phone is held, whether a case is applied and how much time is spent on the phone. And when all is said and done, there's still no evidence that cell phone radiation causes cancer. There's certainly no evidence that a slightly lower Specific Absorption Ratio could be the difference between life and death.

Unless San Francisco plans to post all of that information alongside every cell phone's radiation level, the city is doing its shoppers a disservice.

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