Cell carriers and retailers (with the exception of local chain Cole Hardware) opposed citizens and public health advocates on the issue of labeling cell phones by radiation level, or SAR (Specific Absorption Rate) at a hearing of San Francisco’s City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee Monday. By a 2-1 vote, the committee approved Mayor Gavin Newsom’s proposal requiring retailers to disclose SARs at the point of sale and to provide information on ways to minimize cell phone radiation exposure (now on the FCC’s website).
An earlier review by the Small Business Commission added four conditions to the ordinance: education to retailers; two-tier implementation, with “formula retailers” such as Best Buy and cell carrier stores in the first tier, and all others in the second; assistance to retailers via Department of Environment materials; and delayed enforcement to give businesses time to comply.
Debbie Raphael, San Francisco Toxics Reduction Program Manager (who also presented the ordinance to the Department of Environment in January), went over these changes, the scope of the ordinance, and controversies surrounding the recently released Interphone study. She concluded that the jury is not in on cell phone safety, there is evidence of harm, and “This is a very measured approach to what could be a very large problem.”
The 30-or-so speakers at the hearing were divided evenly between small business retailers/representatives and citizens/public health advocates. Cell phone retailers focused on the ordinance’s economic impact, some arguing business was already bad, and all but one complaining the regulations would be onerous. Samples:
A business consultant’s testimony: “This is the worst time we should be discussing this. Everybody has a cell phone now; many retailers are closing their doors. This could be the straw that sends others out of business.”
A Verizon retailer stated customers’ questions and debates about SAR led to longer than average sales conversations. “Our expertise is about features and benefits of phones.”
A regional Verizon representative complained that the ordinance “will put store sales staff in the position of trying to explain science.”
Steve Falk, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce (who also wrote an op-ed on proposed state-level legislation), asserted that “SAR values were never meant to be something the public should analyze. [Safety] ratings have been addressed by the FCC. Today that standard has been set…Our government is telling us they’re all safe according to today’s standards.”
On the other side, testimony focused on consumer rights and public health information:
A representative from Cole Hardware (the only business in support of the ordinance): “We do not believe this requirement is burdensome. Cole Hardware provides similar information on products such as pesticides in its stores right now, and we let the customer decide.”
Renee Sharp, scientist with the Environmental Working Group: “Since the Environmental Working Group published SAR ratings of 1,000 cell phones in September, our site has received 4 million page views, and averages 5-10 thousand pageviews every day.”
A UC Berkeley researcher: “This legislation provides citizens with the most basic of democratic rights – the right to be informed.”
Steve Krolik, San Francisco resident: “The genesis of this problem goes back to the 1996 Telecom Act when the telecom corporatocracy convinced the federal government to not consider public health.”
A San Francisco parent: “Good choices require good information.”
After public comment, Supervisor John Avalos referred to one business advocate’s contention that “truly, this is a federal problem.” Avalos countered, “It makes sense given the power of telecoms to have stronger legislation at the local level. It is actually harder at the federal level because they have too much influence.” Supervisor Carmen Chu had concerns about costs to small business, but was convinced after the Department of Environment answered questions about material support and staffing for education. Chu admitted, “It would have made things a lot easier if the federal government had stepped in.” Supervisor Sean Elsbernd asked no questions, and was the only no vote on the committee.
The ordinance will go to the full San Francisco Board of Supervisors, with a recommendation to include educational materials in multiple languages. If approved, San Francisco will be the first municipality in the world to take this step.