San Francisco surrenders in fight over cell phone warnings

SAN FRANCISCO Wed May 8, 2013 6:27pm IST

A man uses an Apple iPhone in Santa Monica, California August 24, 2011. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

A man uses an Apple iPhone in Santa Monica, California August 24, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - San Francisco city leaders, after losing a key round in court against the cell phone industry, have agreed to revoke an ordinance that would have been the first in the United States to require retailers to warn consumers about potentially dangerous radiation levels.

In a move watched by other U.S. states and cities considering similar measures, the city Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday to settle a lawsuit with the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association by accepting a permanent injunction against the right-to-know cell phone ordinance.

The group had alleged the law violated its free-speech rights, and the settlement marked a victory for the industry as the Federal Communications Commission considers a reassessment of safe radiation exposure limits adopted in 1996.

"This is just a terrible blow to public health," Ellen Marks, an advocate for the measure, said outside the supervisors' chambers. She said her husband suffers from a brain tumor on the same side of his head to which he most often held his mobile phone.

The industry association has asserted the San Francisco ordinance, if put into effect, would mislead consumers about the relative risks posed by cell phones, contrary to the FCC's determination that all wireless phones legally sold in the Unites States are safe.

The group's members include some of the nation's largest cell phone carriers and manufacturers, including Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Samsung and Apple.

Deputy City Attorney Vince Chhabria said a federal appeals court decision last year upholding a preliminary injunction against the measure signaled that trying to win the case at trial would be a long shot. If the city lost, a judge could have awarded the industry group as much as $500,000 in attorneys' fees, he said.

The 2011 ordinance mandated warnings that cellular phones, including smartphone devices, emit potentially cancer-causing radiation. The statute, which a judge blocked before it took effect, also would have required retailers of the devices to post notices stating that World Health Organization cancer experts have deemed mobile phones "possibly carcinogenic."

Supervisor David Campos reluctantly supported the settlement. "I think the legal reality is that if we don't approve the settlement, we're talking about having to pay $500,000 in legal fees," he said.

Chhabria said the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling had left San Francisco in the position of having to prove that scientists concurred about the hazards of cell phones and that the FCC no longer believes they are safe.

Despite mounting evidence the phones may cause brain tumors, scientists disagree and are hesitant to draw conclusions.

Dr. Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgery professor at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, found in a 2012 study that the age-adjusted incidence of malignant tumors in the parts of the brain closest to where people hold their phones rose significantly from 1992 and 2006 in California. But Zada told Reuters he could not draw any conclusions about the dangers of cell phones from his findings.

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization, had pushed for San Francisco's right-to-know law.

"If the nation's experience with tobacco taught us anything, it is that it is dangerous to wait until there is scientific consensus about a potential health threat before providing consumers with information on how they can protect themselves," said Renee Sharp, the group's research director.

Mobile phones are tested to ensure their emissions fall within FCC limits considered safe. The limits, however, fail to reflect the latest research or actual conditions under which mobile phones are used, liked being held in a pocket directly against the body while talking through an earpiece, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

The FCC last month agreed to consider revising its 17-year-old guidelines.

(Editing by Steve Gorman, Scott Malone and Nick Zieminski)

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