A controversial measure passed in Berkeley, California will test the bounds of the First Amendment and a long-held notion that cell phone technology may put Americans at risk of developing cancer. A court case, which will start in a matter of weeks, has pit lawmakers against communications titans who say the new law is libelous and unscientific.
The law in question, named Right to Know, requires cell phone retailers to notify customers that carrying their devices in pants, shirt pockets, or bras may expose users — especially children — to radio frequency radiation that exceeds federal guidelines. While supporters of the bill cite similar warnings in cell phone manuals, opponents stress that there’s no scientific link between mobile devices and cancer.
The Wireless Association, a trade group known as CTIA and one of Right to Know’s most vocal detractors, filed a First Amendment lawsuit against Berkeley weeks after the new measure’s passage, alleging the city is forcing retailers to say something that’s false. CTIA released a statement in which it voiced its opposition to the law and echoed the sentiments of its lawyer Theodore B. Olson, who called the ordinance “alarmist” in an email to the New York Times.
“Leading global health organizations such as the American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration all concurred that wireless devices are not a public health risk, CTIA’s June statement read.
Even so, the law passed on the strength of witness anecdotes. The president of the California Brain Tumor Association, for example, told lawmakers that her husband contracted brain cancer at the age of 56 after having a cell phone pressed to his ear for long periods of time. Another woman submitted a letter to the Berkeley City Council alleging her daughter had four cancerous lumps in her breast placed where she had her mobile device perched in her bra. One witness recounted finding scientific research that tied exposure to cell phone radiation to a low sperm count.
Beyond these stories, however, not much has been confirmed about a cell phone-cancer link. The American Cancer Society denies that radio frequencies from mobile devices cause cancer saying that, unlike x-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet lights, they can’t break chemical bonds in DNA. The National Cancer Institute’s statement on the topic struck a similar note, detailing the results of a 2011 study, in which brain tissue on the side of a subject’s head on which they held their cell phone metabolized more glucose than the other.
But the study has done little to quell debate — both in California and around the world.
In May, a coalition of 190 scientists from 39 countries brought their concerns about radio frequencies to Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, and Dr. Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health. In their letter, they cited more than 2,000 peer-reviewed studies and asked both leaders to consider setting standards that would lower human exposure to radio and electromagnetic frequency fields. Their appeal primarily focused on protections for children and pregnant women, the development of safer technology, and the establishment of radiation-free zones.
A Swedish study also raised eyebrows last year when it suggested the risk of developing a malignant brain tumor tripled among those who used cell phones for more than 25 years. That study compared the cell phone usage of 1,380 people diagnosed with brain cancer to those without the medical condition. This research piqued international interest because it challenged the findings of a 2010 international Interphone study that debunked any belief of a cell phone-cancer link.
But researchers at the American Journal of Medicine implore health-conscious people to think twice before using these type of scientific studies as a basis for their decisions. In 2003, the science publication said that media coverage of new scientific discoveries often made the findings more promising than what happened to be true, ignoring the grueling process of testing, retesting, and peer-to-peer discussion that must happen before results become gospel.
In her March article, Julia Belluz of Vox explained how experiment design can skew the results of studies. She suggested that people should look at new scientific discoveries more critically and in the context of previous findings. “More often than not, single studies contradict one another — such as the research on foods that cause or prevent cancer. The truth can be found somewhere in the totality of the research,” she wrote.
Critics argue that concerns about the cell phone-cancer link deserve the same level of scrutiny. David Stewart, marketing professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, made that case when he told the Los Angeles Times that there needs to be more science to set the record straight about the dangers of cell phone radiation.
“If everything is dangerous, then nothing is dangerous,” Stewart said. “There has to be evidence that a danger is real. Do we really want to discourage people from using their cell phones? We do when they’re driving, but what do we hope to accomplish by warning about a speculative risk?”