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Industry Kills San Francisco Cell Phone Radiation Ordinance

May 9, 2011 | Parker Waichman LLP

The cell phone industry has racked up a big victory, with the city of San Francisco, California deciding to table an ordinance that would have required retailers to post the specific absorption rates (SAR) for cell phones.  The decision to scrap the cell phone radiation disclosure ordinance came after the industry group, CTIA, filed a lawsuit against the city, and a reminder from the group that San Francisco would have to pay its legal fees if the lawsuit were successful.

SAR is a measure of the rate at which energy is absorbed by the body when exposed to a radio frequency.   The San Francisco ordinance would have required retailers post this information near cell phones in at least 11-point type.  It passed the Board of Supervisors by a 10-1 vote last year, and had it been implemented, it would have been the first such ordinance in the country to go into effect.

Almost as soon as it passed last year, CTIA filed suit against San Francisco, claiming, among other things the ordinance violated the industry's First Amendment rights.  That resulted in the city delaying implementation of the ordinance twice.  The Board of Supervisors finally decided to table it after meetings with the City Attorney.

San Francisco isn't backing down entirely, however, and according to the San Francisco Chronicle, a watered-down cell phone ordinance is likely to be introduced this week.  A revised ordinance would likely require cell phone retailers to hand out a tip sheet on how to lessen radiation exposure, the Chronicle said.  According to another report on, a new ordinance would probably drop the SAR disclosure requirement.

According to the Chronicle, Renee Sharp, director for the California office of the Environmental Working Group, expressed disappointment at the Board of Supervisors' about face, and said SAR is important information consumers need.  She also accused CTIA of “bullying the city, and they have a lot of money and they have a lot of power."  While unhappy that the original ordinance is a dead issue, Sharp did concede that a watered-down version was better than nothing.

But not everyone agrees that SAR is any help to consumers seeking to purchase the safest cell phone.  Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley, pointed out to the Chronicle that SAR is the "peak reading on a variety of tests conducted on cell phones," and "doesn't indicate the average amount of radiation a user would generally be exposed to."

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