Cell phones are everywhere, and everyone depends on them. In any city, residents rely on cell phones for communication, work, entertainment, and school. With the world becoming increasingly dependent on technology, cell phones are always close, maybe even too close. Although there is some knowledge on the possible harm of radiation from cell phones, many Berkeley students and residents continue to use their phones, storing their devices in pockets, sweatshirts, and waistbands. Many are concerned that radiation from the constant presence of cell phones is harmful.
On December 9, 2019, a law passed by the City of Berkeley in 2015 to inform consumers about radiation was officially approved by the Supreme Court, after four years of a complex legal process involving many setbacks.
Berkeley City Council first worked to implement this law to require retailers to directly notify customers of the possible harmful effects of radiation from cell phones. This law, known as the “Right to Know” law, states that cell phone retailers must print a direct and easily noticeable warning that states the potential consequences of radio frequency (RF) radiation from cell phones connected to wireless networks.
This law has been controversial mainly because of the lack of data confirming that radiation is truly harmful. Aaron Rumph, a junior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), said that he doesn’t believe the law is completely necessary. “The issue is that radiation levels may exceed federal guidelines, but there haven’t been any conclusive studies that showed that radiation from cell phones is actually high enough to cause health problems,” said Rumph.
The goal of this law is to confirm that buyers are informed on the potential repercussions of owning a cell phone, and can thus make informed decisions. However, some believe that this motivation for the law is unnecessary. Rumph believes that “most people already know that they are exposed to radiation from their phones.”
Some opponents of the law felt strongly enough to challenge it in courts. After this law was agreed upon in 2015, it was challenged by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), a trade association that represents the wireless communications industry, in a federal court case that has been appealed several times. The CTIA claimed the law violated local retailers’ right to free speech. It argued that the requirement to put this warning on products would mislead customers to believe they should not buy phones because of “controversial” information.
“I would argue that this law doesn’t restrict the right to free speech for retailers, because it solely provides information about FDA [Food and Drug Administration] guidelines, like tobacco or alcohol warnings,” said Sadie Fleig, a senior in BIHS. Rumph agreed, saying that he believes warning labels are not violations of free speech.
The argument from the CTIA was dismissed after the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco decided that the warning did not violate the First Amendment. After losing this case, the CTIA refused to give up and continued up the legal ladder. In December, the Supreme Court followed in the footsteps of the lower courts and upheld the law in Berkeley, dismissing the censure of the CTIA.
Although the CTIA did not win this battle, their worries may not become a reality. Fleig said, “I think that many of our cell phone habits are too ingrained to change much with just this disclaimer, but there is a greater possibility for Berkeley residents to prevent harm from cell phones.”
Even with limited research on radiation, the harmful effects of society’s constant use of technology are a realistic possibility. Fleig added that this law “may not change cell phone habits, but it serves to educate the population.” Whether or not this warning on retail products will make a change in Berkeley residents’ and students’ practices, laws such as these provide opportunities for discussion and education on the benefits and detriments of wireless networks and radiation.