Berkeley City Council moves forward with alerts to consumers about health, environmental risks

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Ashish Samaddar/File

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Berkeley City Council moved forward with two consumer warning measures at its Tuesday meeting. One would highlight the possible risks of cellphones, while the other would remind car users at the gas pump about how fuel emissions contribute to global warming.

On the cellphone issue, the council voted to refer to city staff to create an ordinance requiring cellphone retailers to provide customers a handout indicating where to find the phone manufacturer’s recommended separation between body and phone. One proposed wording also warned against carrying phones in pockets or bras while they are turned on.

“We want to be the magnifying glass for the consumers,” said Councilmember Max Anderson — who spearheaded the measure — at the meeting. “We want to lift that language from obscurity.”

During public comment, several people spoke on the possible connection between cellphone radiation and cancer. According to Joel Moskowitz, director of the UC Berkeley Center for Family and Community Health, the wireless phone industry has tried to suppress information about the health risks of cellphone use. He cited data showing an increase in certain kinds of brain tumors close to where people hold their phones.

Moskowitz compared the issue to the matter of tobacco regulation, which he said took years to implement even after research linked tobacco to health risks. Several advocates spoke in agreement with him at the council meeting.

“Can you think of anything worse than expanding technology that gives people cancer?” said Kevin Mottus, an environmental health advocate. “I think that this is corporate murder.”

But Gerard Keegan, a representative of of CTIA — The Wireless Association, and Polly Armstrong, CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, both dismissed the fear that cellphones cause diseases.

“Virtually every American has a cellphone,” Armstrong said at the meeting. “Courts have ruled that phones sold in this country are safe.”

According to to the World Health Organization website, cellphone radiation is  possibly carcinogenic to humans. It has not been established that it causes increased risk of brain tumors, WHO says, but the issue merits further research, partially due to lack of data for mobile phone use over periods of longer than 15 years.

Anderson noted that the ordinance he proposed does not address the matter of cancer risk — it simply emphasizes information that’s already available, but not easily accessible, about precautionary measures for cellphone users to take.

On the gas pump issue, the council voted for city staff to draft an ordinance requiring labels at fuel-dispensing facilities about the connection between automobile use and greenhouse gas emissions.

This ordinance will then be reviewed by the Energy Commission and the Community Environmental Advisory Commission, which passed the issue to the City Council after it was proposed by the environmental organization 350 Bay Area.

Councilmembers Susan Wengraf and Gordon Wozniak questioned the effectiveness of the proposed ordinance. Wengraf said it would be more useful to put labels on cars being sold to inform consumers of which automobiles make for the greenest purchases. Wozniak said he thought the measure would simply guilt-trip consumers, who might have no choice but to fuel up their cars.

“I think this is a feel-good solution,” Wozniak said at the meeting. “It doesn’t accomplish anything.”

But according to Max Gomberg, chair of the Community Environmental Advisory Commission, the labels will serve as a reminder for people to ask themselves whether every car trip they take is necessary.

“There’s a good body of research that shows that people tend to change behavior when they’re seeing the same messaging on a regular and frequent basis,” Gomberg said.

The cell phone and gas station issues have both faced legal concerns. Last year, San Francisco settled a lawsuit filed by CTIA over a similar measure on warning consumers about cell phone radiation. To avoid such a challenge, the city is working with Lawrence Lessig, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, who is providing his services pro bono.

Meanwhile, the Western States Petroleum Association sent a letter to the city in June arguing that a gas pump label would violate the First Amendment by compelling businesses to advance messages that are not entirely factual or uncontroversial.

Both issues will return to council for further discussion.

Melissa Wen is the lead city news reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.