Berkeley clears hurdle in effort to implement 1st cellphone public health ordinance in US

Tracy Lam/Staff

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On Monday, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen granted the city of Berkeley the ability to pass a revised cellphone public health ordinance warning against the level of radiofrequency exposure from cellphone use.

The ordinance, which in its original form prompted a legal dispute between the city and the CTIA – The Wireless Association earlier this year, requests that all cellphone distributors in Berkeley post a health and safety notice in their stores warning consumers of the damage radiofrequency can cause when cellphones are held close to the body.

If the ordinance were to go into effect, it would make Berkeley the first city in the United States to implement a measure requiring such a public health notice. Berkeley City Council originally passed the first reading in May 2015 and planned for it to be implemented in August.

As a result of City Council’s decision this spring, CTIA filed a lawsuit against the city of Berkeley stating in its court complaint that the notice required by the measure would infringe on retailers’ right to free speech, arguing that the dangers voiced were opinions rather than facts established by scientific evidence.

CTIA requested a preliminary injunction to delay the ordinance on the grounds that the industry would suffer irreparable harm if the ordinance were put into effect. Chen did not grant the injunction in his ruling Monday, approving the majority of the language in the original ordinance except for a sentence alleging that children face greater risks of exposure from cellphone use.

Now that the ordinance’s language has been cleared, the city will re-evaluate the revised version Oct. 9.

Ted Olson, the CTIA attorney, told the Associated Press in a statement that his client was pleased that the court had blocked the ordinance as drafted and is confident that the ordinance will ultimately be struck down.

Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley, said the current regulations from the Federal Communications Commission on health notices regarding radiofrequencies are outdated.

Moskowitz contributed pro bono scientific advising for a similar ordinance in San Francisco that passed in 2010. That ordinance, Moskowitz said, warned and additionally advised consumers on how to limit their exposure to radiofrequency from cellular devices.

In 2013, the CTIA’s injunction was granted by an appeals court and the ordinance was never issued, but Moskowitz said he hopes the Berkeley measure will have greater success.

“I think their fear is that it’s a slippery slope, and they know there are a lot of cities around the country looking to do what Berkeley just did,” Moskowitz said. “If they accepted this warning, they’d be fighting this battle in every city in the country.”

Contact Brenna Smith at [email protected].