Buyers beware: cellphones may cause cancer! (in Berkeley anyway)

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Destroying a cellphoneAn article in today s New York Times conveys the astounding report that beginning in August, purchasers of cellphones in Berkeley CA must be warned that using these devices are subjecting themselves to possibly cancer-causing radiation.

OK, being Berkeley it s not so astounding. The technophobic, chemophobic denizens of that Bay-area locale are well known for their devotion to the natural vs. the scientific. Even the Times writer (Carol Pogash) couldn t resist pointing that out, in her piece entitled Cellphone Ordinance Puts Berkeley at Forefront of Radiation Debate:

Leave it to Berkeley: This city, which has led the nation in passing all manner of laws favored by the left, has done it again. This time, the city passed a measure not actually backed by science requiring cellphone stores to warn customers that the products could be hazardous to their health, presumably by emitting dangerous levels of cancer-causing radiation.

Under the so-called Right to Know ordinance, passed unanimously in May by the Berkeley City Council, retailers are supposed to notify customers, starting in August, that you may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure to radio frequency radiation by carrying a cellphone in a pants or shirt pocket, or tucked into a bra. The potential risk, the warning continues, is greater for children.

Even supporters of the ordinance acknowledge that there is no definitive, scientific link between cellphones and cancer, although they argue that it may take years for cancers to develop.

We have covered the cellphone/cancer issue on occasion: in 2011 we honored the myth as one of our Top Ten Scares (we linked to a 2010 international study to debunk it). In 2012 we again noted the lack of any reliable evidence of a cellphone link to cancer.

As you can tell, the lack of subsequent ACSH articles indicates that we, as well as the consensus of scientists worldwide, believed the issue had if not died gone into hibernation. And now it seems to have re-awakened by the Berkeley City Council, which passed the warning mandate unanimously a few months ago.

But wait it gets worse:

We want to raise awareness, said Ellie Marks, the founder of the California Brain Tumor Association. Ms. Marks does not live in Berkeley but brought her case here because, she said, Berkeley has a reputation for taking progressive action. She said she is convinced that her husband, Alan, a real estate agent, contracted brain cancer at age 56 from often having a cellphone pressed to his ear.

The California Brain Tumor Association? Progressive action? Yes! Ms. Marks, while off-base apparently with her epidemiology, knows her populist hotbeds, and surely came to the right place to promote her cause. Hopefully, this trend will come to a halt on the east coast of the San Francisco Bay but it s possible it will swim across that bay: San Francisco is not immune to such progressive measures itself.

If it becomes an issue there, or anywhere else, the proponents will have two major impediments against its passage: the cellphone trade association (CTIA) has hired Ted Olson, one of the nation s most successful litigators (he got Bush II elected in 2000, remember that one?), to argue a First Amendment case against the measure. And, at least as important, medical experts will appear in profusion to testify thusly:

X-rays, which emit ionizing radiation, are known to cause adverse biological effects at high doses including cancer, said Jerrold T. Bushberg, a medical physicist and a professor of radiology and radiation oncology at the University of California, Davis. Cellphones, which emit non-ionizing radiation, do not.

Speaking for himself and as a representative of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, Dr. Bushberg said that possible connections between cellphones and cancer have been studied exhaustively. We ve been looking for signs of adverse effects at low levels for over 50 years without success, he said. We can t say it s impossible, but if there is a risk it would be very, very low, or we would have seen an increase in brain cancers.

If cellphones were carcinogenic, Dr. Bushberg said, researchers would have seen an increase in brain cancer in Scandinavian countries, where cellphones have been used longer and where, because of socialized medicine, excellent cancer registries exist. That has not happened.