In fact, the lawsuit’s lead plaintiff Joel Moskowitz said the new advisory goes “well beyond what any federal health agency has published on this issue.”
But Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, remains frustrated that the three-page document doesn’t more forcefully convey the risks of long-term exposure to cell phone radiation.
“The science is a lot stronger now, but you would not think that reading from this document,” the public health researcher said. “It’s underplayed.”
That’s not how Dr. Karen Smith sees it.
As director of the California Department of Public Health, she not only stands behind the wording of the guidance published Wednesday, she also denies that its release had anything to do with litigation that ended last spring.
“We would have done exactly the same thing — if there had been a lawsuit or not,” Smith said.
The lawsuit, filed in May 2016 by attorneys with the Oakland-based First Amendment Project and the UC Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic alleged that, despite repeated requests Moskowitz had made under California’s Public Records Act, Smith’s department had improperly refused to release records discussing the health risks associated with cell phone use.
The attorneys argued that the public has a compelling interest in evaluating how the department is responding to a potential health risk to which millions of Californians are exposed. The suit asked the court to order the department to release the records and declare that they are not exempt from disclosure under the state’s public records act.
“We are delighted that the California Department of Public Health is finally revealing affirmatively to the public what it knows about how to protect consumers from cell phone radiation,” said Claudia Polsky, Moskowitz’s lead attorney and founding director of the Environmental Law Clinic.
Cell phones discharge radio frequency radiation when they send and receive signals to and from cell towers.
The state’s new guidance explains that some laboratory experiments and human health studies have suggested that long-term, high cell-phone use may be linked to brain cancer and tumors of the acoustic nerve and salivary glands; lower sperm counts; headaches; and adverse effects on learning and memory. And, the document adds, children may be more at risk for harm from exposure to the cell phone radiation.
The new guidelines echo a Berkeley City Council action in May 2015, when it approved a cell phone disclosure ordinance that obligates vendors to warn buyers that carrying the devices close to the body could expose them to excessive radiation.
Smith said the science linking cell phone use to health problems remains unclear and that “we are not in a place where the preponderance of the science is on either side.”
Despite the uncertainty, the state guidance advises consumers to, among other things, keep cell phones away from their head and bodies during the day and their beds at night, as well as avoid using cell phones when streamlining audio or video or downloading or sending large files.
Smith said the decision to post the guidance was by prompted by rapidly changing patterns of cell phone use in the U.S., especially the fact that more children are using the devices at younger ages. For many other people, cell phones have become the only way they can access the internet.
“We thought this was a good time — there are things people can do to decrease their exposure if they are concerned,” Smith told the Bay Area News Group.
Following the state’s announcement Wednesday, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, the wireless industry’s trade group, issued a statement saying “Americans’ health is important to CTIA and the wireless industry, and we encourage consumers to consult the experts.”
The group then pointed out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society and numerous other international and U.S. organizations and health experts say that “the scientific evidence shows no known health risk due to the RF energy emitted by cellphones.”
Moskowitz, who has spent eight years studying and writing about the issue of electromagnetic radiation exposure, vehemently disagrees with the group.
He said at least 236 scientists in 41 countries worldwide who have published peer-reviewed research on electromagnetic fields have called for stronger regulations and the need for better public education on the issue.
Moskowitz cited partial findings released last May by federal scientists with the National Toxicology Program who were testing possible links between cancer and frequent exposure to the kind of radiation emitted from cell phones and wireless devices. The study found low incidences of tumors in the brains and hearts of male rats, but not in female rats.
While Smith said the release of the new guidelines were not prompted by Moskowitz’s lawsuit, she said they are “very closely related” to the draft Moskowitz obtained this year.
Moscowitz’s odyssey began in 2013 after a wireless safety advocate alerted him that the Division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control in the state public health department had originally drafted warnings about cell phone use in 2009. Moskowitz filed a series of Public Records Act requests for the document, but officials refused to release them.
Documents later revealed that the consensus of the division staff in 2009 had been to publish the guidance, but that their bosses balked.
Moskowitz said the documents were suppressed until his lawyers convinced a Sacramento County Superior Court judge in March to order the state to turn over the guidelines.
Polsky, Moskowitz’s lead attorney, called Smith’s assertion that the release of the guidance this week was unrelated to her client “implausible.” She said the victory that forced an earlier version of this guidance document “into the open over the CDPH’s strenuous objection” happened earlier this year.
Smith noted that part of the delay in making the guidelines public was that in 2014 the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control had issued its own cell phone safety guidance.
“When we looked at it, basically it said everything we were going to say, which is why we stopped moving forward with the guidelines,” she said.
Smith insisted that “it’s a misinterpretation that it was being suppressed.”
How To Reduce Your Exposure
The new state guidelines include practical steps to reduce exposure to radio frequency radiation from cell phones, such as:
Carry your cell phone in a backpack, briefcase or purse, NOT in a pocket, bra or belt holster.
Reduce cell phone use when the signal is weak.
Limit the use of cell phones to stream audio or video, or to download or upload large files.
Keep your cell phone away from your bed at night.
Remove your headsets when not on a call.
Avoid products that claim to block radio frequency energy. “These products may actually increase your exposure,” the guidelines say.
Image credit: iStock.