Debating cell phone safety

State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown addresses Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, chairman of Environmental Health Trust and founding director emeritus, University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, during a hearing on legislation requiring warning labels on cell phone packaging. — HIROKO TANAKA/TRIBUNE STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Medical community, trade leaders spar over health risk labels at Pa. hearing


State legislation is up for consideration requiring cell phone companies to place warning labels on their product packaging.

The Children’s Wireless Protection Act (House Bill 1408) was debated during a Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee hearing that raised questions about the health impact of cell phone usage.

The bill calls for a warning to appear on the front and back packaging of any cellular telephone sold in Pennsylvania.

“This device emits electromagnetic radiation, exposure to which may cause brain cancer. Users, especially children and pregnant women, should keep this device away from the head and body,” the warning would state.

Proponents of the bill say it would help educate consumers about the potential health risks of using cell phones.

“It is critical that consumers have all the relevant information regarding the products they use as a part of their everyday life before determining if the product is right for them and their families. There is mounting evidence that the long-term usage of devices like cell phones may have an impact on health and today's policy committee hearing allowed for an informed dialogue on the issue to begin,” said State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, who co-sponsored the bill.

During the public hearing held Thursday at Drexel University, Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, chairman of Environmental Health Trust (EHT) and chief medical officer, Intrexon Corporation, cited several studies supporting a link between cell phone radiation and brain tumors.

“All of us at EHT believe that cell phone radiation constitutes one of the greatest unrecognized potential global public health threats in the world today,” said Herberman.

The focus on cell phone radiation comes at a time when a growing number of regular cell phone users are children.

“It is important to stress that children are not just little adults. For cell phones this matters because the skull of children is thinner than the skull of adults and modeling research has shown that cell phone radiofrequency signals are absorbed much deeper into the brains of children,” said Herberman, who is the founder director emeritus, University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.

In 2008, Herberman developed a precautionary message urging University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute staff to take steps to reduce their exposure to cell phone radiation. The message recommends that people keep cell phones away from the body, use wired headsets, their phone’s speaker mode, or the text messaging option.

While the fine print of some cell phone user manuals contains warnings about positioning cell phones away from the body, concern was expressed during the hearing that many consumers often overlook this information.

Gerard Keegan, director, state legislative affairs CITA-The Wireless Association, spoke in opposition of the bill. CITA is an international trade organization representing wireless carriers, device manufacturers and Internet service providers.

“Rather than providing information to inform consumers about products, House Bill 1408 contradicts the clear message of the federal regulatory agencies have carefully considered this issue, which is that devices compliant with the federal standards are safe for consumer use,” said Keegan.

“Instead it constitutes a contradiction to established radiofrequency safety levels and more specifically challenges the efficacy of the U.S. government’s determinations of the safety of wireless products. Such a result will not benefit consumers.”

He said the Federal Communications Commission consulted with the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to adopt standards governing radiofrequency energy from cell phones and determined that all cell phones that comply with those standards are safe for use by the general public.

“Leading national and international health and safety organizations have concluded that there are no known adverse health risks associated with the use of wireless devices,” said Keegan.

The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry and the Pennsylvania Retailers’ Association also oppose the proposed legislation.

“Mandating public warnings on ‘potential’ threats to one’s health or safety will inevitably turn into white noise — ignored by consumers who have been warning labeled to death. Accordingly, we feel that a ‘potential’ should be unequivocally ‘proven’ before government mandates consumer warnings,” Brian Rider, president and CEO, Pennsylvania Retailers’ Association, said in a written statement.

Ellen K. Marks, director of government and public affairs for EHT, flew in from California to provide testimony for the hearing. Her husband, Alan Marks has a malignant a brain tumor that they believe is a result of his cell phone use.

Marks shared a video presentation of other brain tumor victims and medical professionals who expressed their concerns about the impact of cell phone radiation.

“Those opposed to warnings about safe cell phone use feel doing so would challenge the United States government’s determination on wireless device safety. My colleagues and I could not agree more and let’s bring on the challenge now before it is far too late,” said Marks.

“Scientist’s warnings about tobacco and asbestos were long suppressed and ignored — fueled by sophisticated campaigns such as the one we are witnessing now with cell phones. In a country where a drug cannot be launched without its safety subjected to the deepest scrutiny, the idea that mobile phones can be used by children without warnings is a double standard gone mad.”

She noted that nations such as Finland, France, Russia, India and Brazil have legislated for warnings or advised their citizens of precautions in regards to cell phone use.


Contact Tribune staff writer Ayana Jones at (215) 893-5747 or

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