Panel rejects warning labels on cell phones

Posted March 09, 2010, at 10:26 a.m.
An unidentified man talks on his cell phone outside a hearing  before the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee concerning cell phone safety, in Augusta, Maine, on Tuesday, March 2, 2010. Supporters of a bill want to require cell phones in Maine to carry warnings that they may cause brain cancer. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)
An unidentified man talks on his cell phone outside a hearing before the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee concerning cell phone safety, in Augusta, Maine, on Tuesday, March 2, 2010. Supporters of a bill want to require cell phones in Maine to carry warnings that they may cause brain cancer. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)

AUGUSTA, Maine — Citing a lack of solid scientific evidence and an aversion to inciting unwarranted consumer anxiety, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee voted Tuesday against requiring all cell phones sold in Maine to be labeled as emitting cancer-causing radiation.

But they agreed that Maine consumers should be made aware of the possibility that the popular devices could be linked to brain cancer and other malignancies and that the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention should spearhead a public awareness campaign.

In a minority vote that assures the measure will heard by the full Legislature, some committee members said federal regulatory agencies should be encouraged to advance testing of mobile phones and that the wireless technology industry should contribute to the public education effort in Maine.

During an afternoon work session, the committee sought guidance from opponents and supporters of LD 1706, An Act to Create the Children’s Wireless Protection Act.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine CDC, told the committee that although there is some uncertainty about the safety of cell phone use, there is not enough scientific data to support the first-in-the-nation graphic warning label demanded in the bill, sponsored by Rep. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford. The label would advise consumers of a heightened risk to children and advise all consumers to hold cell phones away from their heads when using them.

Mills said an “explosion” in cell phone use over the past 20 years among Americans of all ages is not linked to any increase in cancer rates in general or brain cancer rates in particular. While the dangers of cell phones remain speculative, many people, including youngsters, use the devices to get help when they are in trouble. Mills cited a recent incident in which four teenage snowboarders were stranded overnight on Sugarloaf Mountain, but used a cell phone to help rescuers find them.

Mills said a much greater danger is posed by drivers who get distracted while using their phones.

“If you’re going to put a warning label on cell phones, I would suggest a label that says, ‘Do Not Use While Driving,’” Mills said.

Dane Snowden, a spokesman for the wireless industry group CTIA, said a label would mislead consumers about the dangers posed by cell phone use.

“It does concern us that a warning label of any type is being proposed for a product that has not been proven to be dangerous,” he said.

Lloyd Morgan, a retired electronics engineer from Berkeley, Calif., told the committee that studies in several European countries, where cell phones have been in widespread use longer than they have been in this country, demonstrate a clear connection to the development of brain tumors and other cancers. Morgan represented the views of a number of people who traveled to Maine from California to support the measure at a public hearing last week.

Rep. James Campbell, R-Newfield, expressed impatience at the presence of the out-of-state contingent and their interest in influencing Maine policy.

“My advice is to go back to California and get [the bill] passed down there and then come back up here and see us,” he said. Campbell also demanded to know who was “backing” the bill supporters and paying for their trip.

His comments elicited an emotional response from Ellie Marks, a resident of the San Francisco area who came to Maine with her husband, Alan, to testify about the terminal brain cancer he developed after years of daily cell phone use.

“I get nothing for this,” Marks said. “I am terribly hurt that Representative Campbell is telling us to go back to California. We’re here because we care about humanity.”

Marks referred to a group of international experts who testified before the committee last week about the dangers of cell phone radiation, and she faulted Mills and members of the committee for not adequately considering their testimony.

Committee members debated the matter at length Tuesday. Rep. Sarah Lewin, R-Eliot, said she suspected much of the evidence submitted by proponents was “junk science” and said parents should just use common sense in restricting children’s access to cell phones and other technologies.

Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland, noted that many products, including ladders and chain saws, come with prominently placed warnings. The fact that the manuals that come with cell phones are required to contain fine-print warnings about holding the devices too close to the ear indicates that the radiation they emit poses a poten-tial hazard, he said.

Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess, D-Cumberland, a cancer survivor, said the causes of cancer remain poorly understood, but that she does not trust the federal government to aggressively protect the welfare of Americans. Regulatory agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and others should be “reminded” of their duty to investigate the safety of cell phone technology, she said.

Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, wondered if the panel would be “missing the boat” by not spreading the alarm about cell phones.

“Will people look back 10, 20, 30 years from now and say, ‘Why didn’t they tell us?’” asked Brannigan, Senate chairman of the committee.

In the end, the committee voted 8-5 to kill the bill, but agreed that the Maine CDC should spearhead a consumer information campaign. The minority voted in favor of replacing the bill with a resolve to communicate their concerns to federal agencies and requiring the wireless industry to help pay for a public awareness campaign, including distributing consumer education materials to Maine retailers who sell cell phones.

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