Friday, May 7, 2010

On Labeling (Marin IJ)

On a recent trip to Safeway, I decided to pay attention to what was in my shopping cart. Standing in the checkout line, I scanned the nutritional labels on the items I’d selected. What I found was shocking; an eight-ounce package of sliced ham is infused with over two grams of sodium (nearly a full day’s supply). A small glass of Cran-Raspberry juice drink is loaded with 28 grams of carbs. A mouthful (one ounce) of Colby-Jack cheese contains six grams of saturated fat – 30% of your fat budget for the day. And, a single serving (one cup) of the frozen potpie I’d picked out for lunch has a whopping 501 calories and 26 milligrams of cholesterol. Well, I had to put that pie into the send-back pot. While making adjustments to my cart, I decided that although nutritional labels can seem scary, they are actually quite useful.

Once home, I did some research and discovered that food labels are indeed effective. They’ve been shown to benefit public health by encouraging suppliers to offer healthier choices and by encouraging consumers to choose them. What then should we think of other health-focused labels? Labeling lead levels in children’s toys – most of us can agree that this is a good idea. Nutritional content of chain restaurant food – I know that this information might change my choices at the drive-thru. Parts per million of hemp in my t-shirt – that, is probably over-kill. And how about labeling the radiation emissions of cellular phones? Well, that depends. One of my colleagues recently told me that she wasn’t too concerned about cellphones causing brain tumors because they seemed so innocuous. I agree, cellphones seem harmless (unless they are tempting you to text and drive) and they sure are convenient, but the fact is that we don’t know what the long-term risks of heavy use really are.

As I discussed in a column last year, there is some evidence that long-standing use of cellphones increases the risk of certain types of brain cancer. Most concerning is that the impact of cellphone use on the brains of children and teenagers has not been adequately studied. Could it be that cellphone use, much like drinking anti-freeze, seems innocuous at first but turns deadly later? I, for one, am not at all sure, but have advised others to limit direct held-to-the ear cellphone use as much as possible.

Given how little we know about the long-term danger (or safety) of cellphones, it seems reasonable for consumers to ask for easy access to information about the radiation (defined as the specific absorption rate or SAR) of individual phones. This is what State Senator Mark Leno’s new bill, SB 1212, would require at the point of sale (via labeling on exterior packaging). This bill, which is similar to one endorsed by Mayor Newsom in San Francisco, is set for debate in the Environmental Quality committee on April 19th. From a discussion with Senator Leno, I learned that the rationale for labeling is twofold. First, the labeling would address the fact that there is a significant and not necessarily intuitive disparity (over four-fold) between the SARs of different cellphone brands. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has published a list of radiation levels for over 1,000 phones on their website ( and if you check it out you will notice that there is a considerable difference between the lowest SAR phone (Sanyo Katani II: 0.22-0.55 watts/kg) and the highest ones (Blackberry 8820 and others: greater than 1.5 watts/kg). Second, the labeling would help to raise consumer awareness of the potential risks of what is a very common and yet modifiable exposure. Says RenĂ©e Sharp, Director of the California Office of the EWG; “We see this as a very nominal, basic step so that people can make informed choices. If people are more aware of the radiation coming out of their phone, they may be more likely to buy a low radiation phone or buy a headset or use speakerphone.” The headset, explains Lloyd Morgan of the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States, is the preferred risk-mitigation strategy; “Because the radiation decreases as the square of the distance from the cellphone increases (100 squared is 10,000), the difference between the lowest SAR phone and the highest SAR phone is inconsequential compared to keeping the cellphone away from your head or body.”

So, let’s think this through; is it reasonable to conjecture that a consumer who buys a high SAR phone may also buy a headset? Yes. Is it realistic to assume that some informed consumers might choose a lower SAR phone over an equivalent higher SAR phone? Seems to be. Are these actions likely to have a measurable effect on brain cancer rates? Who knows, but the answer could be yes, and if it is, requiring cellphone makers to make SAR values clearly evident seems an innocuous step with significant public health benefits. Realize also, that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) already requires that manufacturers calculate the SARs, but that most bury the information deep in the phone’s manual. Putting the information front-and-center would give consumers the choice to pay attention, or not – and to change their behavior, or not. And much like me at the supermarket, some folks might be surprised how information can affect simple choices.