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Precautionary Principle – Number 187

Three Cs of Precaution: Cell Phones, Climate and Chemicals

October 2009


I. Are you in our Network?

In addition to the Precaution Reporter, the Science and Environmental Health Network also publishes The Networker, an online of political, economic, philosophical, scientific and social issues related to the environment and public health.  Join us for the upcoming issue featuring an original essay by leading environmental health scientist Dr. Devra Lee Davis, describing her personal journey to bring the potential health hazards of cell phones into the public eye.

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II. Government Holds Hearings Over Cell Phone Use Dangers

by Herb Denenberg, The Bulletin (Philadelphia)

Until we find out with more certainty, we better apply what is called the precautionary principle.

III. Statement on mobile phones by executive director of European Environment Agency

by Professor Jacquie McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency

The evidence is now strong enough, using the precautionary principle, to justify four steps.

IV. Cell phone warnings by the earful by Daniel Malloy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Precautions are not a bad idea. They may not be a good idea, but they're not a bad idea."—Sen. Arlen Specter

V. Cell phones: Precautions recommended

by Janet Raloff, Science News Web edition

In light of the accumulating evidence, people would be wise to adopt the precautionary principle. Israeli physician and cell-phone researcher Siegal Sadetzki put it succinctly: “Better safe than sorry.”

VI. A scary new climate study will have you saying ‘Oh, shit!’  by Mark Hertsgaard, Grist We could wait another decade to lower emissions—but that halves our chances to limit global warming. “What kind of precautionary principle is that?” asks the German government’s chief climate advisor.

VII. Jackson Comes Out Swinging on TSCA, But Pulls Some Critical Punches

by Timothy Malloy, Legal Planet: The Environmental Law and Policy Blog, Berkeley Law

“Recognizing the need to assess and manage risk in the face of uncertainty” is as close as the administration’s TSCA reform principles get to the precautionary principle.

VIII. US Ocean Policy Task Force Report Cites Precautionary Approach

The Interim Report of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force says: “Decisions affecting the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes should be informed by and consistent with the best available science. Decision-making will also be guided by a precautionary approach as reflected in the Rio Declaration of 1992.”

IX. Block that sludge! Tiny Elgin, QC sets legal precedent in blocking use of municipal sludge on its territory.

by Holly Dressel, Straight Goods

A Canadian judge invoked the precautionary principle, citing the precedent of the Supreme Court’s ruling on another Quebec’s town ban on cosmetic pesticides.

X. Astroturfing San Francisco

by Julian Davis, Fog City Journal

A resolution calling a halt on replacing natural grass with synthetic turf is an example of the intent of San Francisco’s policy of following the precautionary principle.

II. Government Holds Hearings Over Cell Phone Use Dangers

by Herb Denenberg, The Bulletin (Philadelphia), September 20, 2009

Congress has come out of its decades-long slumber to address the dangers of cell phones to 270 million Americans and as many as four billion people worldwide. On September 14, 2009, the Senate held hearings on the Heath Effects of Cell Phone Use. The hearings were chaired by Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and were requested by Senator Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania, himself a victim of a brain tumor, one of the many medical conditions which studies strongly suggest may be caused by cell phone use.

You can see a complete video and transcript of the hearings at the web site of C-span, but any reasonable person would come away from this hearing, and the many years of debate and controversy that have preceded it, with one painfully obvious conclusion: We just don’t know if cell phone use causes cancer and other medical problems, and until we find out with more certainty we better apply what is called the precautionary principle. That is, we should minimize the use of cell phones, try to use hands-free cell phones so the radiation source is not placed right next to our ear and brain, and sharply limit the use of cell phones by children. Children are more vulnerable to the effects of cell phone radiation and will have a longer period to face the cumulative effects of such radiation. As a result, the French government is actually stepping up efforts to limit cell phone use by children.

Perhaps the nub of the problem was stated by Dariusz Leszczynski of Finland’s radiation protection authority. At the hearings, he testified, “In the present situation of the scientific uncertainty, the statements that the use of mobile phones [cell phones] is safe is premature.” Senator Specter put it this way, “We just don’t know what the answer is …. Precautions are not a bad idea …. And, the issue of children is something we should look at a little more closely. We have a duty to do more by protecting children.”

An Israeli epidemiologist, Siegal Sadetzki, summarized the findings of the so-called Interphone Study, “What worried me was that, in my study, I saw consistent positive results and they always appeared where there is biological plausibility. They appeared in the more than ten years [old group], they appeared on the same side where the phone was held, they appeared for the heavy users and they appeared in rural areas compared to urban areas and this also has biological plausibility [as the amount of radiation for transmission in rural areas is greater than in urban areas]…. So, the fact that all of these indications appeared where they should have appeared told me that it was really a red light. But, as a scientist, that is not enough, definitely not for causality, but an indication that, according to my judgment, it is enough in order to advise the precautionary principle.”

The cell phone industry’s representative, Linda Erdreich of Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), stuck to the usual irrational industry position: “The current scientific evidence does not demonstrate that wireless [phones] cause cancer or other adverse effects.” But that is not the issue. It may take decades, even generations, before we know the full medical effects of cell phone use with scientific certainty. But, this is not simply a scientific question. It is also a public health question. And, any rational public health agency would look at the accumulating evidence that suggests there may be serious health effects from cell phone use such as brain cancer and, therefore, recommend we take precautions while waiting more definitive word from scientific studies. Just as in the case of tobacco, public health authorities should not wait for the last scientific study of tobacco’s health effects before taking precautions.

Louis Slesin, the editor of Microwave News, who has followed the controversy for years, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject and leading publisher of information on cell phone radiation and related matters, says we may not have final answers until epidemiologists examine cancer trends years down the road. The cancers may have a latency period of ten years or more. If there is a sharp increase in brain cancers at some future point we may be closer to a definitive answer. Over the last ten years, there is already an increase in brain cancer rates especially among younger people, 20 to 29 years old.

Slesin also says there has never been Congressional leadership on the subject. In fact, in 1992, Senator Joe Lieberman and Senator Chris Dodd, both Ds-Connecticut, held hearings on “The Effects of Traffic Radar Guns on Law Enforcement Officers.” The radiation emitted by radar guns is the same as that emitted by cell phones. Both radar guns and cell phones emit what is also described as microwave radiation. At the time, Senators Lieberman and Dodd called on NIOSH to do an epidemiological study on the link between police radar use and cancer. Senator Lieberman said, “Senator Dodd and I are going to stick with this until we get some answers.” However, NIOSH never did the study and neither senator ever followed up. This is the usual legislative and government approach; all talk and no follow-up.

Unfortunately, that is typical of legislators at both the national and state level. In over my 30 years of calling the attention of legislators to problems I’ve uncovered in investigations, I’ve found only one senator who consistently takes notice of serious problems, follows up, and almost always gets some legislative action to remedy the problem. That legislator is Pennsylvania State Senator Steward Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County.

Slesin says there has never been a member of Congress that has provided real leadership on the issue of cell phone use. Like most Congressmen, they usually are in it for the public relations ride that comes forth at hearings or other pronouncements, but never follow up in the style and consistency of Senator Greenleaf. Slesin did say that Senator Harkin was well briefed on the issue, handled the hearings with skill and know how, and would certainly have the ability to provide the national leadership that is needed. But, whether he does so remains to be seen. Slesin also pointed out that Europe is far ahead of the U.S. in applying the precautionary principle to cell phone use.

I’d have to say that in my decades long observation of cell phone safety issues, I’ve concluded it is a national disgrace that we have not applied the precautionary principle to cell phone use or issued appropriate warnings to the public. The FDA and the National Institutes of Health refuse to take any action and won’t even admit that there is a serious issue about cell phone safety. They are in the front ranks of those who have permitted this national disgrace to continue all these years. If nothing else, we can get some important lessons from the cell phone and microwave radiation scenario. It sometimes takes decades, even centuries, for government to recognize the obvious and take the obvious action, in this case apply the precautionary principle. Another lesson is that these are the same legislators and politicians that can’t solve the simplest problem imaginable and yet, they are now trying to restructure our whole health care delivery system, one-sixth of our economy. When you see how they fail at the simplest problem, you better be wary when they try to solve one of the most complicated.

There’s another lesson involving the so-called mainstream media such as the New York Times. It combines bias, dishonest and fraudulent journalism with a heavy dose of incompetent journalism. It has almost completely neglected this issue and is likely to continue to do so. Over many years, the most comprehensive and reliable reporting on the subject has come from Slesin of Microwave News. They should take all the Pulitzer Prizes awarded to the New York Times and Washington Post and give them to Slesin.

In the meantime, the public would be well advised to apply the precautionary principle to cell phone use and to put pressure on Senator Harkin and others in Congress to make the federal health and safety agencies take a rational approach to the problem. Senator Harkin said at the conclusion of the hearings, “I found this really interesting and very challenging and I can assure you we are going to do some follow-up on this.” I hope this follow-up is better than that of Senators Lieberman and Dodd, but I’ve had enough experience to know that may indeed be a thin reed to lean on.

Herb Denenberg can be reached at


III. Statement on mobile phones by executive director of European Environment Agency

by Professor Jacquie McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, Copenhagen, 15 September 2009


I am grateful for this chance to provide some input into this very timely conference. This event and the related Senate Hearings1 yesterday, have been, in part, stimulated by the BioIntiative Report 2 , which helped increase public awareness of the potential hazards of electromagnetic fields, not least from mobile phones. The European Parliament 3 responded to this debate with its resolution earlier this year which, among other things, called for lowering exposure to electromagnetic fields and for new exposure limits that would better protect the public. We fully share these recommendations.

Today I would like briefly: ·    to describe the role and mandate of the EEA; ·    to summarise our views about some of the benefits and potential costs to health of mobile phones; ·    and to conclude with what we see as the most important practical implications of the current evidence on the cancer risks from using mobile phones, especially for children and young adults.

The role of EEA and past work on the precautionary principle

The EEA provides data, information and knowledge on the environment, including its impacts on public health, to EU institutions (the European  Parliament, European Commission, and European Council of Ministers), to the 32 Member Countries of the EEA, and to the general public.

The EEA does not routinely carry out specific risk assessments on individual hazardous agents, such as radio frequencies from mobile phones. However, the EEA does have relevant knowledge and expertise about the way in which the overall scientific evidence on hazards and risks is evaluated.

Some of this knowledge is to be found in the EEA Report, 'Late Lessons from Early Warnings: the Precautionary Principle 1896–2000' published in 2001. This report reviews the histories of a selection of public and environmental hazards, such as asbestos, benzene, acid rain, and PCBs. These histories run from the first scientifically based early warnings about potential harm to subsequent inactions, or to precautionary, and then preventative measures.

The EEA sees the precautionary principle as central to public policymaking where there is scientific uncertainty and high stakes — precisely the situation that characterises EMF at this point in its history. Waiting for high levels of proof before taking action to prevent well known risks can lead to very high health and economic costs, as it did with asbestos, leaded petrol and smoking.

For example, taking effective precautionary action to avoid the plausible hazards of smoking in the late 1950s or the early 1960s would have saved much harm, health treatment costs, and productivity losses from smoking. Waiting to prevent the known risks of smoking in the 1990s, which most countries did, led to these health and economic costs. Both the precautionary and preventative principles, along with the polluter pays principle and the reduction of hazards at source, are part of the EU Treaty: all are applicable  to health, consumer, and environmental issues.

Benefits of mobile phones and potential hazards of EMF

The EEA greatly appreciates the benefits of mobile phone telephony. Indeed, the Agency is actively encouraging it as a means of communicating environmental and related information to the public.

We have ambitious plans, for example, to encourage ‘citizen scientists’ to collect data on environmental parameters, such as bird movements, fish stocks, water quality, and the flowering season, and store the information on their mobile phones.

The intention of the EEA to promote the use of mobile telephony in this way increases its responsibility to provide information that can help ensure the safety of the public when using mobile phones, especially vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, and the immuno-compromised. This is the reason why the EEA issued an early warning about the potential hazards of EMF on 17 September 2007.

In this we drew attention to the BioInitiative report and to the other main references relevant to this debate (from the EU, the WHO, and the UK National Radiological Protection Board) which, taken together, provided the basis for our early warning on EMF.

Specifically, we noted that:

'There are many examples of the failure to use the precautionary principle in the past, which have resulted in serious and often irreversible damage to health and environments. Appropriate, precautionary and proportionate actions taken now to avoid plausible and potentially serious threats to health from EMF are likely to be seen as prudent and wise from future perspectives”.

The Washington conference on cell phones has just reviewed the current evidence on the potential hazards of mobile phones, particularly the possible head tumour risks. Much of this evidence has been recently summarised in the special issue on EMF of the journal of The International Society for Pathophysiology 4.

The evidence for a head tumour risk from mobile phones, although still very limited, and much contested, is, unfortunately, stronger than two years ago when we first issued our early warning.

Recommendations based on current evidence

The evidence is now strong enough, using the precautionary principle, to justify the following steps:

1.    For governments, the mobile phone industry, and the public to take all reasonable measures to reduce exposures to EMF, especially to radio frequencies from mobile phones, and particularly the exposures to children and young adults who seem to be most at risk from head tumours. Such measures would include stopping the use of a mobile phone by placing it next to the brain. This can be achieved by the use of  texting; hands free sets;  and by the use of phones of an improved design which could generate less radiation and make it convenient to use hands free sets.

2.    To reconsider the scientific basis for the present EMF exposure standards which have serious limitations such as reliance on the contested thermal effects paradigm;  and simplistic assumptions about the complexities of radio frequency exposures.

3.     To provide effective labelling and warnings about potential risks for users of mobile phones. 5

4.    To generate the funds needed to finance and organise the urgently needed research into the health effects of phones and associated masts. Such funds could include grants from industry and possibly a small levy on the purchase and or  use of mobile phones. This idea of a research levy is a practice that we think the US pioneered in the rubber industry with a research levy on rubber industry activities in the 1970s when lung and stomach cancer was an emerging problem for that industry. The research funds would be used by independent bodies.

In addition, we have noted from previous health hazard histories such as that of lead in petrol, and methyl mercury, that ‘early warning’ scientists frequently suffer from discrimination, from loss of research funds, and from unduly personal attacks on their scientific integrity. It would be surprising if this is not already a feature of the present EMF controversy as it seems to be still a common practice as has been recently reported in Nature.

Scientific associations, lawyers, and politicians should therefore consider ways in which societies could provide greater protection for early warning scientists. An interesting precedent has been set in Germany, where the Federation of German Scientists 6 has been recognising the contribution that ’whistleblowing’ scientists and others can make to robust and transparent democracies.

Finally, we hope that there turns out to be no cancer risk, or indeed any risk  from using mobile phones and that our early warnings (which some might say are already a decade or so too late)  will be proven unnecessary. However, we would rather be wrong in issuing an unnecessary warning than be wrong in failing to alert the public about potentially serious, irreversible harm in time to avoid such harm. Thank you for your attention.

Footnotes and references are online at:


IV. Cell phone warnings by the earful

by Daniel Malloy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 15, 2009

WASHINGTON -- They were ubiquitous and used several times a day, and early warnings of cancer risks did little to curb their prevalence.

The story of cigarettes in the middle of the 20th century could be replicated now with cell phones, lawmakers and researchers warned yesterday at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing.

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., was the driving force behind a hearing of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.

University of Pittsburgh cancer researcher Devra Lee Davis told the panel that mounting scientific evidence shows a link between cancer and long-term cell phone use, though it is far from confirmed. It could be decades before the true risks are known because cell phones were not heavily used until the mid-1990s.

The purpose of the hearing was to help determine if the subcommittee should give the National Institutes of Health additional funding for research on the topic. But the participants were simply eager to call attention to the issue.

"There's no one in this room today who doubts that we should have acted sooner about tobacco," Dr. Davis said. "When President Nixon started the War on Cancer in 1971 -- an admirable act -- he ignored tobacco, although the surgeon general had warned about its dangers in 1964."

Dr. Davis said the science is far from conclusive, but urged more research into the cancer and cell phone link -- funded by a $1 per year tax on cell phone users -- as well as warning labels for phones.

Researchers Siegal Sadetzki, of Tel-Hashomer, Israel; Dariusz Leszczynski, of Helsinki; and Olga Naidenko, of Washington state, agreed with Dr. Davis' sentiment. Several nations have issued warnings about cell phone use causing brain tumors -- especially in children, whose brains absorb more radiation.

The researchers advocated keeping the phone at least an inch away from your body at all times and not using it when signal strength is low and the phone must use more power to reach a tower. They advocated using headsets but not Bluetooth earpieces, because those also emit radiation.

The only lawmakers to stay for the full session were subcommittee chair Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Mr. Specter, who asked Mr. Harkin to convene the hearing. Mr. Specter said he was first alerted to the issue by Pitt cancer researcher David Servan-Schreiber, and referenced his own bout with cancer and longtime support of NIH.

Mr. Specter pressed and interrupted the witnesses when their answers struck him as long-winded or unsatisfactory, especially John Bucher, associate director of the national toxicology program for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which is part of NIH.

Dr. Bucher described a current $24 million NIH project studying the effects of cell phone radiation on mice, which will not be completed until 2014. He hedged when asked repeatedly by Mr. Specter if NIH has any recommendations on safe use of cell phones, especially for children. Mr. Specter asked him to return with a recommendation for the subcommittee on the various studies and findings.

Linda Erdreich, senior managing scientist at Exponent in New York, gave a counterpoint to most of the panel, saying that research has been inconsistent on the topic and has not shown a definitive link. She said she couldn't prove an absence of a cancer connection, but that the other researchers have overstated their case.

"What comes through to me is we just don't know what the answer is," Mr. Specter said. "Precautions are not a bad idea. They may not be a good idea, but they're not a bad idea."

Mr. Specter recommended that cell phone companies "study the testimony here very carefully" and suggested they might be forced to study the issue as well.

CTIA-The Wireless Association, a lobbying group for wireless companies, released a statement during the hearing pointing to conclusions by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society and NIH that cell phone use is not proven to cause health problems.

Dr. Naidenko, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a D.C.-based research and advocacy organization, said that the newest research is starting to move away from those conclusions.

Environmental Working Group released a study last week that reviewed more than 200 studies and concluded that in the past two decades, the studies have produced conflicting results -- but now that researchers are able to study people who have used cell phones for many years for the first time, health problems have been more prevalent.

In addition to the hearing, cell phones and brain cancer are the subject of a conference that concludes today just a few blocks away from the hearing room on Capitol Hill. The room was packed yesterday with people who walked over from the conference -- called "Cell Phones and Health: Is There a Brain Cancer Connection?" and hosted in part by Pitt. The crowd cheered for the panelists who made strong statements about cell phone risks and grumbled at skeptical comments.

The lawmakers stressed that they did not want to cause alarm, and no one said they were swearing off cell phones altogether, but the tobacco comparisons and rhetoric of the researchers were grim.

"What's evidence?" Dr. Davis said, challenging those who say the research is inconclusive at best.  "Do we insist that the only evidence we accept is when we have enough sick and dead children? I hope that's not the case."

Daniel Malloy can be reached at or 202-445-9980.

Read more:


V. Cell phones: Precautions Recommended

by Janet Raloff, Science News Web edition: September 16, 2009.

Several government bodies around the world suggest that anyone who uses a cell phone (and these days, who doesn’t) would be well advised to keep a little distance between that phone and their body. And when people need to make a call, they should minimize radiation exposures by phoning only where reception is really good.

In justifying these and other precautions at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Monday, several scientists observed that recent studies have begun linking heavy use of cell phones over a prolonged period with an increased risk of cancer. Especially in the head, and on the same side that people normally hold their phones.

Of course, if such a link were robust, cell phones would be sold with little warning labels, much as cigarettes are today. That link is not robust. On the other hand, they argued, it’s also not going away. Quite the contrary.

For instance, Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a research/advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., led a team that just completed a 10-month analysis of 200 peer-reviewed studies on cell-phone safety.

“We found that the studies amassed during the first two decades of cell-phone use produced conflicting results and few definitive conclusions on cell-phone safety,” Naidenko said. “But, the latest research, in which scientists are for the first time able to study people who have used cell phones for many years, suggests the potential for serious safety issues.”

She and others at the hearing argued that in light of the accumulating — though still far from strong — indications of health risks, people would be wise to adopt the precautionary principle. Israeli physician and cell-phone researcher Siegal Sadetzki put it succinctly: “Better safe than sorry.”

People can and should adopt simple practices that reduce their exposure to cell-phone radiation, said this researcher from the Gertner Institute (affiliated with the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel-Aviv University). Nearly all of the researchers and scientists who spoke at the hearing similarly advocated a precautionary approach.

The lone holdout: Linda Erdreich, who spoke at the behest of CTIA-The Wireless Association®. This international group represents, among others, cell-phone makers and wireless-service providers. Erdreich, a consulting epidemiologist, saw no reason to take precautionary measures, she said, because her reading of the scientific literature suggests wireless phones pose no harm.

“The currently available scientific evidence about the effects of radiation emitted by mobile phones is contradictory,” admits Dariusz Leszczynski of Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, in Helsinki. “There are both studies showing effects and some studies showing no effect.”

Rather than view this uncertainty as reason for complacency, he says, it makes more sense to consider as “premature” any interpretation that cell phones are safe. In fact, Leszczynski contends, “Current [cell phone] safety standards are not supported by science because of the very limited research on human volunteers and on children.” Rather, he says, “This uncertainty calls not only for precautionary measures but also for further research.”

His agency has issued two cell-phone advisories suggesting what such precautions might include — like limiting children’s use of cell phones. And texting,  when possible, instead of actually talking on a cell phone (to keep that phone away from direct contact with the body).

Last year, Sadetzki’s team reported finding a 50 to 60 percent increased risk among certain Israeli adults  of parotid-gland tumors (mostly benign tumors of the salivary gland). The affected group: heavy users of cell phones who did not listen to their calls via a hands-free device (such as a wired earphone or wireless ear piece). Writing in the American Journal of Epidemiology, she and her colleagues noted: “A positive dose-response trend was found for these measurements. Based on the largest number of benign PGT patients reported to date, our results suggest an association between cellular phone use and PGTs.”

At the hearing, Sadetzki said her group’s findings were consistent with research by others linking cell phone use for 10 or more years to tumors in the brain and to acoustic neuroma (a benign tumor affecting the nerve that connects the ear to the brain).

In the July International Journal of Oncology, Lennart Hardell and Michael Carlberg of Orebro University Hospital in Sweden reported an update of their cell-phone studies looking at brain-cancer risk. Here, phone habits were analyzed for some 3,600 people, both individuals with cancer and healthy controls. And people who had developed astrocytoma — a type of brain cancer — were five times as likely to be heavy cell-phone users who got their first mobile phone during their teen years, at least a decade earlier. Cordless home phones did not show a similar link.

It may not be surprising that some of these links to cell phone use are only now emerging, Sadetzki said at the hearing, because there can be long latency periods separating exposures to carcinogens and the development of tumors. For instance, she pointed out that the first reports of brain tumors linked to radiation from the atomic-bomb blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t show up until a half-century after the bombings.

“Since widespread cell-phone use began only in the mid-‘90s,” she notes, “the followup period in most published studies is only about 10 years.”

Cell-phone technology “is here to stay,” she acknowledges, so “the question that needs to be answered is not whether we should use cell phones, but how.”

For instance, she noted that the French health ministry has warned against excessive cell-phone use by children because their bodies may still be undergoing developmental changes that render them especially susceptible to radiofrequency emissions. Moreover, cell-phone radiation penetrates their brains proportionately more deeply than it does in adults. The Israeli health ministry recommends that cell-phone users employ speakers, earphones or hands-free technologies and limit use of these phones where reception is weak.

Naidenko has yet another recommendation: “Buy low-radiation phones.” Identifying which emit the lowest radiation can be difficult, she acknowledged. That’s why her group developed a free, interactive online guide that provides manufacturer-stated radiation-emissions values for more than 1,200 different phones.


VI. A scary new climate study will have you saying ‘Oh, shit!’

by Mark Hertsgaard, Grist,13 Oct 2009

“Oh, shit.”

They say that everyone who finally gets it about climate change has an “Oh, shit” moment—an instant when the full scientific implications become clear and they suddenly realize what a horrifically dangerous situation humanity has created for itself.

Listening to the speeches, ground-breaking in their way, that President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao delivered Sept. 22 at the U.N. Summit on Climate Change, I was reminded of my most recent “Oh, shit” moment.  It came in July, courtesy of the chief climate adviser to the German government. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, chair of an advisory council known by its German acronym, WBGU, is a physicist whose specialty, fittingly enough, is chaos theory. Speaking to an invitation-only conference at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Institute, Schellnhuber divulged the findings of a study so new he had not yet briefed Chancellor Angela Merkel about it. If its conclusions are correct—and Schellnhuber ranks among the world’s half-dozen most eminent climate scientists—it has monumental implications for the pivotal meeting in December in Copenhagen, where world leaders will try to agree on reversing global warming.

Schellnhuber and his WBGU colleagues go a giant step beyond the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. body whose scientific reports are constrained because the world’s governments must approve their contents. The IPCC says that by 2020 rich industrial countries must cut emissions 25 to 40 percent (compared with 1990) if the world is to have a fair chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. By contrast, the WBGU study says the United States must cut emissions 100 percent by 2020—in other words, quit carbon entirely within 10 years. Germany and other industrial nations must do the same by 2025 to 2030. China only has until 2035, and the world as a whole must be carbon free by 2050. The study adds that big polluters can delay their day of reckoning by “buying” emissions rights from developing countries, a step the study estimates would extend some countries’ deadlines by a decade or so.

Needless to say, this timetable is light-years more demanding than what the world’s major governments are talking about in the run-up to Copenhagen. The European Union has pledged 20 percent reductions by 2020, which it will increase to 30 percent if others—i.e., the United States—do the same. Japan’s new prime minister likewise has promised 25 percent reductions by 2020 if others do the same. Obama didn’t mention a number, but the Waxman-Markey bill, which he supports, would deliver less than 5 percent reductions by 2020. Obama’s silence—doubtless a function of the fact that Republicans are implacably opposed to serious emissions cuts—allowed Hu to claim the higher ground at the U.N. Hu went further than any Chinese leader has before, pledging to curb greenhouse gas emissions growth by a “notable margin” by 2020. Obama dropped his own bombshell, however, urging that all G-20 governments phase out subsidies for fossil fuels. “The time we have to reverse this tide is running out,” Obama declared. Alas, the WBGU study suggests that our time is in fact all but gone.

G-8 leaders agreed in July to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees C (3.6 F) above the pre-industrial level at which human civilization developed.  Schellnhuber, addressing the Santa Fe conference, joked that the G-8 leaders agreed to the 2C limit “probably because they don’t know what it means.” In fact, even the “brutal” timeline of the WBGU study, Schellnhuber cautioned, would not guarantee staying within the 2 C target. It would merely give humanity a two out of three chance of doing so—“worse odds than Russian roulette,” he wryly noted.  “But it is the best we can do.” To have a three out of four chance, countries would have to quit carbon even sooner. Likewise, we could wait another decade or so to halt all greenhouse emissions, but this lowers the odds of hitting the 2 C target to fifty-fifty. “What kind of precautionary principle is that?” Schellnhuber asked.

There is a fundamental political assumption underlying the WBGU study:  that the right to emit greenhouse gases is shared equally by all people on earth. Known in diplomatic circles as “the per capita principle,” this approach has long been insisted upon by China and most other developing countries and thus is seen as essential to an agreement in Copenhagen, though among G-8 leaders only Merkel has endorsed it. The WBGU study applies the per capita principle to the world population of 7 billion people and arrives at an annual emissions quota of 2.8 tons of carbon dioxide per person. That’s harsh news for Americans, who emit 20 tons per person annually, and it explains why the U.S. deadline is the most imminent. But China won’t welcome this study either. China’s combination of high annual emissions and huge population gives it a deadline only a few years later than Europe’s and Japan’s.

“I myself was terrified when I saw these numbers,” Schellnhuber told me.  He urges governments to agree in Copenhagen to launch “a Green Apollo Project.”  Like John Kennedy’s pledge to land a man on the moon in ten years, a global Green Apollo Project would aim to put leading economies on a trajectory of zero carbon emissions within 10 years.  Combined with carbon trading with low-emissions countries, Schellnhuber says, such a “wartime mobilization” might still save us from the worst impacts of climate change. The alternative is more and more “Oh, shit” moments for all of us.


VII. Jackson Comes Out Swinging on TSCA, But Pulls Some Critical Punches

by Timothy Malloy, Legal Planet: The Environmental Law and Policy Blog, Berkeley Law, 2009 September 30

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson delivered a one-two combination in chemical policy on Tuesday, announcing principles for legislative reform of TSCA while directing the agency to publicize administrative “enhancements” to the existing program.  At a speech in San Francisco, the Administrator presented the Obama Administration’s “Essential Principles for Reform of Chemicals Management Legislation,” a set of six general tenets intended to guide TSCA reform.  Had these principles been created by the Bush Administration, they would have been an astounding breakthrough.  Coming from the Obama Administration, however, they are disappointment—albeit not an unexpected one.

On the plus side, the principles do seek to address some of the major structural flaws of TSCA, including lack of adequate testing authority and unstable funding.  It is hard to imagine any meaningful reform that would not address those problems.  The disheartening aspect of the principles is their prominent embrace of the conventional risk assessment/risk management paradigm, although one that hints at some relevance for the precautionary principle.  Principle No. 1—front and center—proclaims that “EPA should have clear authority to establish safety standards that are based on scientific risk assessments. Sound science should be the basis for the assessment of chemical risks, while recognizing the need to assess and manage risk in the face of uncertainty.”

Notions of green chemistry, safer substitutes, and alternatives assessment are relegated once again to voluntary efforts and outreach programs.  Principle No. 5 states that “[t]he design of safer and more sustainable chemicals, processes, and products should be encouraged and supported through research, education, recognition, and other means..”  It is not even clear whether the agency would be mandated or simply authorized to take substitutes into account in making risk management decisions.  Here, in an interesting bit of inconsistency between the principle and its subsequent explanation, the Principles seem to be uncertain with the role of the availability of substitutes:

“Principle No. 3: Risk Management Decisions Should Take into Account Sensitive Subpopulations, Cost, Availability of Substitutes and Other Relevant Considerations.

EPA should have clear authority to take risk management actions when chemicals do not meet the safety standard, with flexibility to take into account a range of considerations, including children’s health, economic costs, social benefits, and equity concerns.”

Another troubling principle is the one that did not appear in the list:  the principle of pre-market review.  Unlike marketing of drugs and pesticides, construction of oil refineries, and a host of other business activities, government approval is not typically required for the introduction of a new chemical into commerce under existing law.  The Principles are silent on this point, as was the Administrator in her talk on Tuesday.  Given the conventional tone of the Principles, that is hardly comforting.


VIII. US Ocean Policy Task Force Report Cites Precautionary Approach

The Interim Report of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, issued on September 10, 2009, says: “Decisions affecting the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes should be informed by and consistent with the best available science. Decision-making will also be guided by a precautionary approach as reflected in the Rio Declaration of 1992.” (p. 14)

The full report is available at


IX. Block that sludge! Tiny Elgin, QC Sets Legal Precedent in Blocking Use of Municipal Sludge on its Territory.

by Holly Dressel, Straight Goods, October 12, 2009

In November of 2006, the tiny municipality of Elgin, Quebec, comprised of only a few hundred people, passed a by-law prohibiting the spreading, storage or transport of municipal or de-inking sludge on its territory.

The people living in Elgin, about 60 km southwest of Montreal, understood that Canada's water treatment systems are not able to remove many toxic elements intrinsic to sludge, such as: •    pathogens like H1N1 or E. coli; •    dangerous chemicals like flame retardants; •    medications; •    hormones; or, •    the heavy metals that get into sewage systems from small industries and the de-inking process of paper recycling mills.

Farmers in the area were particularly worried about the heavy metals in de-inking sludges, which can sterilize soils, rendering the soil useless and in fact dangerous for crop production in a relatively short period of time. Such material can be trucked in from distant, large cities and cannot be traced.

Elgin's by-law was passed in order to "protect public health and the environment.”

The local farm wishing to spread the sludge took the village to court, on the grounds that the process is not only legal in Quebec and across Canada but encouraged by provincial regulations. They were backed by a huge multinational waste management company, GSI, which makes its money by taking human and de-inking sludge off the hands of overwhelmed municipalities, calling it a crop fertilizer, and selling it to farmers at much cheaper rates than regular chemical fertilizers.

On October 1, 2009, to the surprise of many, Quebec's Superior court upheld the town's bylaw. Judge Steve J. Reimnitz invoked the well-known Supreme Court ruling in the case of Hudson, Quebec's similar ban on cosmetic pesticides. In his 38-page decision, Judge Reimnitz also invoked the Precautionary Principle: "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation." This is more support for the principle emphasized in the Hudson case, which obliges municipalities to be "proactive in the areas of human health and the environment."

Every municipality today is coping with the daily rivers of human and industrial wastes removed by water treatment plants. Back in the 1970s, public opinion and health officials finally convinced all levels of government that raw sewage could no longer be dumped into rivers, lakes and oceans without destroying drinking water.

Environmental reasons also were a driving factor in paper recycling. Arsenic, lead and other heavy metals in the inks are removed in the recycling process and are concentrated in the sludge. At first this material was put in landfills or taken by tanker for deep-sea disposal, but in 1992 it was discovered that these sludges were so toxic they were causing enormous dead zones along ocean coasts and were declared too poisonous to dump at sea. However, they were backing up in landfills and other storage facilities on land.

Sludge can be slowly composted, although getting rid of the heavy metals can be difficult. Instead, sludge can be put through a "constructed wetland" or incinerated in closed-system plasma incinerators that leave very little residue. The practice of spreading sludge on farmlands developed in the early 1990s. Then, the American EPA provided the cheapest solutions when it renamed sludge "biosolids" [MRF or Materieles Residuelles Fertilisantes, "Residual Fertilizing Materials" in French] and declared it a valuable fertilizer, suitable for spreading on crop and pastureland. Canada's Food Inspection Agency followed the EPA action quickly.

A predictable number of contamination cases followed, including some human deaths from pathogens and the loss of dairy herds that had been sickened by poisoned pastures. More than a third of sludge spread on fields, researchers found, is not taken up by soils or plants but washes into the surface water, percolates into the ground water, and ends up in rivers and oceans anyway.

The anti-sludge movement that has grown up in Quebec and other provinces has turned to scientific research like that provided by the Cornell Waste Management Institute in Ithaca, New York. One part of the Cornell assessment states that "The sheer number of dangers associated with treating sludge as if it were a fertilizer is so great, so various and so serious that it would be the life work of thousands of professionals to divide up and respond to the categories of problems that will arise from this practice."

The recent Elgin ruling forces large municipalities to deal with their own wastes, rather than dumping them out of sight on cropland far away. It also encourages rural municipalities to protect their territories and their citizens from harm. Elgin mayor Jean-Pierre Proulx says, "We've been given the right to say 'No!'" Will Amos, a staff lawyer with the NGO Ecojustice, involved in the Hudson case, says, "Towns across Quebec and Canada are heeding our highest court's message. They should be encouraged to take action."

Holly Dressel, author and researcher, is one of Canada’s most recognized writers on environmental, health care, economic and aboriginal issues. Dressel is best known for her many collaborations with television host Dr. David Suzuki on film and radio programs. They have co-authored three books together, From Naked Ape to Super-species Good News for a Change and More Good News, which is coming out in the spring of 2010. Dressel is also the author of a forthcoming major history and analysis of Canadian health care,



X. Astroturfing San Francisco

by Julian Davis, Fog City Journal, September 22, 2009

If you hadn’t noticed, the Rec and Park department is steadily replacing natural grass surfaces of our recreation grounds with synthetic astroturf. At least nine parks, including Franklin Square Park, Garfield Square Park and Silver Terrace Playground have already been astroturfed or are in the pipeline with funds committed for the conversion. At least 18 more parks are threatened with the same fate. That’s dozens upon dozens of acres of neighborhood parks that are filling up with hazardous waste every year.

The latest victim of this trend is the Western Addition’s Kimbell Park, where workers broke ground Wednesday September 16, two days after a contentious town hall meeting at the Jewish Community High School, hosted by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi of District 5.

Community members were split on the issue of astroturfing their neighborhood park. It’s a situation that is born out of frustration that the City has not been committed enough to maintaining the parks and fields in its care. Many residents rightfully want usable and maintained open spaces. Especially in light of current budgetary woes, astroturfing recreational fields has been presented as a cost-effective and maintenance-free method of preserving the functionality of parks.

On the other hand, there are serious questions about the health and environmental impacts of synthetic fields and the answers are often unsettling. That has left many people angry and upset that there has not been a greater effort to prevent potentially hazardous and toxic waste from being dumped in their parks.

One thing is certain, the City Fields Foundation, a private non-profit organization recently set-up by Bill, John and Bob Fisher, sons of Gap founder Donald Fisher, is crazy about synthetic turf. They just love it. In a purportedly philanthropic effort to address the city’s shortage of playfields, the Fishers’ Foundation has offered up millions of dollars to makeover San Francisco parks. There’s just one main condition, that Rec and Park install synthetic turf containing toxic plastic and rubber materials.

Why San Francisco is allowing a man who made his fortune on the backs of child sweatshop laborers on the other side of the globe dictate what is best for our kids’ recreation and health here at home is beyond me. City leaders should be investigating if the Fishers, or their associates, have any economic interests related to astroturf or synthetic field installation. Is there any good reason why a philanthropic effort to save the city’s parks not include the maintenance of natural grass?

Astroturf is made of plastic and ground up bits of tire rubber that contain carcinogens, hazardous chemicals, and heavy metals such as lead, zinc and arsenic. Results from a study published by The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in 2007 indicated the presence of numerous chemicals detrimental to human health that are found in the tire-crumbs used in synthetic fields.

The Connecticut study investigated the composition of ground rubber and determined that the chemicals leached by mincing tires exceed the cancer risk threshold in young people, children, and babies. Although tire rubber is ‘recycled’ in astroturf, the process of replacing natural grass with synthetic astroturf is hardly carbon-neutral. Natural grass eliminates Co2, a major green house gas, from the atmosphere. Synthetic turf, on other hand, does not. It also contributes to significantly higher field temperatures and higher injury rates.

Growing concerns about the health and environmental risks of synthetic turf prompted State Attorney General Jerry Brown to file suit in September of last year against three manufacturers of artificial turf with the intention of compelling them to make public the dangerous levels of lead in their products. Around the same time, the California legislature passed Republican State Senator Abel Maldonado’s bill requiring the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, in conjunction with the Department of Public Health and California Integrated Waste Management Board, to conduct a study investigating the health and environmental impacts of synthetic turf fields. The GOP State Senator had originally wanted to implement a moratorium on synthetic turf installations until the study was released, but these provisions were amended out of his bill before its passage. The study will be complete in September of 2010.

Despite these newly raised concerns and action to address the issue by state leaders of both major parties, prospective gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom’s San Francisco Rec and Park department is going full-steam-ahead to accept the Fisher family gifts of toxic astroturf. San Francisco’s own Synthetic Fields Task Force identified eleven environmental and health issues of public concern and could not determine if synthetic tire waste fields were safe, or if they pose harmful risk to children’s health. It confirmed that the finely ground up tire waste contains unregulated quantities of lead, carcinogens, and other hazardous chemicals, as well as reporting significant challenges to controlling the virulent bacterial growth in tire waste fields.

Newsom’s Rec and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg attended the Kimbell Park town hall meeting touting the affordability and convenience of astroturf, despite the luke warm and inconclusive defense it received from the Department of the Environment staff who also made presentations to community attendees. Ginsburg insisted, after being questioned by youth athletes in the audience, that the synthetic fields require no maintenance and no water. However the City Fields Foundation’s own website states, “The Recreation and Park Department regularly cleans the fields of debris and grooms the turf to improve play.” This involves weekly sweeping, bi-monthly “broom drag” grooming, further bi-monthly grooming using a “field groomer,” and extra cleaning for which “park staff uses soap and water as recommended by the turf manufacturers.” In fact, without such grooming, synthetic fields develop bacteria that can easily lead to infection from common skin abrasions. In addition, synthetic fields have to be replaced every ten years at great expense, calling into question their affordability in the long-term.

The bigger picture here is about the legacy we want to leave to current and future generations of San Francisco youth and residents. We are a city proud of our leadership on environmental issues and our rich heritage of natural beauty in an urban setting. Do we really want to leave plastic and rubber tire-waste fields where once we found natural grass and urban ecosystems?

Long-time Western Addition community activist Arnold Townsend is opposed to astroturf. “When kids go to park they ought to get dirty. You don’t find bugs on astroturf. Kids don’t learn about ecosystems on astroturf. No matter how much ball you play on it, it’s an unnatural setting,” he said.

What’s to be done?

1) Support Supervisor Mirkarimi’s resolution (091045), introduced August 18, requesting the Recreation and Park Department temporarily suspend the program of converting natural turf playing fields to artificial surfaces pending the release of a report by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment on the health and environmental impacts of synthetic turf fields. This report is due next year and Mirkarimi’s resolution is a prime example of the intent of San Francisco’s policy of following the precautionary principle. The resolution was referred to the City Operations & Neighborhood Services Committee. Call or write committee members (Supervisors Bevan Dufty, Sean Elsbernd, and Chris Daly) encouraging them to approve the resolution.

2) Ask your Supervisors for an ordinance creating a moratorium on converting natural turf playing fields to artificial surfaces at least until the release of the state mandated report next year. Unfortunately the resolution before the board, though a highly persuasive statement of policy if it passes, can technically be ignored by the Rec and Park Department.

3) Ask the Government Audit & Oversight Committee of the Board of Supervisors to order an analysis of the long term cost comparison of synthetic turf vs. natural grass. Synthetic fields do require maintenance and costly full-scale replacement every ten years. What is the relative cost, over a thirty-year period, of natural grass vs. synthetic turf? You have a right to know before you end up with ground tire rubber in your neighborhood park. The members of this committee are Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi, Eric Mar, and Sophie Maxwell.

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