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Precautionary Principle – Number 190

"Going Cheney," More Cell Phones and Electronics

January 2010


Editor's Note:

Our huge thanks to each RPR reader who gave a year-end financial gift in 2009. Your support truly keeps the going in 2010.

Loyal RPR readers might wonder what founder Peter Montague has been up to since he finished publishing Rachel's and RPR at the beginning of 2009. The indefatigable Peter has just produced a new internet video on a proposed power plant in New Jersey, which plans to bury hazardous carbon dioxide under the Atlantic Ocean. View the video here, leave comments, and spread the word:

I. Going Cheney on Climate by Thomas L. Friedman, New York TimesWhile climate change predictions are fraught with uncertainty we do know two things: the CO2 we put into the atmosphere stays there for many years, so it is “irreversible” in real-time; and two, that CO2 buildup has the potential to unleash “catastrophic” warming. A case for the precautionary principle.II. Try Cell Phone Education Before a Ban by Meryl Nass, Bangor [ME] Daily NewsA Maine legislator has introduced a bill requiring warnings on cell phones designed for sale to kids.III. Newsom Backs Radiation Labels on Cell Phones; Newsom says Consumers in S.F. Have Right to Know by Heather Knight, San Francisco Chronicle

In 2003 San Francisco became the first US city to adopt the precautionary principle. It may now apply the principle to cell phones.

IV. Greenpeace Ranks Apple as Greenest Electronics Maker

In 2006 Greenpeace dissed Apple for failing to follow the precautionary principle and rated it 2.7 out of 10 on its green scale. Now this Apple PR piece claims Apple is Greenpeace’s greenest.

V. Guide to Greener Electronics Greenpeace

The real story is that Apple is up to 5.1 on the Greenpeace scale but still trails Nokia and others.

I. Going Cheney on Climate

Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times

In 2006, Ron Suskind published "The One Percent Doctrine," a book about the U.S. war on terrorists after 9/11. The title was drawn from an assessment by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who, in the face of concerns that a Pakistani scientist was offering nuclear-weapons expertise to Al Qaeda, reportedly declared: "If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response." Cheney contended that the U.S. had to confront a very new type of threat: a "low-probability, high-impact event."

Soon after Suskind's book came out, the legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who then was at the University of Chicago, pointed out that Mr. Cheney seemed to be endorsing the same "precautionary principle" that also animated environmentalists. Sunstein wrote in his blog: "According to the Precautionary Principle, it is appropriate to respond aggressively to low-probability, high-impact events — such as climate change. Indeed, another vice president — Al Gore — can be understood to be arguing for a precautionary principle for climate change (though he believes that the chance of disaster is well over 1 percent)."

Of course, Mr. Cheney would never accept that analogy. Indeed, many of the same people who defend Mr. Cheney's One Percent Doctrine on nukes tell us not to worry at all about catastrophic global warming, where the odds are, in fact, a lot higher than 1 percent, if we stick to business as usual. That is unfortunate, because Cheney's instinct is precisely the right framework with which to think about the climate issue — and this whole "climategate" controversy as well.

"Climategate" was triggered on Nov. 17 when an unidentified person hacked into the e-mails and data files of the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, one of the leading climate science centers in the world — and then posted them on the Internet. In a few instances, they revealed some leading climatologists seemingly massaging data to show more global warming and excluding contradictory research.

Frankly, I found it very disappointing to read a leading climate scientist writing that he used a "trick" to "hide" a putative decline in temperatures or was keeping contradictory research from getting a proper hearing. Yes, the climate-denier community, funded by big oil, has published all sorts of bogus science for years — and the world never made a fuss. That, though, is no excuse for serious climatologists not adhering to the highest scientific standards at all times.

That said, be serious: The evidence that our planet, since the Industrial Revolution, has been on a broad warming trend outside the normal variation patterns — with periodic micro-cooling phases — has been documented by a variety of independent research centers.

As this paper just reported: "Despite recent fluctuations in global temperature year to year, which fueled claims of global cooling, a sustained global warming trend shows no signs of ending, according to new analysis by the World Meteorological Organization made public on Tuesday. The decade of the 2000s is very likely the warmest decade in the modern record."

This is not complicated. We know that our planet is enveloped in a blanket of greenhouse gases that keep the Earth at a comfortable temperature. As we pump more carbon-dioxide and other greenhouse gases into that blanket from cars, buildings, agriculture, forests and industry, more heat gets trapped.

What we don't know, because the climate system is so complex, is what other factors might over time compensate for that man-driven warming, or how rapidly temperatures might rise, melt more ice and raise sea levels. It's all a game of odds. We've never been here before. We just know two things: one, the CO2 we put into the atmosphere stays there for many years, so it is "irreversible" in real-time (barring some feat of geo-engineering); and two, that CO2 buildup has the potential to unleash "catastrophic" warming.

When I see a problem that has even a 1 percent probability of occurring and is "irreversible" and potentially "catastrophic," I buy insurance. That is what taking climate change seriously is all about.

If we prepare for climate change by building a clean-power economy, but climate change turns out to be a hoax, what would be the result? Well, during a transition period, we would have higher energy prices. But gradually we would be driving battery-powered electric cars and powering more and more of our homes and factories with wind, solar, nuclear and second-generation biofuels. We would be much less dependent on oil dictators who have drawn a bull's-eye on our backs; our trade deficit would improve; the dollar would strengthen; and the air we breathe would be cleaner. In short, as a country, we would be stronger, more innovative and more energy independent.

But if we don't prepare, and climate change turns out to be real, life on this planet could become a living hell. And that's why I'm for doing the Cheney-thing on climate — preparing for 1 percent.


II. Try Cell Phone Education Before a Ban

Meryl Nass, M.D., Bangor [ME] Daily News, January 8, 2010

Over and over, the health of an industry has collided with the health of its employees or those who use its products. From coal mining (black lung) to asbestos (asbestosis and mesothelioma) to hormone replacement therapy (uterine cancer, breast cancer) to exposure to electromagnetic fields, industry insisted that none of these exposures had any harmful effects on health.

Usually the battles were of the David and Goliath variety: billion-dollar industries successfully fought worker and citizen claims for many years before David prevailed. Eventually the tide turned, but many people were injured by noxious exposures long after good quality science had shown them be harmful.

If a product definitely causes high rates of cancer, you ban or severely restrict its use. Johns Manville, an asbestos producer, filed for bankruptcy as a result, but was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway in 2001 and continues to manufacture (safer) insulation.

But what if a product might cause cancer, especially in children exposed over a long period? Because a long exposure is needed to cause damage, an appropriate intervention could have significant positive effects. The science is very suggestive that the most malignant brain cancer (glioblastoma) and a benign brain tumor of the auditory nerve (acoustic neuroma) increase in cell phone users after 10 years of use, and the effect is more pronounced in children’s brains. But the science isn’t absolutely positive, and research in this area is continuing.

It is not appropriate to ban cell phones. But since proven ways to reduce exposure to cell phone emissions exist — and by taking advantage of these measures any cancer risk will be reduced — it is appropriate to warn and educate the public about this matter. Some would say that knowledgeable scientists and physicians have a professional duty to warn consumers.

An added benefit is that cell phone reception can be improved by using headsets that keep phone transmitters further from the brain.

Rep. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford, has introduced a bill to require cell phone manufacturers to include a warning label on packaging of cell phones designed for sale to children in Maine. Passage of the bill would not cost the state or consumers a penny, but will, in the best sense, embody the goals of the Precautionary Principle to inform and empower the public about an important health concern for which the data are suggestive, but not absolute.

Meryl Nass, M.D., is an internist at Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor and chairman of the Commission to Protect the Lives and Health of Members of the Maine National Guard.


III. Newsom Backs Radiation Labels on Cell Phones; Newsom says Consumers in S.F. Have Right to Know

Heather Knight, San Francisco Chronicle, December 15, 2009

San Francisco would become the first city in the country to require that cell phone retailers label the devices with the level of radiation they emit under a controversial proposal being discussed at the Department of the Environment and endorsed by Mayor Gavin Newsom.

There is no scientific consensus that cell phones pose health hazards, and the Federal Communications Commission is adamant that any cell phone legally sold in the United States is safe for consumer use.

But Newsom - who said he'll keep on using his beloved iPhone - said customers have the right to the information.

"The information exists, but not at the point of sale," he said. "If we prevail, and I believe we will prevail, other cities will follow suit."

The FCC, working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has adopted limits for safe exposure to radiation, which are calculated in terms of a unit called the Specific Absorption Rate that signifies the amount of radio frequency energy a person absorbs into his or her body and brain when talking on a cell phone.

The FCC requires that cell phone manufacturers ensure their phones are at or below a SAR level of 1.6 watts per kilogram of body tissue to be legally sold in this country. Some phones emit as little as 0.2 watts per kilogram.

Newsom supports legislation to require that cell phone retailers display the SAR level next to each phone in a font at least as large as the price. Retailers would also have to provide information about what SAR values mean.

All types of stores selling phones would be affected. The Department of Public Health would monitor stores' compliance and could levy fines.

The city's environment commission is debating the legislation, though it would need approval at the Board of Supervisors to become law.

Other ideas being discussed at the commission are encouraging the school district to ban cell phone use in elementary schools because children are more susceptible to radiation and requiring that all cell phones be sold with a headset so radiation is farther away from the brain.

The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, a trade group representing cell phone companies, hotly disputes the notion that cell phone radiation poses health concerns.

It points to the American Cancer Society's findings that cell phones are "unlikely" to cause cancer and to the World Health Organization's determination that cell phones aren't a public health risk.

John Walls, vice president of public affairs for the trade group, released a statement reading in part, "CTIA and the wireless industry have always been guided by science, and the views of impartial health organizations. The peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices do not pose a public health risk."

The organization didn't specify whether it would fight San Francisco's legislation, but Newsom said he expects it.

The Environmental Working Group, a national nonprofit research and advocacy organization, recently conducted its own study on radiation in cell phones and maintains that consumers should have access to the information.

Renee Sharp, director of the organization's California office, said only recently have scientific studies examined radiation effects of people using cell phones for more than 10 years.

"There have been several very large studies which have been done in other countries which have found increased rates of brain tumors and salivary gland tumors especially on the side of the brain or side of the face where the user preferentially uses their cell phones," she said.

She said the FCC's regulations are inadequate, especially for children. She said other countries are taking far more progressive steps, including recommending which phones are safest for children.

Sharp, who has been advising San Francisco officials on their legislation, said more public information can only be positive.

Safest devices The Environmental Working Group recently published information on cell phones and radiation levels, including which devices are the safest. Find the information


IV. Greenpeace Ranks Apple as Greenest Electronics Maker, January 7, 2010

After falling prey to harsh criticism from Greenpeace over its use of toxic chemicals in products for years on end, Apple was honored this week with the environmental advocacy group's top ranking as the greenest electronics maker. "It's time for a little less conversation and a lot more action on removing toxic chemicals," said Casey Harrell, Greenpeace International Electronics campaigner. "Apple is leading and HP is playing catch up, but the lack of action from other companies is ensuring that customers and the environment are still losing out."

The Cupertino-based Mac and iPhone maker received gold stars in all four categories identified in Greenpeace's latest electronics guide: desktops, notebooks, cellphones and displays. In each case, the firm said Apple's products were free of the worst hazardous substances plaguing modern-day electronics.

"Companies need to support legislative bans to ensure a consistent phase out of PVC and BFRs across all electronic products," Harrell added. "Sony Ericsson and Apple are already calling on EU institutions to support such a ban. Other big players, such as HP and Dell – who have so far been silent - and Acer, need to ensure the ban is passed in the European Union parliament."

Saying Greenpeace and Apple have a storied and muddied past would be an understatement. This week's announcement follows years of pressure on the part of Greenpeace, in which the advocacy group made Apple its primary target in the wake of the iPod boom and the Mac's return to stardom.

In August of 2006, Greenpeace issued a report which gave Apple a 2.7 out of 10 environmental-friendly rating, condemning the electronics maker with low scores in almost all of its criteria, including the use of toxic chemicals, recycling, and the quality of its take-back programs.

"For a company that claims to lead on product design, Apple scores badly on almost all criteria," the group wrote in the report. "The company fails to embrace the precautionary principle, withholds its full list of regulated substances and provides no timelines for eliminating toxic [chemicals]."

Greenpeace then kicked off a "Green my Apple" campaign that saw it set up shop at that year's MacExpo in London, in which members began distributing organic green apples to attendees in an effort to raise awareness about the use of toxic chemicals in Apple's products. The effort was short-lived, however, as Greenpeace was abruptly asked to leave the show and forced to shut down its operation.

In the month's that would follow, the group would pull similar publicity stunts such as "greening" Apple's flagship store on Fifth Avenue New York City by shining green spotlights into the location's 32-foot glass cube. A similar protest was made at Apple's San Francisco-based flagship shop during the January 2007 Macworld Expo, albeit to less success due to technical difficulties.

Nevertheless, the negative publicity generated by Greenpeace would force Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs to issue an open letter to customers and shareholders in May of 2007, in which he admitted that the company had not been forthright on its environmental policy. As part of the letter, Jobs outline a timetable for the removal of toxic chemicals from the company's products, including arsenic, mercury, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and brominated flame retardants (BDRs).

In an interview this past September, Jobs, along with Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook, would expand on his company's newfound environmentally conscious ways while acknowledging that Greenpeace's targeting of his company played a significant role in promoting its green focus in public.

After falling prey to harsh criticism from Greenpeace over its use of toxic chemicals in products for years on end, Apple was honored this week with the environmental advocacy group's top ranking as the greenest electronics maker.

After Greenpeace criticized Apple for the use of toxic chemicals in its products, Jobs said he turned to former vice president Al Gore, a member of his company's board of directors and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change. Gore reportedly told Jobs to do what he does, and not get into a "mud-slinging war" with the environmental organization.

In response, Apple began mentioning its products' environmental impact with a scorecard at each keynote. Jobs argued that his company had always been green, but in the past it didn't make it a point to mention it in public. He said the company's tight-lipped approach, particularly on public policy issues, hurt its image with environmental organizations.

"We tend to report rather than predict," Jobs said. "You won't see us out there saying what the PC is going to look like in 2016. We quietly go try to invent the PC for 2016."

Another report highlighted the company's reporting of hardware carbon emissions, a new disclosure that was revealed by the company that same week. It noted the use of Apple products by consumers accounts for more than half of Apple's annual 10.2 million tons of carbon emissions. Apple's environmental Web site states that less than 5 percent of the company's emissions come from manufacturing facilities, while more than 95 percent of its greenhouse gases are from the products it sells.

Cook said that companies often focus on the wrong issues. He gave the example of installing motion detectors in a conference room, to automatically turn off the lights in a room when no one is there. But the real carbon footprint, he said, comes from the products themselves.

"Making products cleaner involves real engineering," Cook said. "It's about innovating, and it's hard work."


V. Guide to Greener Electronics

Greenpeace, January 2010

The real story is that Apple is up to 5.1 on the Greenpeace scale but still trails Nokia and others.

See the ranking scale and read the Greenpeace press release.