Cell phones, brain tumors, and Congo's barbaric war

Two weekend columns turned a spotlight on the potential side-effects of some of consumers' favorite technologies. One centered on effects on consumers themselves - in particular, on children's developing brains. The other was about harm to people a world away, where minerals for key high-tech components are mined. Both are worth reading.

Maureen Dowd wrote about San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, an iPhone lover who's worried about the effects of cell-phone radiation on humans, and especially on children. It's an area where research is basically inconclusive, so government officials have done little beyond requiring disclosure - disclosure that is widely ignored despite large  differences in various phones' emission levels.

Here's how she described the back story of Newsom's response, which led to San Francisco's decision to impose the nation's first requirement that those radiation disclosures go a little more public - by requiring retailers to post them:

Different phone models emit anywhere from 0.2 watts per kilogram of body tissue to 1.6 watts, the legal limit. The amount of radio frequency energy seeping into the body and brain is measured by a unit called the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR).

“You see all these kids literally glued to their phones,” Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, told me. “And candidly, my wife was pregnant and on her cellphone nonstop. So I dusted off some studies and started doing research.

“That’s when I discovered that companies who make cellphones are already required to disclose that information to the federal government, and that it exists but somewhere on someone’s Web page on the 88th page.” Why not underscore it, he thought, by alerting consumers at the store, putting the SAR level in the same font as the phone price?

One reason why not, as Newsom has come to discover, is that the retail-disclosure requirement made the wireless industry crazy.  CTIA, its primary industry organization, even threatened to relocate an annual conference that brings the city $80 million in business.

“Since our bill is relatively benign, it begs the question, why did they work so hard and spend so much money to kill it?: Newsom asks, according to Dowd.  "I’ve become more fearful, not less, because of their reaction. It’s like BP. Shouldn’t they be doing whatever it takes to protect their global shareholders?”

Like Newsom, I've become highly dependent on my wireless phone, and all the benefits of the technology behind it.  But it's worth remembering that all technologies come with risks. Embracing this one so quickly and enthusiastically has made us guinea pigs - experimental subjects whose health will one day be cited as evidence that the risks were or weren't real.

CNET.com recently published a list of the highest- and lowest-emission cell phones. Click here to see CNET's coverage (which, by the way, shows an even larger range of emissions than Dowd cites), and its links to other sources of information.

Ironically, Dowd's column ran on the same day that a NYT colleague, Nicholas Kristof, offered evidence that some of the worst side-effects from our favorite high-tech gadgets may be being felt a world away in places such as Congo, home to great mineral resources and a brutal civil war.  You can read Kristof's column here. He writes:

An ugly paradox of the 21st century is that some of our elegant symbols of modernity — smartphones, laptops and digital cameras — are built from minerals that seem to be fueling mass slaughter and rape in Congo. With throngs waiting in lines in the last few days to buy the latest iPhone, I’m thinking: What if we could harness that desperation for new technologies to the desperate need to curb the killing in central Africa?

I’ve never reported on a war more barbaric than Congo’s, and it haunts me. In Congo, I’ve seen women who have been mutilated, children who have been forced to eat their parents’ flesh, girls who have been subjected to rapes that destroyed their insides. Warlords finance their predations in part through the sale of mineral ore containing tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold. For example, tantalum from Congo is used to make electrical capacitors that go into phones, computers and gaming devices.

Electronics manufacturers have tried to hush all this up. They want you to look at a gadget and think “sleek,” not “blood.”

Yet now there’s a grass-roots movement pressuring companies to keep these “conflict minerals” out of high-tech supply chains. Using Facebook and YouTube, activists are harassing companies like Apple, Intel and Research in Motion (which makes the BlackBerry) to get them to lean on their suppliers and ensure the use of, say, Australian tantalum rather than tantalum peddled by a Congolese militia.

Food for thought at the iPhone store.