Warning labels on cellphones proposed by Conservative MP

Matt Coutts
Daily Brew
A bourse trader uses a cell phone during a trading session on the trading floor at Frankfurt's stock exchange August 2, 2011. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

Question: Were you aware that cellphones and wireless internet may be harmful to you? And would having prominent warning labels telling you that change the way you live your life?

A Conservative MP is seeking to improve health warnings for popular electronic devices, calling for warning labels to be pulled from the back of owner`s manuals and instead be posted prominently on either the device’s box, or on the device itself.

Call it overprotective and overbearing if you like, but Oakville MP Terence Young says it is overdue and undermining the public’s awareness of health concerns surrounding wireless radiation.

"The World Health Organization places wireless radiation on the same cancer warning-list as DDT, lead and car exhaust," Young said at an announcement on Monday. "Canadians have a right to know this." 

Young says he has multi-party support for his motion, which if passed would see all wireless devices sold in Canada include warning labels similar to those on tobacco or alcohol.

There’s been a lot of talk in Canada recently about governments banning potentially-dangerous childhood activities, shutting down backyard ice rinks or blocking toboggan hills.

They can’t do that to adults, we wouldn’t stand for it. But we sure are at threat of being warned to death.

Warnings are posted on everything these days: Cigarette packages obviously, but also coffee cups, car seats and household items like hair dryers and vacuums. Are cellphones next? And should they be?

Perhaps there is an argument to underline the health concerns around mobile phones. The group Canadians For Safe Technology has spoken out against electromagnetic radiation in the past, stating that a “significant and growing percentage of our population suffer ill health effects caused by emissions from everyday wireless devices and infrastructure.”

The World Health Organization has said that exposure to radio frequency (RF) signals could be carcinogenic to humans, but that the issue needs more research. A formal risk assessment is expected to be completed by 2016.

Health Canada says while many have suggested Wi-Fi equipment is a health concern, “there is no convincing scientific evidence that exposure to low-level radiofrequency (RF) energy from Wi-Fi causes adverse health effects in humans.”

Good thing, too, because these days, Wi-Fi is everywhere. It is available in coffee shops, homes and public squares. Schools have Wi-Fi, though the debate on whether that is appropriate has raged in the past.

While some tech companies already place warning labels on the inside of cellphone manuals, Young says they aren’t noticeable enough and should be larger, more prominent.

"Their warnings are in fine print, in paper booklets that few people read," he said. "This new Bill ensures those same warnings will be readable and easy to find, right on the packaging or the device."

If cellphones end up with warning labels, what else should they say on them? Cellphone use has been identified as a medical concern if used while driving, so add that addendum to the label. And the smaller they get, the more threat they pose as a choking hazard.

Young made headlines last year when he successfully championed a law for better warning labels on pharmaceuticals. The movement was dedicated to his daughter, who died of a heart attack caused by her medication. His campaign should certainly be commended.

But the pursuit of safety comes at a price. It coddles the consumer, creates an environment where they no longer have the ability to act without intervention. It removes the need to understand the pros and cons of their own decisions.

Cell phones might pose health concern, and anyone caught by surprise by that should be required to read up on the subject. But warning labels aren’t going to solve that. To some extent, we need to rely on the individual to protect themselves.

Either that, or we could save ourselves some time and just post a catch-all warning label on everything. “Caution: Live at your own risk.”