Are government officials doing enough to protect us from the potential long-term health effects of wearable devices and cellphones? Maybe not. A letter released today, signed by 195 scientists from 39 countries, calls on the United Nations, the World Health Organization (WHO), and national governments to develop stricter controls on these and other products that create electromagnetic fields (EMF).
"Based on peer-reviewed, published research, we have serious concerns regarding the ubiquitous and increasing exposure to EMF generated by electric and wireless devices," reads the letter, whose signatories have collectively published more than 2,000 peer-reviewed papers on the subject. "The various agencies setting safety standards have failed to impose sufficient guidelines to protect the general public, particularly children who are more vulnerable to the effects of EMF."
For decades, some scientists have questioned the safety of EMF, but their concerns take on a heightened significance in the age of ubiquitous wifi routers, the Internet of Things, and the advent of wearable technologies like the Apple Watch and Fitbit devices, which remain in close contact with the body for extended periods.
"This is very much like studying tobacco back in the 1950s…The industry has co-opted many researchers."
Cellphones, among the most studied emitters of electromagnetic radiation, remain the standard for judging health risks. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that "we do not have the science to link health problems to cell phone use." In a 2012 review of all available research, Timothy Moynihan, a doctor with the respected Mayo Clinic, concluded that "there's no consensus about the degree of cancer risk—if any—posed by cell phone use."
The WHO, on the other hand, classifies radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation (the type emitted by wifi routers and cellphones) as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" based on limited evidence associating cellphone use with an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer. "The conclusion means that there could be some risk," Dr. Jonathan Samet, a medical professor at the University of Southern California and chair of the WHO panel that made the determination, explained in 2011, "and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer."
Studies since then have highlighted the need for caution. Last year, French researchers found an almost three-fold increase in the incidence of brain cancer in people with more than 900 hours of lifetime cellphone use. Then, in March, Swedish researchers reported that the risk of being diagnosed with brain cancer increased by a factor of three in people who'd used cell or cordless phones for at least 25 years. Research on lab animals has caused similar concerns.
Respected medical groups are starting to pay attention. In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates radiation levels in communication devices, to adopt cellphone standards that are more protective for children, and to better disclose products' EMF levels to consumers. In December, the California Medical Association urged regulators to "reevaluate microwave radiation exposure levels associated with wireless communication devices."
"We are really all part of a large biological experiment without our informed consent."
Most of the researchers who signed today's appeal letter believe that there's now enough evidence to classify radio-frequency EMF as "probably carcinogenic" or even just plain "carcinogenic," says Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California-Berkeley, who played a central role in gathering the signatures. "All of them are clearly calling for the need for caution."
Reports about a lack of scientific consensus on the health effects of cellphones, which have appeared in Slate, Wired, the Verge, and elsewhere are somewhat misleading, Moskowitz contends. In a 2009 review for the Journal of Clinical Oncology, he parsed cellphone studies based on the funding source and quality of the science. He found that low-quality and industry-funded studies tended not to associate cellphone use with a heightened risk of tumors, while high-quality and foundation- or public-funded studies usually found the opposite result. "This is very much like studying tobacco back in the 1950s," he says. "The industry has co-opted many researchers."
In 2011, Moskowitz consulted for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors after it voted to pass the nation's first right-to-know cellphone ordinance. The law would have forced retailers to warn consumers about potentially dangerous radiation levels emitted by cell phones, but the supervisors agreed to effectively nix the law to settle a court challenge by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association; the industry's lead trade group argued that the law violated its free speech rights. (The CTIA did not return a call from Mother Jones requesting comment on today's appeal letter and the health effects of cellphones.)
On Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council will vote on a right-to-know law that was carefully worded to thwart legal challenges. Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig, who helped craft the law, has volunteered to defend it in court pro bono. "We are really all part of a large biological experiment without our informed consent," says Columbia University EMF expert Martin Blank in a video released to coincide with today's letter. "To protect ourselves, our children, and our ecosystem, we must reduce exposure by establishing more protective guidelines."
The tech entrepreneurs who competed at this week's PUSHTech 2020 Summit.
The tech startup world is notorious for its lack of women and non-Asian minorities, as anyone who has attended the TechCrunch Disrupt pitch-a-thon (or seen Mike Judge's spoof of it) can attest. But it's not like the best concepts are always invented by tech bros.
There are plenty of great startups led by women, blacks, and Latinos—they just don't get as much attention from investors and the press, diversity advocates say. To prove it, on Wednesday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. held his own San Francisco tech conference, PUSHTech 2020, in which none of the 10 startups competing for a $10,000 prize was led by a white guy.
"This gonna be real hard to man-in-the-middle this device," proclaimed contestant Marcus Eagan, cofounder of Nodal Industries, referring to a common hacker exploit. A panel of judges from Cisco Ventures, Google for Entrepreneurs, Intel Capital, and other VC firms listened intently as he flipped through slides detailing his invention: a secure way to connect home computers with corporate networks.
"Why do we keep seeing chat apps or photo share apps or emoji apps? Because the people working on those don't have the same problems."
Eagan, a 25-year-old black dude with wireless glasses and a fanny pack, came up with his idea after consulting for Target in the wake of a $160 million data breach. "Target wishes they were using Nodal," said Eagan, who says he's already sold versions to employees of the US Army Cyber Brigade, HP, and IBM. "The home network poses the greatest threat to the corporate network in 2015. Everybody works from home—or they don't have a job."
Few of the contenders pitched products aimed exclusively at minority groups—though several put a more inclusive flavor in the mix. Take the black-owned startup Oneva, an online referral site for background-checked nannies and babysitters. For her presentation, CEO Anita Darden Gardyne used a photo of Claire Huxtable from The Cosby Show as an example of a busy professional mom and a photo of Alice, the white nanny from TheBrady Bunch, as a caregiver; the Oakland-based company's other marketing materials use a similar approach. "That's the world in which we live," Gardyne told me. "So for me, those images just came naturally."
The 10 contestants were chosen from a pool of 80 applicants by several groups that incubate diverse tech talent. Many minority-led startups have the requisite business savvy and tech chops but lack the angel-investor connections young companies need to get off the ground, says Wayne Sutton, the co-founder of BuildUp, which promotes "underrepresented entrepreneurs." By bringing these businesses into the fold, he hopes to sustain and expand upon Silicon Valley's culture of innovation. "Why do we keep seeing chat apps or photo share apps or emoji apps? Because the people working on those don't have the same problems," he told me. "That's why we need funding for the people who solve problems and come from different backgrounds."
Illustrating Sutton's case for diversity was the competition's winner: eHarvestHub, a website that uses sophisticated product tracking technology to help small farmers sell directly to large grocers and other retail outlets without a middlemen. Founder Alvaro Ramirez grew up in Nicaragua, where his father lost his small coffee farm to larger competitors. "It was like, nobody helps the little guy," he says. eHarvestHub is already working with eight small farms, including the Bay Area's well-known Frog Hollow Farm, and projects $200 million in revenue within five years.
I ran into Ramirez at the end of the conference during a drinks-and-soul-food reception at Yelp headquarters. We were standing next to a Sony PlayStation and several large bouncy balls covered in crocheted yarn. He was excited by all the money and advice that seemed to be pouring in—and just to be in the digs of such a well-known tech company. "This is what you know your future needs to look like," he said. "So it's cool to come out here and experience that."
Brian Hibbs (far right) and his employees, some of whom may lose shifts or even their jobs, if San Francisco's minimum wage goes to $15.
Brian Hibbs, a Mother Jones reader and owner of Comix Experience, wrote in to object to San Francisco's plan to raise its minimum wage. Conservatives who argue against the minimum wage often point to jobs lost and heavy burdens on small businesses, and progressives largely brush off those arguments as so much Chamber of Commerce propaganda. And then you have guys like Hibbs. Read what he has to say, and then we'll discuss.
I own two comic book stores in SF, and while we're a profitable business and have been for 26 years, we're only modestly profitable, y'know? When you calculate my own salary on a per-hour basis, given that 70-hour weeks are not at all uncommon for me, I don't make much more than the high-end of SF's new minimum wage law.
Raising the minimum wage by 43 percent (from $11.05 today to $15 in 2018) means that we need to generate at least another 80 grand in revenue. Eighty grand. I don't personally make eighty grand in a year. I'm not some kind of fat cat getting rich off the exploitation of my workers or something. And look, if I did manage to increase sales by that amount, I'd sure be hoping that I got to keep a tiny little percentage of it myself.
Just so we're clear: The hole I find myself soon facing isn't one created by escalating San Francisco rents (my landlord is awesome!), or because of competition from the internet (in fact, our sales consistently grow year-over-year, and sales growth has accelerated since the introduction of digital comics), but one solely and entirely created by the increase of the minimum wage.
I'm a progressive; I support fair labor practices, and I try, above all else, to give the folks who work for me absolute agency in their jobs. I have multiple employees who quit higher paying jobs for corporate owners to come work for me, because I actively valued their passions. I don't own a comic book store to make money as my primary goal, right? The primary goal is to wake up the morning and be excited by what you do, to feel like you're spreading your passion, that you're promoting art, and creators and joy—and my staff feels much the same way.
I have staff who are supported by a spouse and are working for me to essentially make pocket money; I have staff who want to be full-time artists, and this helps them get closer to their goal by exposing them to the form and helping them make contacts. I have staff who are actively working toward having their own stores, and I'm basically paying them to get a master's class (though I am fine with that!). I have staff who are full-time students living at home.
I'm not exploiting any of them, I don't think. They all have options, and they all work for me because they want to.
If I can't increase sales by $80,000—which is not something that seems likely, given historical year-over-year gains—then I have to start firing people, or trimming hours of operation. We don't run extravagant overlaps—nearly 60 percent of the hours the stores are open we only have one person on deck; nor do we have a lot of waste or absurd inventory or anything like that. I've survived in a kind of marginal business for 26 years by being a savvy businessperson, and a relatively nimble and predictive one. But firing people, cutting hours…how does that help the employees? How does that help the business expand so I can eventually hire more people?
I have the largest staff of any SF comics business (because I have two locations), and, in point of fact, my two closest competitors have zero employees. Not being impacted by this mandate, they'd have no reason to raise prices in tandem…and really, every reason to not do so. If I raised prices by, let's say, 10 percent to meet this mandate, I'm absolutely positive we'd lose at least 20 percent of our business to stores that didn't raise their prices—thereby putting us at a net negative.
We’re trying to solve this problem by growing our way out of it with a new national, curated Graphic-Novel-of-the-Month Club, but I think that if we’re able to succeed from that (and I am not at all sure we will) it will be because of years of building our exceptional reputation. As a result, I do not at all think that this type of solution is scalable for the average small business. The City of San Francisco’s own Office of Economic Analysis believes the minimum wage hike will cost 15,270 jobs, or 2 percent of the private workforce!
Honestly, if San Francisco had voted for "Minimum Wage must be at least equal to X percent of your net profit" or "Every person in America gets a guaranteed income of $20,000/year paid for by progressive taxes" or some other scheme where you know that people being asked to contribute more can afford it, then maybe we'd be on sounder ideological ground...But I think that the higher minimum wage, the higher you're making the barriers for low-income people and marginal-but-promising businesses to even have a chance to enter the marketplace and to survive in the first place, let alone legacy businesses like ours.
Here's my personal take: It's hard not to feel sympathy for Hibbs, yet it would be a mistake to take his situation as a case for abolishing or making exceptions to the city's minimum wage law. As I've noted elsewhere, raising the minimum wage doesn't tend to decrease overall employment; in general, businesses find new efficiencies and their workers find themselves with more disposable income to spend on things like comics.
Of course, that's probably little comfort to Hibbs, who faces competition from smaller comics stores whose sole proprietors are the ones manning the cash registers. Hibbs may well be able to keep his doors open by downsizing, bringing in volunteers, or drumming up donations from devoted customers (as one local bookstore has done), but when it comes down to it, there simply may not be much of a future for bricks-and-mortar comics stores in a city with astronomical real estate prices.
"I super commiserate with him because we are in almost the identical situation," says Lew Prince, a member of the group Business for a Fair Minimum Wage and the owner of Vintage Vinyl, a record store in St. Louis. Dwindling sales and rising labor costs forced Prince to consolidate his two Vintage Vinyl locations into one. He nonetheless supports increasing Missouri's minimum wage from $7.65 to $12 an hour because he thinks it's the right thing to do. "The job of the business owner is to prepare for the future," he told me. "I have great empathy and sympathy for [Hibbs], but you have to do the job every day, and sometimes the marketplace defeats you."
But maybe that point of view is too harsh. I'd love to hear, in the comments, what Kevin's readers think about all of this.
Sanders hopes to put some progressive ideas on the agenda for 2016.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) officially announced today that's he's running for president. The self-described socialist faces long odds in the Democratic primary, but chances are good that he'll at least force a discussion on issues dear to liberals. Here are some highlights of the best of Mother Jones coverage of Sanders:
Sanders visited our office earlier this month to discuss income inequality, trade, and his motivations for running for prez.
The Progressive Coalition obviously never went national in the way Sanders had envisioned. But in 1991, a year after he was elected to Congress, he founded something more enduring: the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Since then, Sanders' view of third parties has evolved: "No matter what I do," he told Mother Jones last month, "I will not play the role of a spoiler who ends up helping to elect a right-wing Republican."
The state's water hogs and Silicon Valley's tech shuttles benefit from the same tax exclusion.
Solving California's water crisis got a lot harder on Monday when a state appeals court struck down steeply tiered water rates in the city of San Juan Capistrano. Like many other California cities, this affluent Orange County town encourages conservation by charging customers who use small amounts of water a lower rate per gallon than customers who use larger amounts. The court ruled that the practice conflicts with Proposition 218, a ballot measure that, among other things, bars governments from charging more for a service than it costs to provide it.
In the process of thwarting taxation without voter approval, Prop. 218 stops state and local governments from addressing urgent problems, such as drought.
The drought isn't the only way Prop. 218 is hamstringing California cities. Early last year, San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency announced a controversial pilot program that would allow Google buses and other tech shuttles to use public bus stops for $1 a stop. Activists, who saw the shuttles as symbols of inequality and out-of-control gentrification, wanted the agency to charge Google much more than that and use the profits to subsidize the city's chronically underfunded public transit system. But MTA officials argued that their hands were tied: Prop. 218 prevented them from charging more than the estimated $1.5 million cost of administering the program.
Prop. 218, the "Right to Vote on Taxes Act," was a constitutional amendment drafted in 1996 by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the group that led the tax revolt that swept California in the 1970s and eventually helped elect President Ronald Reagan. After 1978, when the group's signature initiative, Prop. 13, began severely limiting property tax increases, cities and counties moved to plug their budgetary holes with other types of taxes and fees. Prop 218 was designed to constrain those workarounds by requiring that any new tax be approved by voters or affected property owners. For the purposes of the act, taxes included any fees from which a government derived a profit.
Prop. 218 has been widely criticized for making it harder for cities to raise revenues, but the recent cases with water rates and tech shuttles point to another issue: the way the initiative prevents state and local governments from addressing urgent social and environmental problems. It's worth remembering that withdrawing water from California's dwindling reservoirs to feed verdant lawns is in itself a tax of sorts, and Mother Nature may not wait until the next election to revoke our ability to levy it.