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Cell Phone Risks

October 2010

I love my iPhone. But I’m also afraid of it. Cell phones emit radiation. When you’re talking on a cell phone, its transmitter is sending electromagnetic radiation through your head to a tower that’s as distant as 20 miles or more. And some of that radiation is being absorbed by your head.

Is it dangerous? The bottom line is that no one knows for sure. Some neurosurgeons are very concerned because they are seeing increased incidence of brain tumors on the side of the head where a cell phone user typically holds his or her phone.

Epidemiological studies have so far been inconclusive. But they’ve typically covered periods before the explosion of cell phone usage in recent years. It typically takes 10–20 years for this kind of tumor to develop, so epidemiological studies currently in progress will give a better picture. And we’re all subjects in this grand experiment.

So get rid of cell phones? I’m not giving mine up. But I’m cautious. Cell phones and smart phones have become so ingrained in our culture that the only solution seems to be caution. And in fact there are a great many ways to significantly decrease your exposure.

First off, you’ll want to pay attention to your cell phone’s SAR rating. That stands for Specific Absorption Rate, and the maximum allowable level in the U.S. is 1.6 (2.0 in Europe).

My iPhone 4 comes in at 1.17, according to CNET’s comprehensive database of rating levels. Which phone has the lowest radiation? CNET’s list of the 20 lowest-radiation phones says it’s the Beyond E-Tech Duet D8, at 0.1. Making the list of the 20 phones with the highest radiation are popular models such as the Blackberry Curve 8330 (1.54) and the Motorola Droid (1.49).

If you have a Blackberry or Android phone, you can download the Tawkon app, which reports the phone’s SAR level.

Given the safety concerns, it would make sense for manufacturers to simply label their phones with the SAR rating, right? That’s what the city of San Francisco thought, passing an ordinance that phone retailers have to display a phone’s SAR rating.

The cell phone industry didn’t like that at all, and sued to block enforcement. Like the tobacco companies in an earlier era, the manufacturers are eager to quash any notion that radiation might be dangerous.

There are, of course, hucksters eager to sell you all manner of devices that protect you from the radiation. I’m generally wary of these, and some have been shown to be scams and to even increase radiation by forcing your phone to output a stronger signal. When I learned of a radiation shield called Pong for the iPhone, I was skeptical and checked it out. I was surprised to find that Wired magazine had taken it to a sophisticated testing lab, and that in fact the shield did reduce radiation by nearly 65%, bringing the level down to .42.

Perhaps a better solution is simply not to hold the phone next to your head, instead using the speakerphone. Every inch away from your body greatly diminishes your exposure. Holding it four inches away drops the radiation by a factor of 16. A foot or more away is best.

Does that mean that holding the phone away from you and using a wired headset, such as the iPhone earbuds, will help? Nope. Research shows that the wire simply conducts the radiation from the device to your ear. You can, however, buy a cheap, small ferrite bead that clips to the wire and nips radiation in the bud, reducing it by 90%.

Another good solution is an airtube or Aircom headset, available from various manufacturers. The sound travels to your ear not via an electromagnetic wave but simply via sound waves through a tiny empty tube. And if you’re really into natural, you can get the RF3 ENVi Natural Wood Mono Earbud Cell Phone Headset, with wooden earbuds that have rubber tips.

Another option is Bluetooth, a wireless protocol and is used for connecting a headset wirelessly to your phone. A popular Bluetooth headset is the trendy and ubiquitous Jawbone that people wear on their ears? Again, there’s a radiation concern, though it is about 100 times weaker than holding the phone to your ear. Even so, it’s still right next to your brain.

And a final tip. Anything that forces your phone to transmit a stronger signal, such as using it in your car or using it where reception is weak, increases your exposure.

So your tech columnist says: enjoy your phone, but be careful.

This month’s hot tips:

You can find a ton of free online games at www.bing.com/entertainment/games/. Gmaill now offers free phone calling. Read more at nyti.ms/cgpwvR.

© 2010 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen