Some Mobile Phones Reportedly Exceed Recommended Radiation Limits, But Don't Flip Out Just Yet

Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images

A new Chicago Tribune report on mobile phone radiation sure sounds alarming: Popular smartphones were found to emit higher-than-allowed levels of radiation. But while some of the findings are definitely worth investigating further, there’s no reason to be freaked out about health risks for now.

The Chicago Tribune, according to its comprehensive report, brought 11 new, popular smartphones of various brands and tested how much radiofrequency radiation they could expose their users to at different distances. The phones, which included four models of iPhone, were sent to an accredited lab where testing was conducted using guidelines established by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. This involved turning on the phones to full power and placing them next to a tub of liquid meant to mimic human tissue.

Overall, the lab found that nearly every phone exceeded the maximum limit for exposure set by the FCC at various distances. This was most apparent when the phones were only 2 millimetres away — a distance that phone companies aren’t forced to test at but which reflects real-world use, such as having the phone in your pocket. When the Tribune confronted Apple about the discrepancy, the company said the testing was done incorrectly. But even when the lab followed Apple’s instructions, meant to alert the phone’s sensors about being close to human skin and signalling to turn the power down, the iPhones still went over the limit at 2 millimetres.

The findings were enough to convince the FCC to do its own series of tests in upcoming months.

“We take seriously any claims on non-compliance with the RF (radiofrequency) exposure standards and will be obtaining and testing the subject phones for compliance with FCC rules,” agency spokesman Neil Grace told the Tribune.

The Tribune’s investigation seems to be well-done and reported in a non-alarmist way. And it illustrates that the landscape of mobile phone radiation exposure has certainly changed in recent years.

Some companies, such as Samsung, only test their phones at distances of 10 to 15 millimetres from skin, a legally allowed distance, but one that harkens back to the days when people kept their phones on a belt clip (Apple and the other companies included in the report test at 5 millimetres away). The advent of 5G technology, which can use higher frequency bands of electromagnetic energy for their networks, has also spurred calls for the FCC to reevaluate the potential health risks of mobile phones.

Earlier this August, however, the FCC announced that it had reviewed the evidence and found that the current safety limits for mobile phone radiation exposure were fine and didn’t need to be changed. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has coordinated with the FCC on monitoring mobile phone safety, agreed with the decision.

“[T]he available scientific evidence to date does not support adverse health effects in humans due to exposures at or under the current limits,” Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA’s Centre for Devices and Radiological Health, wrote to the FCC at the time.

The Tribune’s reporting would suggest that modern phones aren’t always meeting these limits, however, which is definitely concerning. But as even the outlet admits, there’s no clear indication whether these results mean anything for human health. And the overall evidence — outliers aside — still doesn’t point to any conclusive health risks from mobile phones.

One major sticking point, which the Tribune alludes to, is the lack of a plausible mechanism of harm. Mobile phone radiation isn’t the same type that comes from the Sun or from X-rays, which is called ionising radiation. These types of energy are known to damage living cells in predictable ways, setting the stage for harmful mutations and eventually a greater risk of cancer. But the same sort of harmful connection hasn’t been shown with humans and the non-ionizing radiofrequency radiation that comes from mobile phones.

That doesn’t mean such a link isn’t possible, especially among specific populations like pregnant women. Notably, it took decades for doctors to conclusively show how things like cigarettes really harm the human body. But without a smoking gun and more research, there’s really no basis for concern at the moment.

Besides, if you want to use your mobile phone less, it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of other health-related reasons you could latch onto.

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