If you smush the phone against your ear, you’re likely getting an electromagnetic dose above federal standards.
When I was a kid, my dad had a giant briefcase with a phone inside. He could only make quick calls from the "car phone" when he was close to rare towers, shouting "I'll be home soon!" and hanging up.
Looking back, I'm sure its high-powered transmitter and external antenna were frying us all a little on the inside. But, hey, it was the 80s. Who worried about that kind of thing?
Today you can actually look up your phone's SAR, the specific absorption rate at which your body takes in a radio frequency electromagnetic field like the kind coming from our phones.
Jump on cnet.com and you'll find lists of the 20 highest- and lowest-radiation cellphone models. Samsung is among the lowest and BlackBerry among the highest, topping off right below max allowable Canadian and American SARs of 1.6 watts per kilogram.
Useful consumer tool? Well, turns out, not so much.
Official SAR levels, now disclosed in the fine print of your phone's manual, give only a partial picture of what your phone's emitting. Levels can vary depending on how strong your signal is, how far you are from a cell tower and who you your provider is. Yes, one old study found some mobile networks exposed people to 30 to 300 times more radiation than others, but the report was buried until it was out of date.
No wonder different testing bodies turn up different SAR results all the time.
If you've never pulled out your glasses to read your manual, bet you'd be surprised that BlackBerry tells you to hold it 25 mm (that's 2.5 cm) from your head/body, while Apple says to keep your iPhone at least 15 mm (1.5 cm) away.
Pretty much every company says your carrying case, belt clip or holder shouldn't have any metal parts. Yikes. Tell that to all the people with slick metal cases who have no idea they're actually amping their phones' radiation.
If, like most people, you smush the phone up against your ear, chances are good your phone emissions may be exceeding Canadian/American federal SAR limits.
The enviro health watchdogs at the Environmental Working Group decided to take down their guide to safe cellphones "until the FCC makes the responsible decision to require cellphone makers to generate and disclose data about device and network emissions under real-world conditions."
This could all turn around if the Cell Phone Right To Know Act, recently endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatricians, forges ahead in the U.S. It calls for warning labels on cellphones and a new national research program to study their safety that updates obsolete radiation standards. We can only hope Canada will follow suit.
What does it matter? The World Health Organization has classed cellphone radiation as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" thanks to its link to brain cancer. And nearly a dozen studies have found cellphone radiation damages human sperm. (Don't carry phones in your pockets or on your belts, boys.)
The science on cell towers and the high-powered signals they send out is definitely sparser, but research to date on the potential impacts on wildlife is undoubtedly disturbing.
The jury is still out on this but research published by India's enviro ministry has tied radiation from cell towers, at least in part, to the global bee decline as well as the decline of birds such as house sparrows, an important "indicator species" for the health of urban ecosystems. They recommended that towers not be built within 1 kilometre of each other to prevent overlapping radiation fields.
Living in a city like Toronto, it's nearly impossible to keep your distance from cell towers, but you can reduce your radiation exposure by using a headset.
The EWG says wireless Bluetooth headsets do give off the same kind of radiation as cellphones, just less of it, and some models can continue to emit radiation between calls.
Better still, text or use speakerphone as much as possible. And limit your calls in low-signal zones. The fewer the bars, the more radiation your phone has to shoot out to make a call. If you live in a basement unit or other apartment that always gets a weak signal, you might want to reconsider having a mobile as your sole home phone.
By the way, if you think you can just stick one of those health store cellphone radiation shields on your phone and move on, wrong. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission smacked these fraudsters down a couple of years ago, saying radiation comes off the entire phone and the antenna, not just the earpiece, which is where cellphone shield stickers are placed.
Worse still, having a cell shield on your phone may actually mean your phone emits more radiation because it's working harder to put out a signal. Great.
I'm going back to smoke signals.
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