An investigation by the Chicago Tribune found that several popular smartphone models, including the Apple iPhone 7, were emitting radiofrequency (RF) radiation levels that exceeded the legal safety limits set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This news raises concerns about the safety of cellphones and whether existing standards are adequate to protect the public.
Cellphones have become an integral part of our daily lives, with millions of people relying on them for communication, entertainment, and work. However, with the widespread use of cellphones, questions about their safety have become increasingly pressing. In particular, there are concerns about the potential health risks posed by radiofrequency radiation from cellphones. The Tribune’s recent investigation sheds new light on this issue and raises important questions about whether cellphones sold in the USA are safe.
The Tribune’s Testing
The Tribune conducted a comprehensive investigation into the safety of cellphones, testing 11 models from four different companies. The tests were carried out at an accredited lab and followed federal guidelines. The results of the Tribune’s tests showed that several popular smartphone models, including the Apple iPhone 7, emitted RF radiation levels that exceeded the legal safety limits set by the FCC.
The FCC’s Response
The FCC has stated that all cellphones approved for sale in the USA must never exceed the maximum allowable exposure limit. In response to the Tribune’s findings, the FCC announced that it would conduct its own testing to determine whether the phones tested by the Tribune were in compliance with its rules.
The Tribune’s testing showed that several popular smartphone models, including the Apple iPhone 7, emitted RF radiation levels that exceeded the legal safety limit. In addition, the results of the Tribune’s tests showed that the closer a phone is to the body, the higher its potential exposure to radiofrequency radiation. This is particularly concerning given that many people now carry their phones in their pockets, close to their bodies.
The results of the Tribune’s investigation have contributed to an ongoing debate about the possible risks posed by radiofrequency radiation from cellphones. While some industry officials and manufacturers argue that cellphones are safe and have been tested to comply with exposure standards, others have raised concerns about the adequacy of these standards and the potential health risks posed by radiofrequency radiation from cellphones.
The concerns about the safety of cellphones are not new. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office recommended that the FCC reassess its exposure limit and testing requirements, stating that because phones were not tested while against the body, authorities could not ensure that exposures were under the standard. Despite this recommendation, the FCC announced this month that the existing standard is sufficient to protect the public and should remain in place.
Apple and Samsung Respond
When informed of the Tribune’s test results and provided with the laboratory’s 100-page lab report, Apple disputed the findings, saying they were not performed in a way that properly assesses iPhones. Apple, one of the world’s most iconic brands, would not say specifically what it thought was wrong with the Tribune’s tests or reveal how the company measures its phones for potential radiofrequency radiation exposure.
The Tribune’s tests were conducted by RF Exposure Lab, a facility in San Marcos, California, that is recognized by the FCC as accredited to test for radiofrequency radiation from electronic devices. The lab has been doing radiation testing for wireless companies seeking government approval for new products for 15 years now. Lab owner Jay Moulton stated that all the Tribune’s tests were done in accordance with detailed FCC rules and guidelines. Moulton added that any qualified lab should be able to grab a phone off the shelf and test it to see if it meets requirements, and that the lab was not doing anything extraordinary or different.
Still, based on Apple’s feedback, the Tribune retested the iPhones in the investigation as well as an additional iPhone 7, making a change aimed at activating sensors that would reduce power. Once again, the iPhone 7s produced results over the safety limit, while an iPhone 8 that previously measured over the standard came in under.
When informed of the new results, Apple officials declined to be interviewed and requested the Tribune put its questions in writing. The newspaper did, submitting three dozen questions, but Apple did not answer any of them. Apple then issued a statement, repeating that the Tribune test results for the iPhone 7s “were inaccurate due to the test setup not being in accordance with procedures necessary to properly assess the iPhone models.” The statement added that “All iPhone models, including iPhone 7, are fully certified by the FCC and in every other country where iPhone is sold.” However, Apple did not explain what it meant by “careful review and subsequent validation.”
The three Samsung phones tested by the Tribune – the Galaxy S8, Galaxy S9, and Galaxy J3 – were positioned at 10 or 15 millimeters from the body, the distances chosen by the company in accordance with FCC guidelines. In these tests, the devices measured under the safety limit. However, when the phones were tested at 2 millimeters from the simulated body – to represent a device being used while in a pocket – the exposures measured well over the standard. Samsung, based in South Korea and one of the world’s top smartphone makers, said in a statement that “Samsung devices sold in the United States comply with FCC regulations. Our devices are tested according to the same test protocols that are used across the industry.”
FCC officials would not comment on individual results from phones tested by the Tribune. They stated that although the Tribune testing was not as comprehensive as what would be required for an official compliance report, they would examine some of the phone models in the newspaper’s investigation.
Assessing the Risk
The widespread use of cellphones has become one of the most dramatic cultural shifts in decades. In 2009, an estimated 50 million smartphones were in active use in America, according to the wireless industry association CTIA. Today, there are 285 million. Twenty-nine percent of U.S. teens sleep with their cellphones in bed with them, according to a 2019 report by the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media.
Some researchers believe that safety efforts have not kept pace with the growing use of cellphones. “These days,” said Om Gandhi, an early researcher of cellphone radiation at the University of Utah, “exposure is from cradle to grave.”
Cellphones use radio waves to communicate with a vast network of fixed installations called base stations or cell towers. These radio waves are a form of electromagnetic radiation, in the same frequency range used by TVs and microwave ovens.
This kind of radiation, also known as radiofrequency energy, shouldn’t be confused with ionizing radiation, such as gamma rays and X-rays, which can strip electrons from atoms and cause serious biological harm, including cancer. Radiofrequency energy from cellphones isn’t powerful enough to cause ionization, but at high levels it can heat biological tissue and cause harm. Eyes and testes are especially vulnerable because they do not dispel heat rapidly.
The question of whether people, especially children, are at risk for other health effects, including cancer, from exposure to low-level cellphone radiation over many years is still largely unknown.
When cellphones hit the market in the 1980s, authorities focused on setting an exposure limit to address only the heating risks of cellphones. Scientists found that animals showed adverse effects when exposed to enough radiofrequency radiation to raise their body temperature by 1 degree Celsius. Authorities used this finding to help calculate a safety limit for humans, building in a 50-fold safety factor.
The final rule, adopted by the FCC in 1996, stated that cellphone users cannot potentially absorb more than 1.6 watts per kilogram averaged over one gram of tissue. To demonstrate compliance, phone makers were told to conduct two tests: when the devices were held against the head and when held up to an inch from the body.
However, the widespread use of cellphones has changed since the 1990s, when the testing standards were adopted. People now often carry phones closer to the body, in their pockets, which increases their potential exposure to radiofrequency radiation. In response to this change, the Tribune conducted a second phase of testing, placing the phones 2 millimeters away from the simulated body to estimate the potential exposure for an owner carrying the phone in a pants or shirt pocket. Under these conditions, most of the models tested yielded results that were over the exposure limit, sometimes far exceeding it.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress’ research arm, recommended in 2012 that the FCC reassess the exposure limit and its testing requirements, saying that because phones weren’t measured while against the body, authorities could not ensure exposures were under the standard. Seven years later, the FCC announced that the existing standard sufficiently protects the public and should remain in place.
In recent years, few other government officials have acted to address the possible risks of radiofrequency radiation from cellphones. However, in California, the state Public Health Department issued rare guidance on how concerned consumers could reduce exposure in 2017. Among the advice was to not carry cellphones in pockets.
Given the widespread use of cellphones and the limited research into the long-term health effects of radiofrequency radiation, it is important to continually monitor and reassess the safety standards for cellphones. As the Tribune’s investigation showed, existing federal standards may not be enough to protect all users from potential exposure to radiofrequency radiation. This is especially true as more and more people carry their phones in their pockets, close to their bodies, where the exposure is highest.
While the question of whether exposure to low-level cellphone radiation over many years can cause cancer or other health effects is still largely unknown, there is growing concern among scientists and public health officials. Some believe that safety efforts have not kept pace with the growing use of cellphones, and that people are now exposed to radiofrequency radiation from cradle to grave.
Despite the lack of concrete evidence, it is still important to be cautious and take steps to minimize exposure to radiofrequency radiation. The state of California has issued rare guidance on how concerned consumers can reduce their exposure, including not carrying cellphones in their pockets.
In addition, it is important for the FCC and other government agencies to continue to monitor and reassess the safety standards for cellphones. The Government Accountability Office has recommended that the FCC reassess the exposure limit and its testing requirements, given the changing ways in which people use their phones.
Until there is more definitive evidence about the long-term health effects of radiofrequency radiation from cellphones, it is important to be vigilant and take steps to minimize exposure. Whether this means carrying your phone in a different location, using a hands-free device, or limiting your usage, it is important to be proactive in protecting your health and well-being.
The Tribune’s investigation has raised important questions about the safety of cellphones and whether existing standards are adequate to protect the public. While the results of the Tribune’s testing are not definitive, they suggest that there may be a need for further research into the potential health risks posed by radiofrequency radiation from cellphones. The FCC’s announcement that it will conduct its own testing is a positive step, and it will be interesting to see the results of these tests and whether they confirm the Tribune’s findings.
- What is the purpose of the tests conducted by the Tribune? The tests conducted by the Tribune aimed to explore the safety of cellphones and whether they meet the standards set by the government regulators.
- What were the results of the tests conducted by the Tribune? The results of the tests conducted by the Tribune showed that radiofrequency radiation exposure from popular smartphones like the iPhone 7 measured over the legal safety limit and more than double what Apple reported to federal regulators from its own testing.
- Did the FCC respond to the results of the Tribune’s tests? Yes, the FCC responded to the results of the Tribune’s tests and stated that they would take the rare step of conducting their own testing over the next couple of months to ensure the compliance of the subject phones with FCC rules.
- Can carrying cellphones in pockets increase the exposure to radiofrequency radiation? Yes, carrying cellphones in pockets increases the potential exposure to radiofrequency radiation as people now often carry phones closer to the body than the maximum distance allowed by the FCC. This is why the Tribune conducted a second phase of testing, placing the phones 2 millimeters away from the simulated body, to estimate the potential exposure for an owner carrying the phone in a pants or shirt pocket.
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