This op-ed was originally published in eureporter on November 27, 2019.
by Theodora Scarato
Google announced they are testing a new 5G smartphone, a move that aims to expand the company further into the branded hardware market, writes Theodora Scarato, executive director of Environmental Health Trust.
On 10 September, Apple launched three new iPhones (iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max). Not to be shut out of the game, also last month, Samsung released their much-anticipated Samsung Galaxy Fold, the first foldable smartphone. As the leading tech companies vie for first place in the 5G smartphone market, will they also issue clear warnings to the consumer public that their phones are not intended to be used in close body contact?
On 22 August, the law firm of Fegan Scott filed a class action lawsuit against Apple and Samsung alleging that these two tech companies are misleading customers because their cellphones are marketed on the premise that the devices can always be used in close contact to the body (i.e. in the pocket). But phones in these very positions could result in the body absorbing high levels of cell phone radiation. So high, in fact, that the phones could violate the radiation safety limits set by the Federal Communications Commission.
The litigation was prompted by disturbing findings released in an August 21, 2019 Chicago Tribune investigation into cell phone radiation. The Tribune independently tested several popular cell phones and found that the phones emitted far more radiation than reported by the manufacturers. Most importantly, radiation levels skyrocketed from two to five times the legal limit when phones were tested in positions close to the body, such as mimicking a phone in a pants pocket.
Many people incorrectly assume that cell phone radiation levels are safe, no matter how or where the phone is being used. But fine print warnings buried deep in the manufacturers’ manuals state that the phone is radiation tested a specific distance away from the body. For the iPhone 7 that distance is 5mm, but for the iPhone 3 it was 15mm.
In 2017, the government of France was pressured by Dr. Marc Arazi into finally releasing data from the hundreds of cell phones they tested since 2012. The majority exceeded the legal limits when tested at body contact. In response, the European Union strengthened compliance tests so the distance can’t exceed 5mm and several smartphone models have now been withdrawn from the market or software updated. As many models with excessive radiation levels still remain on the market, Arazi of the Phonegate association has now filed legal action against Nokia and Xiaomi stating, “The manufacturers have deceived the users of more than 6 billion mobile phones.”
The radiation levels found in the smartphones tested by France could violate US limits by 11 times according to published analysis. Fegan Scott characterized the situation as the “Chernobyl of the cell phone industry, cover-up and all.” This October, the French Health Authority released a report recommending that phones be radiation tested at body contact- not at 5mm. In response to this report, the French ministries of Health, Ecology and Economy issued a press release statement announcing their recommendation that phones be tested at body contact. They also called for the public to reduce cell phone radiation exposure. US National Institutes of Health scientist published their findings of DNA damage associated with cell phone radiation in their $30 million animal study. This really should be the crack in the dam. Yet in the US, the FDA has been informed but taken no action.
What’s far more curious is that over the years, phone manufacturers have wordsmithed these fine print warnings such that consumers are confused.
Why not directly state: “If you carry or use your phone in a pants or shirt pocket, or tucked into a bra, when the phone is on and connected to a wireless network, you may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure to RF radiation.”
In Berkeley, California, retailers are required to state this exact warning to cell phone consumers after the city passed their Cell Phone Right To Know Ordinance in 2015. It should be noted that after the Ordinance passed, the telecom industry group CTIA litigated all the way to the Supreme Court claiming the ordinance violated their free speech rights.
For two years after the Apple iPhone 6 debut in 2015, Apple shared the following statement regarding the model, “Carry iPhone at least 5mm away from your body to ensure exposure levels remain at or below the as-tested levels.” While this sentence was still on their website on 2 March, 2017, it was removed by 9 November, 2017. Similarly, the iPhone 7 was released in 2016, along with the same online instructions to carry it “5mm away from your body” which disappeared from the Apple website by 9 November 9, 2017.
Apple’s website still includes information that cell phones are tested with a separation distance. However, the text is absent of clear instructions to consumers. Years ago, iPhone 3 filings to the FCC stated “iPhone’s SAR measurement may exceed the FCC exposure guidelines for body-worn operation if positioned less than 15 mm (5/8 inch) from the body (e.g. when carrying iPhone in your pocket).” They clearly stated, “When using iPhone near your body for voice calls or for wireless data transmission over a cellular network, keep iPhone at least 15 mm (5/8 inch) away from the body.” Were iPhone 3 consumers aware of these instructions then? Why not inform users now?
Fegan Scott claims that “research strongly suggests that cell phone manufacturers knew – or should have known – that the radiation levels were well above what they were claiming”.
Babies are handed cell phones to cuddle in shopping carts. A child’s first cell phone is seen as a rite of passage and yet many don’t even know how to turn the phone off. They carry phones in their pockets- as do most men. Women carry phones directly against their body- tucked in their bras and spandex pants.
As with Dieselgate, the problem lies in the test itself. A 2012 Government Accountability Report found human exposure limits and test protocols decades outdated. A Harvard expose points to “undue industry influence” in US regulatory agencies and published analysis document conflicts of interest in the international “authorities” many countries rely on. Phones are simply not radiation tested the way we use them- at body contact. It is time to hit the reset button. Before deploying 5G infrastructure and allowing 5G phones on the market, the US should first hold Congressional hearings on the oversight and safety of wireless devices.
Theodora Scarato is executive director of Environmental Health Trust.