Top 'Safe' Cell Phones That Aren't Safe

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November 05, 2009 | 133,012 views

By Camilla Rees, Founder of

Just prior to the recent Senate hearings on cell phone safety, Chaired by Senator Tom Harkin, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a new database for consumers ranking over 1,000 cell phones by the Specific Absorption Rate, known as the SAR value.

The SAR value is a measure of the power of the cell phone and its potential for heating tissues.

The SAR value has been available for some time through the FCC’s own databases but has never before been made available in one central, easily accessible source in the United States. Nor is the SAR value listed on box packaging of cell phones at the point of sale for comparison purposes.

All that has changed.

Within days of the EWG launching the new SAR value database, and issuing its 42-page report titled "Cell Phone Radiation Science: Review of Cancer Risks and Children's Health", almost 500,000 people had accessed the database, indicating very encouraging new interest by consumers in cell phone safety.

Consumers’ new awareness of the SAR value will be certain to influence phone selections going forward (though sales reps at T-Mobile and Verizon I quizzed a week later still knew nothing about it.)

It is important consumers realize that the SAR value, while providing information for comparison purposes between phones, is very limited in its usefulness as a measure of ‘safety.’ We are greatly concern that people may be turning to the EWG database in droves not understanding just how limited a measure the SAR value is.

What You Need to Know about Your Phone’s SAR Value

1. The SAR value is only comparing the heating effect of different phones and does not give an indication that a cell phone is ‘safe,’ or for that matter anything about the biological effect of cell phone use in a given person.

2. The power, or heating effect, of the phone is only one of many possible factors impacting cell phone ‘safety.’ Certainly it is useful to know if your phone has a high SAR value, but exposures to the radiation from the cell phone at non-heating levels have been linked to many serious biological effects, and the SAR value is not capturing anything about these harmful non-thermal exposures.

3. SAR values are reported to the FCC by the manufacturer and have been known to vary from the reported number by a factor of two across models of the same phone.

There is little or no ongoing monitoring of the SAR values submitted by manufacturers.

In one case, Canada found cell phones with SAR’s of 2.5 W/kg (the limit is 1.6 W/kg) and rejected them, albeit a year after they had been on the market. According to Lloyd Morgan, B.Sc., in the U.S. the lack of independent monitoring would have assured this would never have even have been detected.

4. The SAR value varies with the source of exposure and the person using the phone. For example, if you are in a rural area or in an elevator or a car, where the cell phone uses more power, your brain will get a greater exposure from the higher power required in these instances.

Likewise, if you use a low SAR value phone for long durations, you will be more exposed than someone who uses a low SAR value phone infrequently. Neither is indicative of safety.

5. Holding the phone in a slightly different way can actually render the worst SAR value phone better than the best SAR value phone.

Lloyd Morgan, B.Sc., lead author of the new report “Cell phones and Brain Tumors: 15 Reasons for Concern” says:

“If someone has a cell phone at max SAR of 1.6 W/kg and another has the lowest SAR cell phone (0.55 W/kg), it is certainly better to use the latter. However as a result of the inverse square law, just holding the phone in a slightly different way can mean that the worse phone is better than the best phone.

For example if the worst phone is normally held 2 mm from the head but a particular user holds it 3.4 mm from the head, the effective SAR becomes 0.55 W/kg. The distance overwhelms the different SAR values.”

6. SAR values have been created based on simulations of exposure in a plexiglass head filled with fluid, not a human head, and many scientists consider them to be inaccurate and irrelevant at determining actual biological effects.

Scientists Revisit SAR Values

At the recent “International Expert Conference on Cell Phones and Health” in Washington, D.C., organized by Dr. Devra Davis, PhD, MPH and others, the SAR value was discussed by many participating scientists.

Dr. Martin Blank, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics, Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons stated:

“The SAR is a measure of the energy deposition in radiofrequency. It is a pretty good measure of that but it is not a measure of biological effect -- biological activity. And when it’s being used that way, it gives results that are totally misleading or irrelevant.”

He adds:

“By and large, more SAR means there is more energy around. Higher SAR is probably correlated with higher damage but it is not a measure of the damage and it may be not correlated at all with the damage.”

Alvaro Augusto A. de Salles, PhD, Professor, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul-UFRGS in Brazil, stated:

“SAR values are based only on thermal effects. SAR is not a good reference to protect the population. Perhaps if they lower this 1.6 W/kg SAR limit at least 10-20x, I think it would be safer for the population. I think it would be reasonable. We have made calculations.

Cell phones can operate with energy at least 100x lower. The technology is there—good quality communication and higher protection to the user. I am unable to tell you that this level will be safer, but the risk will be lower.”

Wilhelm Mosgoeller, MD of the University of Vienna Cancer Institute, who spoke at the International Expert Conference on genetic damage at non-thermal levels of exposure, had this to say about SAR:

“SAR value is very good as long as we are talking about heating effect, like effects from the microwave oven.

In the low dose, in the low intensity range we are dealing with biological effects which are clearly not linear to the SAR value, they are not linear to the energy transmitted and measured and communicated by the SAR value. So for the low intensity experiments, or the so called ‘athermal’ effects, we are very suspicious whether the SAR value is valid at all.”

He didn’t rule out using the value of SAR for the time being, however, saying:

“The problem is we don’t have a better measure than the SAR value at the moment. Before we skip the SAR value we need an alternative measure.”

EMF expert Stan Hartman in Boulder, CO says:

“From my perspective, comparing the “safest” cell phones is like comparing the “safest” cigarettes. None of them are safe, and these kinds of comparisons only serve to whitewash how irresponsible and inexcusable the whole technology is.

Using the word ‘safer’ to apply to any brand just encourages peoples’ denial of the fact that all cell phones are a health menace from which we have hardy begun to see the consequences.”

How You Can Minimize the Risks to Your Health

As Magda Havas, PhD and I suggested in our book “Public Health SOS: The Shadow Side of the Wireless Revolution,” if you are concerned about the heating effect of cell phones, as measured by the SAR, we recommend you minimize your use of cell phones.

Another option is to use an air tube earpiece to keep the cell phone away from your head, or alternatively, get in the habit of using the cell phone’s speakerphone.

Physical distance of the phone from your brain, and less usage of the cell phone overall, more so than simply choosing a phone with a lower SAR value, is probably a far better insurance policy.

Dr. Havas, who is Assoc. Professor of Environmental and Resource Studies at Trent University in Canada, says exposure guidelines for microwave radiation in the U.S. are based exclusively on short-term exposure to prevent thermal effects.

“If the radiation doesn't heat your tissue it is assume to be safe. Scientific studies demonstrate that this assumption is false. The antiquated guidelines developed decades ago need to be revised to take into account recent scientific studies. While lower exposure to microwave radiation may be "safer" it may not be "safe."

It is important we recognize this and that we weigh the value of the SAR measurement in this light.

Many, many biological effects occur at non-heating levels of exposure, including leakage in the Blood Brain Barrier and neuron death at only 0.012 W/kg (compared to the FCC exposure limit for this form of radiation of1.6 W/kg).

The blood brain barrier leakage has been shown to continue as long as 50 days after exposure.

Also of note, in a study by Henrietta Nittby et al (2009), the lowest exposure SARs were worse than the higher SAR exposures. Some scientists consider blood brain barrier effects at these very low levels of radiation exposure (i.e. 30-45x lower than the ‘Top 10’ lowest SAR phones ranked by the Environmental Working Group) to be of equal or even greater concern for the population than the increase in brain tumors from cell phone use that is expected.

I would recommend limiting use of cell phones to emergencies.

Personally, I use SKYPE as a substitute for a cell phone. SKYPE gives me the portability of one phone number and voicemail whether I am at home, the office or traveling, and by plugging in to a hard wire connection, I minimize my brain’s direct exposure to microwave radiation significantly.

Camilla Rees, Founder,

Co-author, “Public Health SOS: The Shadow Side of the Wireless Revolution”

Co-author, “Cellphones and Brain Tumors: 15 Reasons for Concern”

EMF Adviser, Citizens for Health

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