how about some paranoia with your new phone?

The city of San Francisco wants cell phone makers to display information showing that their phones are harmless in the most menacing and confusing way possible.
taking cell phone photo
Photo by Yiran Ding

The city of San Francisco wants you, the discerning cell phone consumer, to know just how much radiation is emitted by your phone by requiring retailers to display the phones’ specific absorption rate. Now, when you get that new smartphone, you’ll know your body will absorb no more than 1.6 watts per kilogram, or 1 J per kg per second, or approximately 1.6 Gy when you use it. What do all those numbers actually mean? We can talk about how cell phones emissions are tested and certified by the FCC, and convert our units of radiation into a few different formats if we want, but ultimately, these numbers are pretty much meaningless. Instead of letting cell phone buyers know anything useful, requiring information about a phone’s SAR makes it sound as if their devices might suddenly turn evil, attacking them with deadly beams of ionizing radiation if they’re not watching.

Of course, just requiring that retailers display the SAR information is more reasonable than the attempts of a lawmaker from Maine to put cancer hazard warnings on cell phones in December of last year, but it does seem to run in the same vein. The problem is that r-word, the word that people learned to fear thanks to more than enough horror movies about monstrous mutants and Cold War era portrayals of how nuclear fallout will kill millions of people should the nukes ever start flying. Fear of anything which can be described as emitting radiation outside of medical devices is so pronounced for so many people, groups protesting against nuclear power will gratuitously use it as one of their favorite scare tactics, never mind that simply moving to higher elevations would expose you to far more radiation than living next door to a nuclear power plant. And that’s the fear which makes so many people think that radiation from cell phones will cause brain cancer, despite there being absolutely no evidence linking cell phone radiation to any malignancy.

There have been a number of studies trying to find a link, but every review found them inconclusive and too broad and permissive to pin down a convincing correlation, much less find a causation mechanism. The only experiment which claims to have shown that cell phone radiation can allow cancers to exploit certain genetic pathways was done on a cell culture rather than an actual organism, and experts say that the results are a far cry from the kind of activity cancerous cells exhibit in the real world. So all those joules, watts and gray units to be displayed next to new cell phone models in San Francisco’s electronic stores and wireless carriers’ shops are effectively just meaningless numbers which will make more people worry than become informed about a statistic that’s been closely monitored and regulated by a government agency since the dawn of mainstream cell phone technology, and this law only serves to indirectly promote the old cliché of “wow, I bet those things give you brain cancer” from the 1980s, when cell phones looked like bricks with antennae and buttons.

# tech // cancer / cell phones / health / public health

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