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The Right to Know about Gray Matters

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Drugs, bike helmets, credit card agreements, cigarettes, air bags, and guns, all come with notices regarding safe uses and risks.  Without laws to enforce them, such warnings are basically a form of product defense that allow manufacturers to say I told you so should any problems develop later.   But, where warnings are accompanied by enforceable laws, they can fundamentally change behavior.  In fact, fewer kids try smoking nowadays as a consequence of what's been a highly effective shock and awe campaign including escalating cigarette taxes, massive public educational programs (now slated for cuts),  laws that make it illegal to sell tobacco products to those under age 18, and a warnings slapped directly on packaging.

But what are we to make of the fine print advisories that come with new cell phones today that are seldom seen and even less frequently heeded.  Blackberry's Torch phone cautions teenagers and pregnant women not to hold the phone next to the lower abdomen.  Apple's iPhone 5 features a Houdini-like warning--now you see it, now you don't.  Printed warnings on thin paper package inserts that advised safe distances for using phones have disappeared.  Those determined to find out about cellphone radiation enter a middle school programmers do-loop. 

Advertisements in the blogosphere feature baby apps, with real live toddlers and infants who love their phones. Their parents do not know that that the 60,000 physicians and surgeons of the American Academy of Pediatrics have issued warnings that young brains and bodies need more lap time than app time and should avoid microwave radiating devices.   

If you want information about radiation safety and the iPhone, you can read the online product safety notice which says:

Radio signals iPhone uses radio signals to connect to wireless networks. For information about the amount of power used to transmit these signals, and about steps you can take to minimize exposure, see Settings > General > About > Legal > RF Exposure.

Then, after going through the above 5 clicks on your phone, the text below pops up:

iPhone has been tested and meets applicable limits for Radio Frequency (RF) exposure.

Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) refers to the rate at which the body absorbs RF energy. SAR limits are 1.6 Watts per Kilogram (over a volume containing a mass of 1 gram of tissue) in countries that follow the United States FCC limit and 2.0 W/Kg (averaged over 10 grams of tissue) in countries that follow the Council of the European Union limit. During testing, iPhone radios are set to their highest transmission levels and placed in positions that simulate use against the head, with no separation, and near the body, with 10 mm separation.


To reduce exposure to RF energy, use a hands-free option, such as the built-in speakerphone, the supplied headphones, or other similar accessories. Carry iPhone at least 10 mm away from your body to ensure exposure levels remain at or below the as-tested levels. Cases with metal parts may change the RF performance of the device, including its compliance with RF exposure guidelines, in a manner that has not been testified or certified.

SAR values for this device are available online:

Thus, ends the advice.  But, wait there's a trick.  If at this point, you have not given up and click on the above link purporting to be information on SAR values, you get right back to this text:

To reduce exposure to RF energy, use a hands-free option, such as the built-in speakerphone, the supplied headphones or other similar accessories. Carry iPhone at least 10mm away from your body to ensure exposure levels remain at or below the as-tested levels. Cases with metal parts may change the RF performance of the device, including its compliance with RF exposure guidelines, in a manner that has not been tested or certified.

What's missing altogether is this previous statement on the phone that explained that phones carried in the pocket can exceed the FCC exposure guidelines.  Poor David Beckham has no idea that his convenient phone necklace exceeds FCC approved testing conditions.

In fact, commercials for cell phones that fill our airwaves, newspapers and magazines routinely feature young children happily chatting with their phones held smack up against their developing bodies and brains and iPads plopped directly over young gonads.  
Child holding iPhone on body over reproductive organs by Toys R Us Advertisement

 It may well be legal for companies to sell devices that cannot be used safely in ways they are advertised, but it is certainly not ethical to do so.

When it comes to defining the right to know about this public health risk, San Francisco has been at the leading edge.  Outgunned and outspent, the city's legal department has stood its ground on the fundamental right to require phone sellers to tell the truth and inform people about ways to reduce their risks from cellphone radiation--now found in fine print warnings or online manuals.  After two years of prolix litigation, the court has agreed with industry:    the right to free speech does not apply to city officials concerned with public health, because this violates industry's free speech by compelling them to disclose the need to use precautions with cellphones before they buy them, rather than allowing this information to be freed from the bowels of the internet. 

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scientist, writer, & grandmother with abiding faith in the power of knowledge, the goodness of humanity & the value of knowing when to call it like it is

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