iPhone Investigation Spurs Federal Testing Into Cellphone Radiation

One of the first customers to buy a new iPhone walks out of an Apple store in Manhattan on September 16, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

When reporters from the Chicago Tribune investigated cellphones for radiofrequency radiation, they found that the popular iPhone 7 measured over the legal safety limit and more than double what Apple reported to federal regulators from its own testing.

In response, the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that regulates cellphones, says it will now conduct its own testing.

Samuel Roe, an investigative reporter with the Tribune, discussed the investigation recently with host Michael Krasny on KQED’s Forum.

Roe got the idea to investigate cellphone radiation when his workplace issued him a new iPhone 7, one of the highest selling smartphones of all time.

“It came in the box and a nice wrapper,” he said. “I sent it to a lab in California — north of San Diego, San Marcos — and they followed all FCC guidelines and rules and tested the phone and it was admitting radiation that was higher than the legal limit, higher than what Apple reported to regulators.”

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The Tribune conducted its investigation in partnership with researchers at RF Exposure Lab, an FCC accredited lab in California. Researchers there have tested cellphones for 15 years. For this test, they measured 11 different cellphone models.

You can read their original report here and the methodology here.

Below are excerpts of Roe’s answers, edited for length and clarity.

This Study Did Not Find An Increased Risk of Cancer Or Other Harms

We are talking about electromagnetic radiation. This is not like gamma radiation or X-ray radiation. This is further down the spectrum, so it's less dangerous. But having said that, high readings from a cellphone can cause thermal damage. That is well documented. No one disputes that. That's why there's a safety limit.

[Note: According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's website, most studies to date show no connection between health problems and exposure to radiofrequency fields from cellphones. But radiofrequency radiation can damage human tissue at high exposure levels.]

The Tribune Investigation Raises Questions About Federal Rules

The industry is, basically, on the honor system. They choose a lab. By federal rule, the manufacturer must test a phone to ensure that it complies with regulations before taking a new device to market. But the companies only have to test a single device in order to make millions of that phone.

We tested more phones than Apple tested before they put the iPhone 7 on the market.  

Federal Standards May Not Be Adequate

The standards are outdated and were issued back in the nineties, when people carried phones in different ways and used them less. I don't think anybody anticipated how integral the smartphone would be to our lives. We use  cellphones 24/7, especially kids. This year, Common Sense Media released a study  that found that 29 percent of teenagers reported sleeping with their cellphone in bed at night.

There is a Call for These Standards to be Modernized

Officials at the FCC said they are going to buy phones off the shelf, and test them against samples from the manufacturers. The agency shares regulatory responsibility for this issue with the FDA. If the feds find that the phones are out of compliance, they have the power to recall them.

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