WASHINGTON – Most cell phone cases are so badly designed that they partially block the antenna, making the phone work harder to transmit a signal and intensifying the radiation that strikes the user’s head and body, a new Environmental Working Group analysis shows.
The analysis released today, based on data submitted to the Federal Communications Commission by case-maker Pong Research Corp., reveals that some cell phone cases on the market are so poorly engineered that the Specific Absorption Rate – a measure of the amount of radiation absorbed by the body – increased by 20 to 70 percent. While the jury is still out as to whether exposure to cell phone radiation can cause adverse health effects, a growing body of evidence points to this possibility.
“Cell phone cases aren’t just decorative,” said Renée Sharp, EWG’s director of research. “These accessories can increase our exposure to radiation, and they are essentially unregulated by the FCC. In the past, the FCC looked into holsters, which were far less pervasive than cell phone cases. At the very least, the FCC needs to consider cases when it updates its testing guidelines for radiation exposure limits.”
Pong Research Corp.’s data suggests that a phone case that obstructs the antenna makes the phone work harder to transmit its signal, causing dropped calls and depleting battery power. The tests were performed on three models of cases made by competing companies and used with an iPhone4. The cases – Otterbox Impact, Case-Mate Barely There and Speck Candy Shell – varied in thickness and composition, reflecting the range of products on the market. EWG’s analysis of the data found that the cell phone cases could decrease signal strength by as much as 90 percent.
EWG acknowledges that its analysis is not based on its own testing data, but rather data from tests conducted by Pong Research Corp.’s certified testing labs and submitted by the cell phone maker to the FCC for review. To date, it is the only publicly available data in the U.S. detailing how cases can affect the radiation emissions of cell phones.
Pong Research Corp. contends it has designed cases that emit less radiation. Investigative reporters from Wired.com toured Pong Research Corp.’s facility and came to a conclusion similar to that of EWG. Wired reported its case technology does in fact “reduce the amount of radiation going from the iPhone into your head to a third of what it would be without the case.”
The federal government does not require phone manufacturers to consider the effect of cases when they test whether phones comply with the FCC’s radiation exposure limits. A phone worn right next to the body and enclosed by a case that obstructs the antenna could expose the user to more radiation than the legal limit.
“Nearly 90 percent of Americans use smartphones and many buy cases to protect their fragile devices,” added Sharp. “However, the FCC does not take accessories into account when it tests for radiation. This is even more important considering that recent scientific studies have raised serious questions about the safety of cell phone radiation exposure over the short and long term.”
EWG is calling on the FCC to update its guidelines to include cases in its cell phone testing protocols to ensure that they don’t compromise a phone’s functioning or prevent it from complying with the radiation exposure limits. While some industry representatives have questioned whether the FCC has the authority to regulate cell phone accessories, there is precedent. For example, the FCC’s 1996 regulations considered the use of cell phone holsters that are no longer popular.
EWG’s report lays out several ways the FCC could update its radiation standards to address the issue of cell phone cases. The agency could:
- Insist that case manufacturers test their products with all compatible phones to ensure that the phones remain in compliance with FCC standards.
- Require manufacturers that make both phones and cases to show that their phones meet FCC standards when used with their cases.
- Test a sample of popular phones with popular cases to determine how much a case typically increases radiation absorption, and lower the SAR limit by at least this amount in the updated standards.
In the absence of meaningful action by the FCC, EWG recommends that consumers follow these five steps to help protect against cell phone radiation:
- Use a headset or speaker mode.
- Hold the phone away from the body.
- Text more, talk less.
- Don’t store your phone in a pocket or under a pillow.
- Call when the signal is strong.