How many of us read the fine-print booklets that come with our smart phones, laptops, and gaming devices?
If you do, you’re that rare exception. For the rest of us, it’s standard operating procedure to skip reading those manufacturer disclaimers which, on the surface, can be absolutely alarming. Company lawyers advise mobile electronics vendors to put these indemnifying CYA warnings into every box—albeit in nearly invisible, six-point (and sometimes even smaller) font.
But how do the disclaimer warnings about possible radiation, vision problems, and burnt skin really affect us? And just what can we do when using phones, tablets, laptops, and other gear to avoid the possible dangers referred to in the fine print?
The Disclaimer: Exposure to radio frequency (RF) signals produces radiation.
Apple: “Hold the iPhone with the dock connector pointed down toward your shoulder to increase separation from the antenna. When using iPhone near your body for voice calls or for wireless data transmission over a cellular network, keep iPhone at least 15 mm (5/8 inch) away from the body, and only use carrying cases, belt clips, or holders that do not have metal parts and that maintain at least 15 mm (5/8 inch) separation between iPhone and the body.”
HTC: “Avoid using your phone near metal structures (for example, the steel frame of a building). Avoid using your phone near strong electromagnetic sources, such as microwave ovens, sound speakers, TV, and radio . . . As with other mobile radio transmitting equipment, users are advised that for satisfactory operation of the equipment and for the safety of personnel, it is recommended that no part of the human body be allowed to come too close to the antenna during operation of the equipment.”
Motorola: To be sure that human exposure to RF energy does not exceed the guidelines set forth in the relevant standards, always follow these instructions and precautions: When placing or receiving a phone call, hold your mobile device just like you would a landline phone. If you wear the mobile device on your body, always place the mobile device in a Motorola-supplied or approved clip, holder, holster, case, or body harness. If you do not use a body-worn accessory supplied or approved by Motorola, keep the mobile device and its antenna at least 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) from your body when transmitting.”
The Risk: The possible threat is that continuous radiated exposure near the head or body could cause cancer. Although the Specific Absorption Rates (SAR) vary depending on the model of cell phone and the manufacturer, they must fall under the FCC threshold of 1.6 w/kg (watts per kilogram). Wi-Fi broadcasts on cell phones have lower SAR measurements than cellular broadcasts. However, Apple, for one, warns that the SAR measurement may exceed the FCC exposure guidelines if positioned less than 5/8 inch from the body (such as when carrying an iPhone in your pocket). Motorola recommends a full inch of distance, unless, of course, you’re using a Motorola-approved body-worn case.
Numerous long-term studies investigating possible links between cell phone use and brain tumors have been conducted, including one with more than 12,000 cell phone users in 13 countries. So far, results are inconclusive, with researchers recommending more studies over a 20- to 30-year period to better understand the potential long-term risks. But other recent research is more unequivocal.
Devra Davis, the founding director of the toxicology and environmental studies board at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences reveals in her book, Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, that the FCC set SAR standards solely based on cell phone industry input. Further, the FCC SAR ratings are based on a 200-pound adult male who is more than 6 feet tall and uses his phone for six minutes at a time. Data for shorter, lower-weight people—especially adolescents, who tend to have much longer conversations—was never considered.
A recent study by the National Institutes of Health found that mobile phone radiation makes brain regions near the device burn more energy. According to the study’s lead neuroscientist, Nora Voklow, scientists don’t yet know the health implications of the study’s conclusions, but this is the first study that shows the brain is affected by the exposure to cell phone radio frequencies.
The Advice: Since it’s the internal antenna that radiates RF energy, keep your cell phone as far from your body as possible when talking. Use a Bluetooth headset or use the speakerphone feature whenever you can. And, if possible, store your phone in a bag instead of in your pocket. To check on the SAR rating of your current or potential new phone, go to www.sarshield.com for the FCC SAR ratings. Some phones release higher-than-average SAR, so this frequently updated list will make you forewarned, and thus forearmed.
The Disclaimer: Prolonged use of a laptop resting on a lap may cause skin damage.
Apple: “To operate the computer safely and reduce the possibility of heat-related injuries, follow these guidelines: Do not operate your MacBook Pro on a pillow, blanket, or other soft material, because the material can block the airflow vents. If your MacBook Pro is on your lap and gets uncomfortably warm, remove it from your lap and place it on a stable work surface.”
Dell: “Do not allow your portable computer or adapter to operate with the base resting directly on exposed skin for extended periods of time. The surface temperature of the base will rise during normal operation, particularly when AC power is present. Allowing sustained contact with exposed skin can cause discomfort or burn.”
Toshiba: “PC base can become hot! Avoid prolonged contact to prevent heat injury to skin.”
Sony: “Caution! Do not place this computer in contact with your skin. Remove this computer away from your body if it becomes warm and causes discomfort. Operating this computer in contact with your skin for a prolonged period could result in injury.”
The Risk: While generally harmless, the heat from notebooks or overuse of other heat sources such as heating pads and electric blankets can darken or mottle skin and, in rare cases, lead to skin cancer, according to Drs. Andreas Arnold and Peter Itin of the University Hospital in Basel, Switzerland.
Not mentioned in laptop disclaimer statements is the possible loss of fertility in men who keep laptops on their laps too long. “An elevation in heat has been known for years to cause fertility problems (and lower sperm counts) . . . and the heat from laptops is very localized, with exposure repeated often, depending on work use,” said Dr. Yefim Sheynkin, who led a State University of New York study on the effects of sustained laptop heat on men.
Dr. Sheynkin told us that he doesn’t know the exact frequency and time of heat exposure capable of producing reversible or irreversible changes in sperm counts. He noted that studies have shown significant but reversible changes after short-term heating. “However, laptops produce significant repetitive transient scrotal hyperthermia for years, and insufficient recovery time between heat exposures may cause irreversible or partially reversible changes in male reproductive function,” Dr. Sheynkin said.
The Advice: Avoid putting your notebook directly on your lap. According to Dr. Sheynkin, shielding with a laptop cooler does not protect from scrotal temperature elevation. However, scrotal hyperthermia may be reduced by a modified sitting position (legs apart) and significantly shorter use.
To prevent skin damage, your best bet is to sandwich an inexpensive, portable cooler or laptop desk between your notebook and your lap. Reliable coolers include the Zalman ZM-NC3000U Notebook Cooler ($69.99; www.zalman.com), the Targus HD3 Gaming Chill Mat ($59.99; www.targus.com/us), and the Belkin F5L025 Laptop Cooling Pad ($49.99; www.belkin.com).
The Disclaimer: A disclaimer posted on Nintendo’s website states “Viewing of 3D images by children 6 and under may cause vision damage. Use the Parental Control feature to restrict the display of 3D images.”
The Risk: According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, “There are no conclusive studies on the short- and/or long-term effects of 3D digital products on eye and visual development, health, or function in children, nor are there persuasive, conclusive theories on how 3D digital products could cause damage in children with healthy eyes.” Rebutting the overly cautious Nintendo warning, the Academy notes that “the development of normal 3D vision in children is stimulated as they use their eyes in day-to-day social and natural environments, and this development is largely complete by age three years.”
The advice: Optometrists recommend that users take frequent breaks to lessen the likelihood of damage from viewing 3D content. Ojai, CA optometrist Roger Phelps notes that viewers who suffer the most with 3D are those who have trouble getting their eyes to converge properly in normal life. “If you tend to get carsick easily, you might be one of those,” Phelps said. All viewers—children and adults—should limit viewing to 30-minute sessions with breaks in between.
According to Nintendo, if you have any of the above symptoms, you should immediately discontinue use of the 3D device and do not resume until the symptoms have subsided. Samsung adds, “We do not recommend watching 3D if you are in bad physical condition, need sleep or have been drinking alcohol.”
Nintendo has added a parental control feature on its 3DS to not only switch off 3D viewing but to lock out applications with content deemed unsuitable to children.