On Call: Are you carrying your phone wrong?

A California state senator wants to take radio frequency warnings from cell phone user manuals and add them to handset boxes. Do you know what your manual really says?

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
7 min read

On Call runs every two weeks, alternating between answering reader questions and discussing hot topics in the cell phone world.

Next Monday, the Environmental Quality Committee of the California State Senate will hold its first hearing on a bill that would require retailers in the state to inform consumers of the possible health risks of cell phone use. SB 932, which was introduced by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), would add notices on product packaging and at the point of sale explaining that phones emit radio frequency (RF) energy. If it passes, it would be the first statewide law of its kind in the country.

Following my initial story from last week, quite a few CNET readers argued that the bill is unnecessary because it only repeats a widely known fact--that cell phones emit RF energy--and that it's irresponsible because it makes even generic claims about something that science hasn't proven to be harmful.

Honestly, I doubt the bill would do much to change behavior if it passes, particularly for a resoundingly useful device many of us feel naked without. Yet, there are problems with both of these arguments. First off, I'd wager that a lot of people don't know how cell phones work or that they emit RF energy. What's more, though science hasn't proven that cell phones can cause brain cancer or other ailments, it hasn't proven definitively that they aren't harmful, either. And that's an important distinction that advocates on both side of the issue need to recognize. I hope research continues and that consumers are provided with more information. Yet, I also recognize that it can take years of exhaustive research before studies actually prove anything (if they do at all).

So what are we supposed to do in the meantime? Though Leno said he hopes SB 932 will help make consumers aware of RF energy, it raises relevant questions over whether government should legislate this type of behavior or encourage consumers to educate themselves about an issue. Granted, I think the CTIA's First Amendment argument against San Francisco's "Right to Know" ordinance is laughable, but advocates for Leno's bill need to recognize that many well-intentioned people (even those who don't represent the industry) won't agree that government should play such a role. While some public health groups will argue that they're just trying to get ahead of the curve and prevent an epidemic--and I don't doubt that their intentions are worthy--the government also needs to be careful about making scientific claims about a subject on which there is little scientific consensus.

State Senator Mark Leno Mark Leno

Read your manual
Leno's bill, however, doesn't makes such claims. And that alone could give it a good chance at becoming law. He avoided any reference to a phone's specific absorption rate (SAR), which is wise considering (among other things) that a SAR can change constantly when you're on a call. Instead, and this is where it gets interesting, he wants to amend the bill so that the RF notice put on a phone's packaging will match the relevant section in the user manual. So as he put it, "We'll just lift the wording in the manual and put it on the box." Repetitive? Perhaps, but it certainly wouldn't be misleading.

Of course that got me thinking about what the manuals actually say. I've combed through hundred of user manuals to find the SAR for CNET's cell phone radiation charts, but I admit that I haven't read every word. And in all seriousness, who has? So to offer a picture of what a cell phone box could look like in California if the bill passes, I collected user manuals from the major handset manufacturers. And the results might surprise you.

Though each manufacturer varies the wording, all advise that your phone could exceed the FCC's 1.6-watt-per-kilogram SAR limit (the measure by which the FCC considers phones safe) if you don't hold it at a short distance from your body while it is transmitting. Some are more detailed than others, and some stray into marketing pitch territory by advising you to use only manufacturer-approved belt clips (without any metal, of course), but you'll find such a warning for almost every phone sold in the United States. So while you may laugh at the guy carrying his phone on a belt clip rather than in his pocket (I certainly have), perhaps he's onto something.

The recommended distance isn't arbitrary, but instead comes from the actual distance used during the FCC testing process. Yet, it's still interesting to see how different manufacturers approach RF exposure. All point out (accurately) that no studies have proven that cell phones are dangerous, and most offer tips for reducing exposure, such as limiting use, not touching the antenna, and using a headset. BlackBerry goes further and adds that you should use the phone only where you get a good signal (so that your handset isn't working so hard to reach the tower) and it advises you to "use hands-free operation if it is available and keep the BlackBerry device at least 0.98 inch (25mm) from your body (including the lower abdomen of pregnant women and teenagers)." Samsung takes a different twist as well by mentioning the inconclusive findings of the Interphone study and by explaining that cell phones emit nonionizing radiation (which, unlike ionizing radiation, does not break chemical bonds and mutate DNA).

Here are the relevant passages for a selection of recent phones that CNET has reviewed. If you'd like to research your own handset, check either your user manual or the accompanying health and safety pamphlet.

RIM BlackBerry Curve 9330
"To maintain compliance with FCC RF exposure guidelines when you carry the BlackBerry device on your body, use only accessories equipped with an integrated belt clip that are supplied or approved by Research in Motion. Use of accessories that are not expressly approved by RIM may violate FCC exposure guidelines and might void any warranty applicable to the BlackBerry device. If you do not use a body-worn accessory equipped with an integrated belt clip supplied or approved by RIM when you carry your BlackBerry device, keep the BlackBerry device at least 0.98 inch (25mm) from your body when the BlackBerry device is transmitting. When using any data feature of the BlackBerry device, with or without a USB cable, hold the BlackBerry device at least 0.98 inch (25mm) away from your body."

From page 24 of the Safety and Product Information pamphlet for the RIM BlackBerry Curve 9330.

T-Mobile (LG) G2X
"This device has been tested for body-worn operation with the distance at of 0.79 inch (2cm) for a normal mode and with the distance of 0.39 inch (1cm) for a hot-spot mode from the user's body. To comply with FCC RF exposure requirements, a minimum separation distance of 0.79 inch (2cm) for a normal mode and 0.39 inch (1cm) for a hot-spot mode must be maintained from the user's body."

Casio G'zOne Commando
"For body-worn operation, this phone has been tested and meets the FCC RF exposure guidelines when used with an accessory that has not metal parts and that positions the handset a minimum of 2cm from the body. Noncompliance with the above restrictions may result in violation of RF exposure guidelines."

Pantech Caper
"This device was tested for typical body-worn operations with the back of the phone kept 2cm from the body. To maintain compliance requirements, use only belt clips, holsters, or similar accessories that maintain a 2cm separation distance between the user's body and the back of the phone, including the antenna."

HTC ThunderBolt
"This device was tested for typical body-worn operations. To comply with RF exposure requirements, a minimum separation distance of 1cm must be maintained between the user's body and the handset, including the antenna."

Sony Ericsson Xperia X10
"For body-worn operation, this phone has been tested and meets FCC RF exposure guidelines when the handset is positioned a minimum of 15mm away from the body without any metal parts in the vicinity of the phone or when used with the original Sony Ericsson body-worn accessory intended for this phone. Use of other accessories may not ensure compliance with FCC RF guidelines." Editor's note: This passage wasn't in the user manual included in the box, though it was in the documentation on file with the FCC.

Motorola Atrix
"If you wear this mobile device on your body, always place the 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 2.5cm (1 inch) away from your body."

Apple iPhone 4
"For optimal mobile device performance and to be sure that human exposure to RF energy does not exceed the FCC guidelines, always follow these instructions and precautions: When on a call using the built-in audio receiver in iPhone, hold iPhone with the dock connector pointed down toward your shoulder to increase separation from the antenna. When using iPhone on your your body for voice calls, or wireless data transmission over a cellular network, keep iPhone at least 15mm (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 15mm (5/8 inch) separation between iPhone and the body."

Kyocera Echo
"To maintain compliance with FCC RF exposure guidelines, if you wear a handset on your body, use a Sprint-supplied or Sprint-approved carrying case, holster, or body-worn accessory. If you do not use a body-worn accessory, ensure the antenna at least 0.886 inch (2.2cm) away from your body when transmitting. Use of non-Sprint-approved accessories may violate FCC exposure guidelines."

Samsung Galaxy S 4G
"For body-worn operation, this phone has been tested and meets FCC RF exposure guidelines when used with an accessory that contains no metal and that positions the mobile device a minimum of 1.5cm from the body."