Radiation-reducing phone cases: saviours or snake oil?

We often buy phone cases to protect our smartphones, but should we also buy cases to protect our health? We look closer at radiation, health risks and the cases that claim to keep you safe.

Joseph Hanlon Special to CNET News
Joe capitalises on a life-long love of blinking lights and upbeat MIDI soundtracks covering the latest developments in smartphones and tablet computers. When not ruining his eyesight staring at small screens, Joe ruins his eyesight playing video games and watching movies.
Joseph Hanlon
6 min read

We often buy phone cases to protect our smartphones, but should we also buy cases to protect our health?

The symbol for non-ionising radiation.(Credit: Ionactive.co.uk)

Among the hundreds of smartphone cases available for iPhone and a bevy of popular Android phones, there are some that claim to reduce the amount of radiation your body absorbs when you have the handset close to your body. Pong Research is a US brand that offers a range of products fitting this description, as is Cellsafe, a company based in Victoria, Australia.

These cases work by redirecting the electromagnetic radiation (EMR) that is produced by phones, away from the user. All phones produce EMR when connected to the mobile network, and the effect of this energy is measured as a Specific Absorption Rate, or SAR: a measurement describing the radiation absorbed by kilogram of tissue. Government regulations in Australia dictate that all phones in Australia must emit a SAR less than 2 W/kg under the worst case scenario, and while all phones comply, most modern phones emit, at most, only half of this safe level, or approximately 1 W/kg.

"[Cellsafe] is designed to redirect the maximum SAR radiation from the head," explained Cellsafe's managing director Aaron Leibovich. "It is a combination of two specific designs, one is a directional antenna, which is [designed] for each model of mobile ... and that antenna is embedded into a special material, most of which is silicone".

"The combination of both is giving you the reduction of SAR, and in particular, it is diverting from the front of the phone, which is the screen. This is where you touch the screen to the head."

Leibovich was very careful to point out in our interview that Cellsafe is not claiming that the radiation absorbed by the body during phone use leads to health issues like brain tumours, male infertility or damage to unborn babies. But the Cellsafe website strongly suggests these links. Its homepage (image below) leads with the phrase "You should be concerned!" in an eye-catching red, and there is as much screen real estate on the site dedicated to information about the dangers of radiation, as there is for descriptions of the Cellsafe products. This information refers to "high levels of RF radiation" in several places, but it doesn't say whether this describes radiation from phone use.

The landing page of the Cellsafe website. (Credit: Screenshot by Joe Hanlon/CBS Interactive)

"We don't claim that Cellsafe will protect you from XYZ health issues, we just show consumers articles in which they are talking about the health issues," said Leibovich, "We just claim that (Cellsafe cases) are reducing radiation."

Cellsafe backs its claims by publishing independent test results on its site. These test reports are detailed, complex and confusing, but the results are available for you to interpret. For example, their tests found that an iPhone 4S produced a SAR of 1.069 W/kg on the 3G 2100Mhz frequency without a case, and 0.267 W/kg with a Cellsafe case. But what in the world does that actually mean? Is a SAR of 1 W/kg dangerous? Is a reduction to 0.267 W/kg actually better, or are we just splitting hairs?

Should you be concerned?

Last year, the International Agency into Research in Cancer (IARC) published a press release re-classifying Radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as "possibly carcinogenic to humans", following results published by the World Health Organisation's Interphone study.

"Possibly carcinogenic" was a phrase that may media outlets pulled out of the release, but it's a dangerous takeaway for consumers, out of context. "Possibly carcinogenic to humans", or group 2B, is a sub-classification or monograph, applied to agents by the IARC. Other agents (or items of everyday life) in Group 2B include pickled vegetables, lead and Potassium bromate — an oxidising additive common in flour. In all, there are 272 agents listed as possibly carcinogenic.

You can read the IARC press release regarding the classification of phones here.

(Credit: World Health Organisation)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) released a fact sheet about these issues, shortly after the IARC re-classification, entitled "Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones". The fact sheet points to the findings of the IARC and describes some of the known short-term and long-term effects of phone use, but ultimately, it lands on the side of where the most conclusive evidence exists:

A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.

It'd be wrong to say that there is no evidence of harm at all. In fact, the re-classification by the IARC came about in the first place because the Working Group contributing to the Interphone study acknowledged "limited evidence" of an increase in glioma (a type of tumour, commonly found in the brain) among phone users in one of the studies. In this study, which concluded in 2004, researchers found that participating phone owners who had used their handsets for calls for more than 30-minutes a day, over a period of ten years, had an increase incidence of glioma.

There is a lot of passive scientific jargon mixed into these reports and fact sheets, much of which is confusing to the uninitiated, so we reached out to the Cancer Council of Australia to help us understanding this as everyday phone users.

"In [the IARC] classifications, the only lower classification, really, is absolutely not related to cancer, and the fact is that you can't say that about mobile phones, because there have been equivocal results in the studies," says Professor Ian Olver, CEO of the Cancer Council Australia.

"What you can say, from the studies that have been done, is there doesn't appear to be any increase risk in cancer from ten years [of] use. But we don't know about longer than ten years, yet."

"The only caution we've taken is to say, look, if there was to be anyone to be affected, it would more likely to be people who use [mobile phones] from childhood up, so you might like to make sure that children don't use them excessively," said Professor Olver.

If you are concerned about the level of radiation being emitted by your phone, there are a number of ways you can limit against your exposure to EMR, including hands-free devices, limiting the length of calls and text messaging, where possible. According to the lab results posted on the Cellsafe site, one of their cases will help, too.

Scare tactics

Without conclusive scientific evidence linking phone radiation to health risks, should you bother spending the extra money on a product like this? Moreover, is it unfair for a company like Cellsafe to promote its products by pointing to inconclusive scientific research?

"We say: better safe than sorry ... The more radiation you have, the more exposure you have, is less healthy than having less (exposure)," said Leibovich. "What will happen in the next 20 years if they discover it's like asbestos and like tobacco, when it used to be that smoking is good for you. Now, suddenly, this is a huge problem."

But this is not an opinion shared by the Cancer Council.

"Someone claiming they need to reduce [the safe SAR level of 2 W/kg] by 90-percent — they just have no evidence to make that claim, and they are actually playing on the fact that people will be concerned enough about the possible cancer risk, although they don't understand that there's no sufficient data yet to make a statement about an actual cancer risk," said Professor Olver.

"On the same [IARC] scale that said phone use was possibly carcinogenic, smoking is at the highest level. They are class 1 carcinogens; that's beyond doubt, they definitely do cause cancer ... There's an absolute difference between substances, where the evidence says that there is no doubt about the fact that they cause cancer, compared to mobile phones, where they say it is still possible because the data over ten years use still isn't in."