Sunday, December 29, 2013

Health Risks of Cell Phones and Wearable Devices

The mobile tech revolution has moved so fast that health and safety risks are playing catch-up.  I attended a public forum earlier this month at the Commonwealth Club that opened my eyes to unassessed risks in mobile devices.  The bottom line is that cellular devices operate on low-power microwave frequencies.  Extended exposure to low-power microwaves may have human health consequences, which suggests the precautionary principle for technology use while research develops more definitive conclusions.

The scientists and medical experts on that panel presented evidence that a cell phone's intermittent pulse and wavelength variation are the source potential hazards.  These hazards may persist even when the device is at low power.  I took special note of one statistic presented on "digital dementia" diagnosed in South Korean children.  South Korea is the most saturated mobile market on the planet, according to every tech conference I've attended in 2013.  Putting a mobile device into the hands of everyone in emerging markets may magnify health risks.

The panelists weren't the only ones doing their homework.  WHO's IARC published a monograph this year (Volume 102) on the possibility of carcinogenic risk from cell phones' radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic fields.  The UC Berkeley Center for Family and Community Health published a meta-analysis in 2009 on the risk of tumors from cell phone use.

Early regulation of cell phone risks has mostly fallen on deaf ears (pun intended).  San Francisco's "Cell Phone Right to Know" ordinance lost a court challenge in 2012.  The FCC does mandate specific absorption rate (SAR) guidelines for cell phones, but it still mentions the further precautions of holding the phone away from the human body and using accessories.  The federal government does not at this time speak with a unified voice on RF radiation, although FCC guidelines on wireless exposure purport to include guidance from the EPA, FDA, and OSHA.  Those other agencies have slightly different approaches.  The FDA has wireless standards for medical devices that IMHO can be adapted for cell phones and other devices used outside the human body.  OSHA defers to the FCC by restating the absence of a federal RF exposure standard but nonetheless provides a good summary of scientific literature on RF exposure.  The trouble with implementing more stringent guidelines at this stage is the lack of independent research on dose-response relationships.  Industry-funded research tends to minimize the hazards while independent research has begun to confirm hazards.  More funding for research means better knowledge of how to manage risk.

The implications of these risks for IoT devices and wearables are huge.  Google Glass, FitBit, and wireless chargers are designed to be next to the human body all day long!  Where's the Consumer Product Safety Commission in this controversy?  If the telecom industry and phone makers don't voluntarily dial down the radiation from their products, they won't like it when the CPSC hammers them later.  It's better for industry to get out in front of this now before they face multi-billion dollar class action lawsuits from cancer victims.  Who holds the patents for low-radiation phones and antennas?  Those innovations may prove to be very valuable if carriers and makers bring them to market.  The evolution of mobile phone standards offers industry a way to reduce RF exposure.  GSM is the most widely adopted standard for 1G and 2G networks but it may generate higher RF exposures than CDMA for 3G and later networks.  I think GSMA and CDG should have a chat about public-interest solutions before lawyers start trolling through cancer cases.

Civilization needs mobile tech, so to keep it we need to manage its risks.  The Environmental Health Trust has developed a knowledge base on the safe use of cell phones.  The International Institute for Building Biology and Ecology wants us to read the instructions and labels on our wireless devices.  The National Cancer Institute has a fact sheet on the cancer risk from cell phones.  The National Consumer Advocacy Commission maintains a cell phone safety website that mostly covers accident prevention, although it does admit the need for further research on RF health hazards.

The experts at the CW Club also advocated some simple rules for minimizing exposure that I'll repeat here.  Use earpieces and speakerphones whenever possible.  Don't use a cell phone in areas with weak signals because it must work harder to generate more power.  Use the phone's "airplane mode" to turn off microwave signaling.  Don't keep a cell phone directly on your body.  That last one matters very much for women, because there is evidence showing that women who keep cell phones in their bras experience increased risk of breast cancer.  I keep my own powered off when it's in my jacket pocket.

Technology marches on and so must human health.  I believe there is a role for institutional investors to play in this debate by pushing publicly traded tech companies to raise the bar on safety.  Cell phone RF risk is a perfect test case for applying corporate social responsibility policies.  Risk demands regulation, but regulation needs data.  If government agencies can't or won't fund research on RF health hazards, there's an entrepreneurial opportunity for tech companies that market safer devices.  This has been your public health message for the day from Alfidi Capital.