An App for Parents Concerned About Cellphone Radiation

Geek Culture

The smartphone is the new telephone for many familiesThe smartphone is the new telephone for many families

Smartphones are becoming as common as household telephones for many families. Image: Copyright Tawkon.

What is SAR (Specific Absorption Rate)? Should you care about it? Do you spend a good chunk of your day talking on your smartphone and, perhaps more importantly, do your kids use a smartphone with a cellular connection? If so and they spend the bulk of their time texting, tweeting and updating Facebook, then there may not be much to be concerned about. If they’re actually talking on their mobile device, though (they still do that, right?), it may be worth looking at how they use their smartphone and whether, as a result, they just might be receiving a bigger dose of RF radiation than you’re comfortable with. Tawkon is an app that was designed to take the guesswork out of cellphone radiation levels under different conditions, different usage levels and for different devices. Rather than scaring people away from using their smartphone, the aim is to monitor exposure levels and alert users when it’s time to consider using a Bluetooth headset or continuing their conversation in an area with better reception.

From the cell tower to your smartphone, Tawkon calculates RF radiation levels.From the cell tower to your smartphone, Tawkon calculates RF radiation levels.

Tawkon’s process for calculating RF radiation. Image: Copyright Tawkon.

Backgrounder: Cell Phone Radiation and SAR
Cell phone radiation has been a controversial subject pretty much from day one. Historically, there have been two main camps: those who feel it’s completely harmless and those who feel it is a real danger. In the first camp, you tend to find the cell phone manufacturers and network providers. Of course, it’s in their interest to maintain the status quo. At the other end of the spectrum are those who feel things aren’t quite so rosy, that the effects of cell phone radiation may well be contributing to health concerns ranging from Alzheimer’s to cancer. For a good example of the “this stuff isn’t as harmless as we’ve been led to believe” camp, check out books like Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Is Doing to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family. Between the two extremes has been an emerging recognition that, while cell phone radiation may not be dangerous enough to lock your iPhone or Galaxy away in a lead-lined hazmat crate, it probably makes sense to pay attention to potential dangers and take reasonable precautions to limit any risk.

To that effect, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement that reads:

“The electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Note that this is possible, not definitive, but it’s still enough to get attention. In addition guidelines have been established that set maximum radiation exposure limits for mobile phone users: SAR, a measurement of how much radio frequency energy a human body would absorb while using the device. In both Canada and the US, mobile phones sold must not exceed a SAR rating of 1.6 watts per kilogram (in Europe, it’s a less stringent 2 watts per kilogram).

Manufacturers publish their SAR levels, but don’t publicize them; reminders of radiation emission aren’t exactly ideal for driving customers into stores. San Francisco and Oregon have considered legislation forcing cell phone manufacturers to make SAR data more prominent in promotional material, but in most places, finding out the SAR ratings for specific phones requires a little digging (here’s an excellent resource for common models). For those who are interested, Samsung’s Galaxy S III has a low SAR rating of 0.48, Apple’s iPhone 4S carries a SAR rating of 1.11, while RIM’s BlackBerry Curve 9350 is getting high at 1.5.

Complicating things, actual radiation output and exposure can be subject to a wide range of variables including the distance the device is held from the head, voice vs. data, distance from the cell tower, signal strength and even carrier.

RF radiation exposure is high.RF radiation exposure is high.

The Tawkon app’s warning display when RF exposure levels are high. Image copyright Tawkon.

Why Should Parents Care About SAR and Cell Phone RF radiation?
As parents, SAR is something that may be of more concern than personal use because kids are using cellular devices more than ever — certainly more than most of us ever did at a young age. SAR limits have been established based on adult use, but kids have smaller bodies and thinner skulls; it’s not a stretch to suppose that they may be more susceptible to any possible negative effects of cell pone radiation, especially when they hold a device right up to their head and use it obsessively. Kids’ usage patterns may be different than adults and they may spend more time in malls or buildings where signal strength isn’t as good (leading to higher radiation output).

In short, we simply don’t know enough about the effects of cell phone radiation, but if there’s even the sneaking suspicion that high use and habits such as holding a handset against the ear for an extended time might put a child at higher risk of developing cancer or other health issues, then many parents would welcome a way of measuring and warning against excessive exposure. Which is where an app like Tawkon comes in.

Making Cell Phone RF Radiation Exposure Easier to Manage Using Tawkon
The developers of Tawkon took the approach of measurement and warning being a more realistic approach to reducing exposure to cell phone radiation. Let’s face it — unless a major study establishes a definitive link between your iPhone* (or Android) and cancer, there’s little chance you’re going to stop using it. But, if an app can monitor your usage and warn you when your usage is veering into the potentially dangerous zone so that you can take preventative measures — such as switching to speakerphone or using your Bluetooth headset (both measures significantly reduce radiation exposure) — that’s a different story. You don’t need to keep track of all the variables and no-one is in your face, turning off your phone because you’ve exceeded a recommended guideline.

The Tawkon app main screen.The Tawkon app main screen.

From the Tawkon app, monitor RF exposure data for your phone and your kids’ phones. Image copyright Tawkon.

What Tawkon does is to use the variables mentioned, plus others including antenna orientation, weather and even travel speed in an algorithm that takes the device’s SAR rating into account to predict the amount of radiation the device is putting out at any given time. It’s not an exact measurement (you’d need an actual RF radiation detector for that) but it’s much more accurate than attempting to WAG it yourself.

The app works unobtrusively in the background. If its calculations indicate that your exposure is approaching high levels, it flashes a warning that prompts you to switch to a headset. In addition, it keeps track of stats including your total talk time for the month (broken down by phone, headset and speaker) and indicates how many minutes of that total took place during high exposure periods. The app will even e-mail you a monthly report.

Where Tawkon is of particular interest to parents is its “family” function (a similar “friends” feature is available as well). Install the free app on your family’s mobile phones and you can see exposure data for each phone. Your kids will have the functionality of a personal warning when their use may be reaching dangerous levels and you see their data on your phone as well; if a child is piling up the high exposure minutes, it may be time for a talk about using the device in a different manner or investing in a Bluetooth accessory to reduce their risk. You can also see how much of their talk time is subsequently spent using a headset; whether it was a good investment or just another gizmo forgotten in a drawer will quickly become evident.

If you have any concerns at all that cell phone radiation might not be as benign as we’ve assumed, but don’t want to get all alarmist and start banning the use of mobile devices in your household, apps like Tawkon represent a reasonable compromise.

*Apple (and Steve Jobs personally) declined to make Tawkon available through Apple’s App Store, but there is an iOS version available for users who have chosen to jailbreak their iPhone.

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