Smart Shopping for Smartphones

When you shop for a big ticket item that affects your everyday life, you ask lots of questions, don't you? So do I. Sure would be easier if sellers always had answers. I took the Environmental Working Group's list of cellular phone radiation levels along with me when I visited a couple of wireless stores this past weekend. My husband and I are thinking of upgrading to the latest smartphones when we renew our contract.

With the EWG's list as my guide, I was able to match up a smartphone with one of the lowest Specific Absorption Rates (SAR) with the salespersons' suggestions on the most useful phones.  I asked one salesperson if there was any information at the store about the phones' SARs, and she went searching for a pamphlet.  When she couldn't find one, she related that the pamphlet only stated that all of the phones were the same.  Really?  I think she was making an honest effort to provide some level of customer service.  But in reality, cell phone providers are not obligated to provide up-front specifics about the radiation levels of their products at the point of sale, even though the SAR levels can vary widely within legal limits.  The FCC says that all cell phones are required to have under 1.6 watts per kilogram of what it calls radiofrequency energy.  The FCC does include information on finding SAR levels via its website, but this requires removing the phone battery and looking up model numbers online -- not something retailers are rushing to make convenient before you take home a phone from their storefront.  There is, of course, some controversy over whether these differing levels are significant or whether following them can be misleading.

I was stunned to see the news release out Monday by the nonprofit EWG, which points to strong industry influence over the federal government's stance on cell phone safety.  According to EWG Press Secretary Leeann Brown, "Our Federal Communications Commission investigation shows that the government is not doing its job in representing the interests of the public when it comes to cell phones. While the science on the effects of cell phone radiation and human health is far from definitive, recent, longer term studies (studies looking at ten years or more of use) show that further investigation and interim cautions are merited."

You can read more from the EWG here, including the timing of an industry meeting with San Francisco's efforts requiring retailers to disclose SAR rates.  The EWG used the Freedom of Information Act to confirm a meeting between business leaders and the FCC, shortly before the FCC changed a public advisory about cell phones.

What can we do as consumers?  Here is a link to the EWG's database of more than 1,200 models of phones, including the short lists with the highest and lowest rates that I took along as a shopping guide.  Brown also says, "EWG has 8 simple tips to reduce cell phone radiation exposure( These are especially important for parents of children and teenagers who use cell phones, as their thinner developing skulls do not shield the brain as effectively as an adult's skull. They are also the first generation of guinea pigs for cell phones, whose health effects over the course of 40, 50, 60 years of use have not been assessed."

While I'm excited about all that technology can do, including bringing the Flour Sack Mama blog to you via My Taptu on your convenient mobile device, I plan on using an abundance of caution.  For me personally, that includes not allowing my young children to handle cell phones.  I'm not an expert on science or cell phones; but it seems reasonable that as a consumer, I should be able to make my own informed choices.  Thanks to nonprofit watchdogs like the EWG, more information helps us practice conscious consumerism.