Believe it or not, it’s still unclear whether radio frequency from the cellphones we carry with us at all times is harmful to our health. Cellphone radiation studies have been inconclusive.
So it’s only natural that some consumers are concerned about potential health risks caused by using and carrying cellphones.
For the past week, I’ve been researching and testing possible solutions for these people: Radiation-reduction cellphone cases. To be clear, I haven’t tested these in a lab, as other publications and independent research groups have done. I’ve used the cases as I would a regular cellphone case, and I looked for explanations as to how, exactly, these are supposed to reduce radiation.
These aren’t your $10-on-Amazon.com cellphone cases. The cases I came across, which also included tablet cases, range in price from $50 to $100. They’re made by companies you might not have heard of before; one case even comes in the form of a silver-lined smartphone pouch. My experiences with these were mixed.
Before diving into the cases, though, it’s good to understand how cellphone radio frequency works, and how it’s measured.
Cellphones work by transmitting radio waves across wireless networks. The Federal Communications Commission has set a limit on what’s considered a safe amount of radio frequency that can be absorbed by the human body, referred to as the SAR, or specific absorption rate.
That FCC limit was set in 1997.
Needless to say, cellphones have changed since then. Last summer, members of Congress called for the FCC to revise this standard. Meanwhile, the FCC, the World Health Organization and even the handset makers suggest consumers use hands-free solutions to try to reduce our radio-frequency exposure.
Now on to the cases: It was surprisingly difficult to find this type of mobile device case from brands I know. Speck doesn’t make radiation-reduction cases. Neither does Case-Mate, though the company offered one in 2010. OtterBox doesn’t make this kind of case, either, stating that internal research shows its customers aren’t seeking these kinds of cases.
The most well-known radiation-reduction case available is made by Pong Research, which conducts SAR tests in its Virginia lab. The cases have also been tested by two independent labs. The company says its cases have an average SAR-reduction rate of up to 91 percent on supported devices.
I’ve been using Pong’s newest classic and rugged cases for iPhone 5. The classic “soft” case costs $70, and is available in black, red, silver and purple. The rugged case is $80, and comes in blue, black and white. There are also cases for the HTC EVO 4G ($50), the BlackBerry Bold 9900 ($60), the Samsung Galaxy S III ($80) and the iPad mini ($100), as well as for other models.
These cases don’t block radiation entirely, nor does Pong claim they do. If they blocked all radio-frequency waves, you wouldn’t get phone calls on your phone. (Try wrapping your smartphone in tinfoil and see if your calls come through.)
Instead, Pong says, they reduce the radiation levels by deflecting the waves. Embedded in each case is a micro-thin conductive circuit board that draws the radio-frequency energy toward it and away from the user’s head.
I used Pong’s classic case for the first half of the week, and the rugged one for another few days. I didn’t experience any interruption or apparent weakening of my cell signal. Style-wise, I found I preferred the classic plastic case. It was sleeker and lighter, although really hard to pry off when I wanted to switch it up.
The rubbery, rugged case did feel like it could handle a few more drops, but I didn’t like the extra thickness it added to my phone.
The iPad mini case I used is made mostly of synthetic leather, and the front cover folds and flips back to create a stand for the tablet. It’s the kind of tablet cover I might buy regardless of its radiation-reduction capabilities — if only it didn’t cost $100.
While I couldn’t find many recognizable brands making Pong competitors, the Web is littered with companies that claim to offer protective products. Australia-based CellSafe makes and sells cases with a “cushion” that’s supposed to reduce radiation. A company in Israel called CellLaVie has come up a thin film that goes over the phone. I didn’t get to try these, and CellLaVie didn’t respond to my inquiries about how its product works and where it’s sold.
The next cases I used were literally mixed bags. These were “eWall” bags sold through an online store called the EMF Protection Store. Each bag cost $60.
The eWall pouches are just large enough to fit a smartphone. They have a loop at the top for cinching the bag. There are two parts to the eWall product: The main pouch and an outer pocket. The bag is lined with a silver mesh fabric.
According to the instructions, if you put your smartphone in the outer pocket, you’ll reduce radiation but you’ll still receive phone calls. If you put your phone in the central pouch, you’ll block all signals.
I found this eWall bag to be problematic for two reasons: First, I usually don’t want to throw my phone in a bag and hang it on a doorknob and forget about it. It’s either right next to me when I’m sitting at my desk, or within reach on the coffee table, dinner table or night table. And I don’t want to carry my phone inside a bag inside my pocket, either.
Second, the first few times I put my phone in the inner pouch and tightened it at the top, my test calls from another phone still went through, making me question the supposed effectiveness of the pouch. In follow-up tests, the phone didn’t receive calls, but I had to squeeze the top of the pouch to fully close it.
I asked the seller of eWall about his company’s testing methods, and he said that while the product has undergone some testing in Germany, his company does not conduct tests on its effectiveness before shipping the product. A new leather shield listed on the EMF Protection Store’s website has not been tested, either.
If cellphone radiation is worrying you, the Pong cases might put your mind at ease. But I can’t recommend the eWall bags I used, and consumers buying online should carefully consider the validity of these types of cases before buying — especially when they cost $50 or more.