Don’t panic: your iPhone isn’t going to kill you, despite radiation fears in France

Your iPhone is great for killing time. But is it killing you, as well?

Well – no. I hate to spoil the conclusion of the article at the start, but it’s useful to combat the impression that you might have after media stories this week about Apple having sales of the iPhone 12 being halted in France, due to fears about the phone “emitting too much electromagnetic radiation”.

All mobile phones emit a kind of radiofrequency radiation: they’re doing it when they connect to a tower to make a call, send a text, use 4G or 5G data, or when they connect to WiFi. But it’s so-called “non-ionising” radiation: it’s a much weaker form of radiation than the “ionising” type seen in, for example, X-rays, which can be vastly more harmful.

The “ionising” part means that the radiation can create ions by stripping electrons away from atoms – when it does this to something biological, like DNA, it can cause changes to the structure of the molecules and thus raise the risk of mutations and cancers.

Sales of the iPhone 12 were paused in France due to safety concerns (Photo: Liu Junfeng/Costfoto)

The kind of radiation that comes from your phone can’t do that, and thus poses a much lower risk.

Nevertheless, there are still internationally agreed guidelines for how much non-ionising radiation a phone should produce – and the iPhone 12 (which has been on the market since 2020), may have have fallen foul of these rules, according to the ANFR, the organisation that governs radio frequencies in France.

The ANFR says that in a routine check, it found that people holding the iPhone 12 in their hand or their pocket absorbed 5.74 watts of energy per kilogram, when the European standard is 4 watts per kilogram.

Some commentators suggest that the ANFR’s finding might “snowball” into other countries, producing a major headache for Apple if they’re not able to rapidly fix the alleged problem – which could potentially be done with a software update.

However, the tech company told the BBC it was contesting the review; had provided lab results showing the iPhone 12 is compliant with the relevant rules and the device was recognised as being compliant around the world.

Apple did not respond to i’s request for comment on the ANFR’s decision by the time of publication.

So, is all of this something to be concerned about? Certainly there are articles out there that claim that non-ionising radiation from phones might be dangerous. And the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classes mobile phone radiation in its list of “possible carcinogens”.

But look at the evidence base and you’ll be less impressed. The most talked-about evidence comes from studies in rats and mice that were published in 2018 by the US National Toxicology Programme. They argued that “high exposure to radiofrequency radiation” was “linked tumour activity in male rats”.

But the findings of these studies have been disputed for many different reasons. First off, the “male rats” part should ring alarm bells, because they also looked at female rats, and male and female mice – and found no effects. That makes it somewhat more likely that the sex-specific, species-specific effect was a fluke result. Not only that, but as pointed out by the US Food and Drug Administration, these were rats that were exposed to radiofrequency radiation over their whole bodies, nine hours per day for their entire lives, at rates 75 times higher than the recommended dose for humans – and even then, the results were quite equivocal.

And, to repeat, the effects didn’t even translate from rats to mice, let alone to humans. Human studies have themselves produced no convincing evidence of links between phone-based radiation and ill-health – though some large studies tracking people’s phone use and their medical outcomes are continuing.

What about that “possibly carcinogenic” ruling from the IARC? It’s worth bearing in mind that the “possibly” here isn’t being used in the way the average person might use it: for the IARC, “possibly carcinogenic” is a step below “probably carcinogenic”, which is itself a step below “carcinogenic” (there’s no category for “not carcinogenic” in the system). This is supposed to express uncertainty and spur scientists on to do better and more comprehensive studies – but in practice it just produces health fears: “possibly carcinogenic” doesn’t translate to “we don’t really know” in normal everyday language.

The French ruling on the iPhone 12 is likely to spark health worries too. But the limits set for radiation for phones have a big “safety zone”: that is, they’re set way lower than the level at which most scientists would worry about any impacts of the radiation.

So: yes, we should keep studying the effects of mobile phones on our health. But at present, there’s little reason to be concerned.