The curious effect of the phone in my hip pocket

Author profile picture


Legal fine print in my iPhone 4 (Settings->General->About->Legal->RF Exposure)

A few years ago, a friend told me an odd story. He’s a partner in a construction related business, and spends half his time driving around meeting customers and prospects. One day, he noticed his testes were aching, and went to the doctor to check it out. This doctor seems to have been an unorthodox thinker. On hearing that my friend spends quite a few hours in his car everyday, the doctor asked him where he kept his cellphone while driving. My friend explained that he uses a headset while keeping the cellphone on the seat between his thighs so as to be able to see who the caller is (This was in the days before onboard navigation screens became common in cars.) The doctor advised my friend to keep his phone away from his balls, and come back after a month. My friend never did go back to the doctor, as the pains disappeared once he put his phone away from his body.

Unlike my friend, I spend very little time in my car so my phone is rarely on my person. However every three or four months, I make an overnight ten-hour journey to visit my mother, and carry my cellphone in my hip pocket right through the trip. I prefer to go by train as buses don’t have toilets and I tend to pee a lot while traveling. I assume this is because of the sudden variation from India’s generally warm tropical climate to the cold air conditioned interior of a train/bus. This urge can literally be a pain if I’m stuck in a moving bus with no loo. That’s why I prefer to take the train where possible.

After a few trips, my tubelight finally came on.

It struck me that very few of my co-travelers were frequenting the loo like me. Was I mistaken in my assumption that the airconditioning was the cause of this problem. Could this be something more serious?

When nothing means a lot

Diabetes is common in India, and I may be genetically prone to it as my Dad had it. Besides, excessive urination is a typical symptom of diabetes. I believe it’s the body’s way of getting rid of the excess sugar in the diabetic’s body. So, I had my blood sugar checked. To my relief, the tests came out normal.

That was when I recalled what happened to my friend. I didn’t have any pain but my body was behaving abnormally, and there were not one, but two 4G cellphones in my pockets in close proximity to my misbehaving bladder.

Is there a link between my phone and my health issues?

First, why do I carry two phones? Well, that’s probably because my nerdy alter ego just likes being around gadgets, and insists on being connected 24/7. Besides, phone network signals in my part of India vary or even drop as you travel so being on two different phone networks ensures I stay connected to the internet (my iPhone has only one SIM slot, hence the second phone).

Why do I carry the phone in my hip pocket? While sleeping during travel, I keep my two phones in my hip pocket to keep them safe from thieves. And also to check where I am in the middle of the night (on Google Maps) so I don’t miss the station where I’m supposed to get off.

There’s three other factors at play while traveling.

Buses and trains bogies are basically giant metal boxes. These tend to bounce the radiation being given off by my phones off the walls, amplifying its effect.

Secondly, every other passenger on the train/bus also has their mobiles turned on, adding to the electromagnetic soup.

Thirdly, cellphones tend to generate more radiation in moving vehicles. That’s because they keep losing connection to mobile network towers and then have to power up their 4G chip (and radiation) to re-connect to the next tower.

So while I’m traveling, my body is basically being cooked in a giant microwave oven of electromagnetic radiation.

But if this is true, then why aren’t other travelers affected?

I’m guessing here, but it may be because I’m probably the one carrying two 4G phones in close proximity to my body via my hip pockets. I could also be more sensitised to electromagnetic radiation as I may have been more exposed to it, usually having my phone at arm’s length all day and night. Besides being an early adopter and a nerd who is constantly fiddling with his phone, I may have already been exposed to a lot more 4G and 3G waves, which I believe are more powerful than the previous 2G technology.

Putting on my Sherlock Holmes hat

After a bit more reflection, I figured out three more facts to support my case that the phone radiation was responsible for my peeing troubles.

Fact 1. Traveling in planes replicates my bus/train travel in the same sudden switch from hot sweaty, tropical climes of India to an cool air-conditioned environment. But airlines insist all passengers turn off my phones once the flight takes off. This means there is minimal phone radiation in the plane. Interestingly, despite the effect of the air-conditioning, my bladder doesn’t misbehave on airplanes. I often may need to visit the loo only once on a four hour flight.

Fact 2. On normal days, I don’t carry my phone in my pocket and sometimes can go six hours without visiting the loo if I forget to drink water. That reminds me. Today is just such a day. Let me go drink some water.

Fact 3. A couple of times a week, I have to take my kid for a special coaching class in the the evening. Since the road to the class is gridlocked with traffic, it doesn’t make sense for me to go home and come back to pick her up after her 90 minute class. Instead, I wait in my car for the 90 minutes, and get on the net with my iPad which is connected to a hotspot on my second phone which usually has a lot of unused data. Since my primary phone is also on, I’m replicating the metal box effect of my train and bus travels. Sure enough, my bladder fills up in no time, and I find myself running to the loo a couple of times in that short 90-minute period.

Fact 4. I turned off my second phone and put the first one away from my body when I took my kid to her last coaching class. This time, my visits to the loo reduced from two to one. The bladder is still irritable but less so. I feel this may probably be because I’m still in close proximity to an active 4G phone inside a metal tin can (my car) for nearly two hours, which includes the 30 minute drive to reach the place and the 90 minute wait there.

My above conclusions are pure conjecture based on my own observations. To verify if there’s any truth in them, research studies will have to be done with much larger sample sizes and over longer periods of time.

Before I go any further, I must admit there’s a 95% possibility I am wrong.

That’s fine as this story is not about me, but about what phone companies are not saying about phones, and what we can do to protect ourselves.

Pinning down the phone is next to impossible

Let’s get one thing clear. It’s not easy to link any illness to cellphones. Like if I have a brain tumour, how do I prove it was caused by my holding the mobile to my head for long conversations? The tumour could be caused by many other factors. Like radiation from an X-ray machine that I was exposed to when I broke my leg. Or exposure to some toxic chemicals at my workplace or at home. Or maybe it happened when I got dropped on my head as a baby or maybe I have a genetic predisposition to tumours. You will need billions to do research that can, if at all, prove the phone is causing the tumour.

So if I wait for someone to prove a cellphone is dangerous, it’s just not going to happen. There are too many other external factors for a researcher to be able to be able to claim without a shadow of doubt that a phone is responsible for some ailment. Unless he can do that, he will be sued by the phone industry. I guess it’s on us to figure out for ourselves, and this post is one such attempt.

When ‘accused’ and ‘judge’ are the same entity

This brings us to the question of who is going to fund such research? The mobile phone industry is unlikely to shoot itself in its own foot. If at all, they do fund any research, it will be along the lines of, “You can vote for anyone as long as it’s me.”

What about the Government? Seeing how automatic guns are still being sold freely in the US despite regular mass shooting, I don’t think the US government will be interested in hassling the mobile industry, which is again a huge golden goose of an industry, employing millions and generating billions in taxes for the government.

Looking for breadcrumbs

Still the mobile industry must have left some breadcrumbs that will lead me to the skeletons in their cupboard. A little surfing on the net, and I found a Time article written back in 2010 that mentions an interesting nugget of information from the horse’s mouth. To be precise, from the safety manual of Apple’s iPhone 4.

“When using iPhone near your body for voice calls or for wireless data transmission over a cellular network, keep iPhone at least 15 mm (5/8 inch) away from the body, and only use carrying cases, belt clips, or holders that do not have metal parts and that maintain at least 15 mm (5/8 inch) separation between iPhone and the body.”

The same article has the safety manuals on the BlackBerry 9000 and Motorola W180 phones giving the phone’s safe distance from the body as 0.98 inches (2.5 cm) and 1 full inch, respectively.

I immediately checked my iPhone 4 as well as my iPhone 6S Plus. After some serious searching, I finally found the relevant text under Settings->General->About->Legal->RF Exposure. See below. The first one (left) is from my old iPhone 4 and the second one (right) is from my current iPhone 6S Plus.

Though my iPhone 4 is the same as the one referred to in the Time article, the content in the Time article is a bit different from the fine type on my iPhone 4. I guess this is because my iPhone 4 is running a newer version of the OS, iOS 7.1.2, which may not have been released at the time of the Time article.

What’s interesting is the warning on my iPhone 6S Plus. The sentence that mentions “Carry iPhone at least 10 mm away from your body to ensure exposure levels remains at or below the as-tested levels” has been omitted.

Why did Apple omit the precaution?

One probable reason is because the iPhone 4 was tested and verified to be within safe limits with the phone held 10mm from the body. Whereas the iPhone 6S Plus seems to have been tested with the phone held 5mm from the body. (See second para in the legal copy text.)

But the question that popped up in my mind on seeing the text in my iPhone 4 was, “Why is Apple hiding this important info in the fine print?” Shouldn’t they be grabbing the opportunity to educate customers, and inform them that the safe way to use a phone is by keeping it at least 5mm from their bodies at all times. That would be the ethical thing to do. But Apple has instead just quietly removed the phrase.

My guess is Apple removed this to avoid drawing attention to the dangers of a phone’s radiation. They may also have wanted to avoid being asked awkward questions by customers about why this isn’t being highlighted by the company.

Even 10mm may no longer be safe

The radiation tests were conducted with the phones being held 5–10mm from the body. In real life conditions, my iPhone is actually touching my ear when I talk, and is less than 5mm from my body when in my pocket. This means the phone’s radiation is almost certainly above permissible safe levels under real life conditions. Basically there’s a loophole in the government’s testing laws which the manufacturers are exploiting to pass off phones as safe.

Secondly, the iPhone 4 was a 2G phone while the current iPhones are all 4G. And everyone knows a 4G radio emits a lot more radiation than the 2G radio on that iPhone 4.

Thirdly, even if I’m not using the phone to make calls while traveling, the phone’s 4G radio is hyperactive as it keeps getting disconnected from passing mobile towers, and constantly keeps trying to reconnect to the nearest tower.

In short, 15mm or for that 10mm, may no longer be safe.

Besides, what’s all that talk about carrying cases and metal parts? No phone even mentions this anymore. Why not? And what exactly happens to my body if my phone is placed less than 15mm from it? The mobile phone industry seems unusually coy about talking about this.

Things just got a lot more curious.

Conflicts with my inner nerd

Don’t get me wrong. I love my gadgets and am as addicted to my phone as any nerd. It’s not like I didn’t know about these dangers. In fact, I had written a detailed article on Medium itself more than two years ago discussing the dangers of mobile radiation. Despite that, I still wander around with two mobiles in my two hip pockets, much like a modern day Wild Bill Hickok.

It was only after my diabetes scare that I even admitted to myself that maybe my much loved toys need to handled with lot more caution.

The truth is out there

Once I admitted it, I quickly realised that I was not the only one talking about this issue. Here is another article, and one more about a link to cancer.

I was particularly impressed by this half hour talk with CBC’s Wendy Mesley, a Canadian journalist who has been on the mobile industry’s case for 20 years! She has done a far more professional job than me, and has a lot of interesting nuggets of information. Like how the studies are done (manufacturers prove their phones are safe using outdated tests where phones are held 15mm away from the body, for instance), and interviews with researchers. She even talks about how the cellphone industry is funding most of the studies that investigate cellphone dangers and thus is perfectly placed to suppress any information about the harmful effects of cellphones. In fact, it’s exactly what the tobacco industry successfully did for decades. Here’s the actual article which links to the above podcast.

A hard habit to break

As for me, I like my phone too much to give it up. But I have reluctantly started putting my beloved iPhone at twice my arm’s length when I’m not using it. Saying I will do it is one, and actually doing it is another thing.

I just noticed my phone has somehow magically teleported itself back on my desk. This means it’s right now a foot from my irritable bladder. I move it back to its new location, a good five feet away.

Listening to my head, and not my heart

Did the phone’s screen turn on as I did that? Was the phone looking mournfully at me as I pushed it away? However I enforce the quarantine, like I would with a crying child who has an infectious disease like measles.

Of course, phones can’t feel as AI has yet to reach that level. It’s I who am projecting my emotions on to my phone.

Yes, there’s a real feeling of anguish and emptiness in my life, more or less like what I would feel if I was suddenly forcibly separated from a bosom pal with whom I spend most of time.

This isn’t going to work unless I harden my heart and approach the issue with my head. Chin up.

This is how I plan to tackle my phone’s radiation issue.

Turn off the 4G… if I can

If 4G radios are the issue, then why not turn them off when I’m not using the net. That’s actually not a bad idea if you can manage it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for me. I’m on India’s Jio network, a 4G VoLTE network where phone calls are theoretically HD VOIP calls, that are made via data on the 4G/VoLTE network. So if I turn off VoLTE, my phone can’t take or make calls. I could switch to a non-4G network as there are many such in India. But it’s too much off a hassle for me as I’ve got used to my Jio network. I find their service surprisingly transparent unlike other operators who are mostly thugs and ripoff artists who drain your phone’s credit at the slightest opportunity.

So for now, I will stick to 4G, but place my phone at a distance from my body. Like I used to keep my phone within arm’s reach on the floor under my bed when I sleep. I still keep it on the floor under my bed but it’s now below my feet. ‘The further it is, the safer I am,’ is my logic. I’m actually considering leaving it outside my bedroom door, but that’s a jump I have yet to take.

At this point, my phone pinged. I leaned forward and craned my neck and noted that it was just a notification from my bank. Yes, keeping the phone at a twice my arm’s length is a workable solution.

iPad instead of iPhone

My iPad doesn’t have a SIM which means there’s less radiation. I believe wifi is less harmful than 4G. This is an assumption so I could be wrong. The big screen is a boon but the problem is my iPad is an old iPad 3, and just about pottering along. Apps like Apple News take forever to load and there’s no Night Shift mode for easy reading at night. My increased use of the iPad magnifies these faults, and I have been considering an upgrade. However I’m expecting Apple to launch a new inexpensive model in March, so I guess I will wait and see. Sadly, the Indian Government just increased the price of imported phones and tablets so that new iPad is going to cost me a bit more.

Two phones is twice the radiation

Dammit, I just realised that both my phones were switched on as I typed that subtitle. Hang on, let me turn off that Android. Done. It’s taking time for the nerd in me to accept that my body may no longer be able to take this double dose of radiation. I will just have to keep working at it.

No more using the phone while travelling

My phone emits more radiation while travelling by road or rail as it’s keeps disconnecting from mobile towers and trying to connect to the next one. I plan to keep my phone switched off while travelling from now. The Jio network anyway informs me if I miss a call. So I can always turn on the phone when the bus or train takes a break, and call back. Besides, there’s always WhatsApp, and anyone who badly wants to reach me can message me, and get a reply when I get back online.

I also plan to pre-load books or movies on my iPad before I travel next. The news can wait till I reach my destination.

However there’s nothing I can do about the radiation from the phones of the other passengers which will be bouncing around like crazy inside the metal bodies of the bus or train. So it looks like my bladder may not get much relief when I next travel unless my above measures work out. Fingers crossed.

Motion Sensor

A lot of the newer phones have this, including all iPhones from the iPhone 5S onwards. My iPhone 6S Plus has the M9 motion coprocessor. But that means I have to carry the phone on my body if I want it to track my run for instance. I usually get out of home every morning around 6.30-7 and am back only by 8.30-9 after a few games of tennis or a jogging session. I have been carrying my iPhone in my pocket to track my steps all these years. Here’s the data on Jan 8, when I still carried my phone in my pocket while exercising. The middle image shows the detailed breakup of my step count on Jan 8 during the morning hours. It reflects my increased activity during the 7–8.30 am period. The last image on the right is that of today (Feb 6) when my phone wasn’t on me while I was out on the tennis court. The sleep analysis seems to be based on when I last put down my phone at night, and when I turned off the alarm in the morning.

Steps counted by my iPhone’s motion coprocessor

A Smartwatch may make sense

A smartwatch can record all the data that my phone’s motion processor records. And here I must confess that in my typical dumb nerd mindset, I have been constantly wearing a smartwatch for the last 16 months. Yup, I could have put aside my iPhone as my smartwatch has been recording the identical data. To avoid confusing things, I sync my smartwatch with my Android. That lets me compare the data from my iPhone and my smartwatch. (Well, I did warn you that I have a nerdy side.) It does look a bit different as it’s taken from the Mi Fit app on my Android but it’s recording the same activity with my smartwatch.

On the left is the step count on Jan 8, while the middle image is a similar detailed breakup of steps on the same day. There’s a bit of variation but that’s to be expected as both these devices are not that accurate. The sleep analysis is based on my body movements and shows 4 hours, 43 minutes which is more accurate than my iPhone which had me at 6 hours 24 minutes. The right image is my step count for today. It shows 7983 steps, while my phone shows just 1611 steps.

Proof that my iPhone and I are no longer bosom buddies.

Steps counted by my Mi Band 2 smartwatch

Not all smartwatches cost the earth

If you have been putting off buying a smartwatch, because you think it’s expensive, think again. The Apple Watch is indeed expensive. A quick check with Amazon India says the latest GPS equipped model, the Apple Watch 3, costs ₹32000 ($500) while the previous model, the Apple Watch 2 is going for₹26000 ($405).

That was a bit too pricey for me. So I avoided getting the Apple Watch till my teenage kid gifted me the Mi Band 2 from Xiaomi on my birthday. She could do this because it costs just ₹1900 ($30) though it’s nowhere as feature-laden as say an Apple Watch. Having said that, the watch can do a lot, and a new model, Mi Band HRX, is now available at an even lower price of ₹1300 or $20.

I can go into details of what my smartwatch can do but that’s a different story, and if I do write it, I will link it up here. The Mi Band does have one major disadvantage in that it does not have any internal storage. So if you need to play music while you are jogging, you have to take your phone along. Which is what I do as I tend to go only for short 20 minute runs, and having the phone on my body for that short period is an acceptable compromise. I must add that the latest Apple Watch has a GPS radio and top end model even has a cellular chip which may defeat the purpose of avoiding mobile radiation by keeping our cellphones away from our bodies.

Anyway, the Mi Band at its price and variety of features, is perfect for people who just want to try out a smartwatch without breaking their bank, and that may explain why the watch has been a smash hit in India.

Not all smartwatches are fascinating

I have a confession to make about my smartwatch. Checking time is my primary use, and often the only use of my smartwatch.

I got my Mi Band 2 in October 2016, which makes it around 16 months old. But though I wear it 24/7, I rarely even glance at it unless I want the time. Every now and then, I sync it with the Mi Fit app on my Android so I have my activity history to check if I’m in a nerdy mood. But when I did sync it today, I realised it was four months since I last synced my phone and band.

I guess after the initial novelty wore off, I lost interest in the other functions of the phone. I exercise every morning and easily exceed my daily target of 8000 steps so I don’t check my step count anymore. I disabled many of its other functions. Like the raise-to-turn-on-the screen function. This extended the watch’s battery life to an incredible 3 weeks on a single charge. At this rate, the battery is going to last forever. I did initially activate the watch’s vibrate function to buzz if I didn’t pick up my phone in five rings. But I disabled that too, as I usually pick up my phone before it rings five times.

In short, I might as well as be wearing any ordinary watch. So maybe I shouldn’t have got myself a smartwatch.

Just saying.

Have I been talking through my hat?

It’s early days yet as it’s just been a week or so, since I stopped keeping my phone on my body. My bladder is visibly less stressed, so maybe putting the phone away did help. I’m not due to go on any of my long trips for another couple of months but I will definitely update this post with my further adventures when I do.

Of course, there’s a very strong possibility there’s absolutely no link between my phone and my bladder. That’s fine as it’s thanks to my bladder that I got to know that I don’t know what my beloved phone is doing to my body.

So when you know nothing, what do you do? I trust my intuition, or rather my better half’s intuition.

Like last evening, my completely non-tech savvy wife saw me absentmindedly put my phone in my pocket, and asked me to avoid doing that. When I asked her why, she confidently declaimed, “It’s not safe.”

Does she know something that I don’t?

Be safe, people.



The Noonification banner

Subscribe to get your daily round-up of top tech stories!