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Anything for a Buck

10/31/2008

If you haven't witnessed one of those videos, you should. Pretty scary stuff, isn't it? When I first saw one of these videos it gave me pause. It didn't seem possible but there it was on the screen. These videos are copies or remakes of a professionally produced version from Cardo Systems, a manufacturer of Bluetooth remote headsets.

Popping corn with a cell phone is clearly a hoax. Similar hoaxes include hard boiling an egg with a cell phone. Take a look to see how it is done (needless to say, every ham should immediately realize how dangerous this trick could be to perform).

Just as radio amateurs must prevent their stations from exposing people to unsafe levels of RF, cell phones are extensively tested to confirm that exposure to users will be under the Maximum Permissible Exposure (MPE). These thresholds are far below the levels of energy absorption that can raise the temperature of tissue noticeably -- really far below what it would take to pop a kernel of corn. If you're interested in experimenting, place a small container of water between the antennas of two or more operating cell phones and try to measure a change in temperature.

What about Cardo Systems? They claim that the hoax that they foisted on the public was meant to be humorous. That message got lost on YouTube and it had many people convinced that cell phones (and by extension, any RF source -- including Amateur Radio) are inherently dangerous. People continue to use their cell phones in spite of the danger, just as smokers continue to light up. It could be possible that Cardo's original message was that these things are dangerous so you'd better buy a hands-free device, such as a Bluetooth headset.

After their hoax was revealed, Cardo Systems placed the following disclaimer on their Web site (they have since removed nearly all references to their popcorn hoax):

The contents of these videos are ficticious and humerous optical illusions, designed for entertainment. Nothing in these videos is meant to imply that mobile phones can make popcorn and Cardo Systems, Inc. ("Cardo") specifically disclaims that these videos contain any portrayal of facts or comments about safety. Cardo disclaims any liability for the information in these videos.

I have nothing against hands-free cell phone devices. I find it a little strange to see a Bluetooth appliance mounted in someone's ear, even when the phone is not in use; the comparison to Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek is hard to avoid. There are lots of good reasons to use a hands-free device, including making the roads safer; however, avoiding brain-cell-frying is not one of them.

I also wonder about the wisdom of someone trying to sell an RF emitter that is mounted on the ear by frightening people about the use of another RF emitter. Clearly they targeted those who have no idea of how anything works.

Are there any limits to what can be said in order to sell a product? The Cardo Systems disclaimer passes this video off as humor. I consider it to have much more daunting effects. Much of the public is already suspicious of technology and well prepared to believe any news of bad effects, no matter how improbable.

The popcorn video is not the first scam that scared people into spending money to protect themselves from RF energy. You may remember the flurry of ads several years ago that warned of the many diseases that could be caused by using a cell phone. They went something like this:

Not all is lost since you can buy a tiny gadget that protects you from the harmful energy. It is a small sticker that fits under the phone's battery and only costs $19.95, a small price to pay for to protect your health.

A similar hoax device was advertised around the same time. It was called an "antenna extender" and claimed to be able to boost your cell phone signal so it would work in more locations. Amazingly, it looked identical to the cell phone protection device and was being sold for the same amount. So which is it? Something that decreases the cell phone signal in order to protect you from disease, or something that boosts the cell phone signal?

Occasionally, I still see ads for such protective devices and have always wondered who is being fooled by such hoaxes. Perhaps fewer people are fooled than in the past. Recently I ordered an extra battery for my cell phone from an online vendor. When my order arrived, the envelope also included a free gift: The very cell phone protector patch that I have seen ads about for years. What a deal! A $19.95 value for nothing! I guess someone was trying to get rid of old stock that wasn't selling.

I consider propagating hoaxes that scare people in order to sell a product to be highly dishonest. I used to think that the government protected us from such things but apparently there are loopholes. In 2003, the Federal Trade Commission brought action against the company selling the WaveShield:

Distributors of the "WaveShield" cell phone radiation patches that claim to protect consumers by blocking up to 99 percent of electromagnetic ("EM") radiation emitted by cell and cordless phones have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that their claims are unsubstantiated and false. The settlement with Interact Communications, Inc., and its president, Sheldon Kalnitsky, bars false or unsubstantiated claims about radiation-blocking phone shields or other similar devices. The complaint alleges that the defendants fail to disclose that most of the energy emitted by cellular and cordless phones comes from the antenna and other parts of the phone, and that WaveShield products have no effect on these other emissions. In addition, the complaint alleges that the defendants made false statements that their products had been scientifically "proven" and "tested," when in fact that was not the case.

Despite this government action, the WaveShield is still being sold over the Internet.

Many people are confused about the safety of RF devices. The scientific evidence is daunting and confuses many. Muddying the waters with baseless innuendo only serves to generate unneeded fear and is cruel. Anything for a buck!

Greg Lapin, N9GL, started working in the RF safety world after spending many years first studying cardiac function imaging and then brain tumor kinetics. He serves as chairman of the ARRL RF Safety Committee and as a member of the FCC Technological Advisory Council. A former professor of Biomedical Engineering and Neurology at Northwestern University, Lapin now works as a consulting professional engineer in the electronics industry. He was first licensed while a teenager in 1969 and continues to be fascinated by virtually all aspects of Amateur Radio. One of his many interests is electronic design, and he is the author of Chapter 8, "Analog Signal Theory and Components" in The ARRL Handbook for Radio Amateurs. His non-ham interests include making things grow in his garden and serving as commissioner of the local children's softball league. At other times -- when he is not working or helping his kids with their homework -- you might find him with the local emergency services agency, climbing his tower, building a new QRP rig, playing with his APRS setup, responding to QSL cards, going off on a DXpedition or trying to get that "new one." You can reach him via e-mail at g.lapin@ieee.org. The ARRL RF Safety Committee page contains a link to archives of previously posted editions of N9GL's RF Safety Column.

Gregory Lapin, PhD, PE, N9GL
Chairman, ARRL RF Safety Committee



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