If you stick the $49.99 Patch’d smartchip onto the back of your phone, its makers promise you will reduce your exposure to your phone’s radiation by “up to” 95 percent. This small sticker, the company claims, will miraculously protect your brain, your balls, and (if you’re the type to carry a phone in your bra) your boobs, from cancer. In all of this, there is just one hitch: no one is really quite sure whether our phones cause cancer at all.
Patch’d, which is slated to hit the market this summer, is one in a long list of products avowing to keep our phones from stealthily killing us. Way back in 2002—the year the first phone with a camera debuted—the Federal Trade Commission filed charges against two companies that claimed to protect consumers from cell phone radiation. One of them, the WaveShield, was a quarter-sized sticker that declared it could “block up to 99 percent of the radiation entering the soft tissue of the ear canal.” Once available in mall kiosks everywhere, a version of the WaveShield is still available online, sold along with a hearty, fine-print disclaimer that it doesn’t actually shield you from much.
The concern that our phones might give us cancer stems from the effects that we know radiation has on the body. Radiation can cause cancer by damaging cells, breaking down DNA’s chemical bonds to produce mutations. One type of radiation—ionizing radiation, like x-rays—is powerful enough to separate an electron from an atom and potentially set in motion a cancer-causing mutation. Cell phones, though, emit a different kind of radiation. Like microwaves and the lightbulbs in your house, they release lower-energy, non-ionizing radiation. And, at least for the time being, nothing has definitively shown that non-ionizing radiation can give you cancer.
Still, never before in history have our bodies been drenched in so much electromagnetic radiation, and that raises the question of what kind of impact all of those waves of energy might have on us. That uncertainty has created a huge market demand. If you search for an electromagnetic-shield protector on Amazon, there are more than 400 results: cellphone stickers, screen protectors, cases and pouches all claiming to protect us from the silent killers in our pockets. After all, we used to put cocaine in Coca Cola and think cigarettes were good for you, right?
Patch’d, which is based in Australia, was founded after CEO Leigh Ratcliffe’s brother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Ratcliffe, the foundational mythology goes, spent hours obsessively researching the link between brain cancer and cell phones, distraught by how many middle aged men and women like his brother were dying from brain cancer. Eventually he concluded that there should be a product to make smartphones safer by reducing radiation absorption.
The Patch’d chip supposedly works by coupling with a phone’s antenna to draw radiation away from the front of phone, filter it and then re-direct it out the back of the phone away from a user's head and body. It does this by way of a .35 millimeter-thick printed circuit board and layers of “specially formulated dielectric materials.”
The website cites studies that link smartphones to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, disrupted sleep, breast cancer, brain cancer and infertility. It quotes the World Health Organization and European Environmental Agency, which have both publicly stated that the potential health impacts of phones should be explored. It’s not only “backed up by serious science” but “has been tested to FCC standards by accredited independent labs.”
“What is unique about this technology is that it is the only product on the market that has been scientifically verified to achieve a reduction of radiation absorption (SAR) by up to 95 percent,” Chloe Ratcliffe, the company’s business development manager and the founder's daughter, told me via email. “A lot of the other products on the market simply don't have legitimate test results to backup their claims.”
If all this is starting to sound a bit like voodoo science, that’s because it probably is. I reached out to several authors of the studies that Patch’d cites to back up their technology. All of them expressed heavy skepticism.
“I think incredibly dubious may be an understatement,” Dr. John West, a breast cancer doctor and an author of one of the cited studies told me.
Joel Moskowitz, the director of the Center for Family and Community Health at U.C. Berkeley, told me that while he does believe cell phone radiation exposure is a risk to people, the safety measurements and standards set by agencies like the FCC fail to properly measure that risk.
"We don't know what constitutes a safe level of exposure to non-ionizing radiation," Moskowitz said. That makes it kind of hard to create technology to keep you "safe."
Magda Havas, a researcher at Trent University in Canada, told me that while she does believe it’s possible to create technology that reduces radiation from your cell phone, placing a metal object like Patch’d “on the back of the phone can actually increase your exposure since you place the front of the phone against your head.”
Havas told me that to reduce her own risk of exposure, she instead opts to keep her phone in Airplane mode most of the time (the cellular signal is what produces radiation) and use a headset or speakerphone when talking on it.
Allan Frey, a neuroscientist who in the 1960s helped pioneer the study of the impact of non-ionizing waves on the human body, told me that after perusing the Patch'd website and the data it offers as proof of its efficacy, he found "no useable data on their device on which to base a judgment" on whether or not it works.
Oh, and those FCC radiation level standards Patch’d boasts about meeting? Your phone already meets them, whether or not you stick a microchip to the back of it. The FTC even warns consumers about falling for the claims of products like Patch'd, suggesting instead that to reduce radiation exposure from your phone, you use a headset or speakerphone.
In other words, it’s unclear whether phones cause cancer, but even if they do, there’s really no guarantee that the Patch’d approach to reducing radiation would do anything about it.
When I pressed Ratcliffe on this point, she admitted as much.
"We understand that the health argument is complicated. We simply present the research that is emerging from independent scientists around the world to inform people interested in the topic," she said. "In terms of our product, the only claim that we make, the only claim we can make, is this: we can reduce radiation absorption by up to 95 percent."
The Patch'd website is cluttered with cherry-picked evidence and fine print disclaimers about the microchip's actual effectiveness, but at the end of the day, they're betting you'll shell out $49.99 to be "better safe than sorry."
"Whether consumers' think that reducing the radiation going into their bodies is a good thing or not," Ratcliffe told me, "is up to them."
Even if we haven’t proved a link between our phones and cancer, there is plenty of cause for concern that a link could exist. Some studies have shown a potential correlation between, for example, certain types of cancer and how often people use their phones and how. Other studies, though, have contradicted them.
In the U.S., the FCC’s legal limits for the amount of radiation a phone is allowed to emit haven’t been updated since 1996, when the technology was very different and we used our phones far less often. Last May, the city of Berkeley voted to require cell phone retailers to provide customers with a notice on the potential health hazards of carrying their phones too close to their bodies, making the city the first in the U.S. to have wireless warnings. On the iPhone, among the legal disclaimers, there is a warning advising consumers to limit “RF exposure” by carrying their phone at least five millimeters away from their face.
Phones present a real risk, we just don't know how big that risk is or even what the risk is, exactly. Without those things, it's hard to create technology to address it.
Otis Brawley, the chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, equated devices like Patch'd to vitamins—unlike your mother, vitamin manufacturers can make no medical claim that diligently taking your vitamins everyday will actually improve your health.
“We have a problem in the science,” he told me. “We cannot prove cellphones are safe but we haven’t proved that they are not safe either. It’s very easy to prove your product protects from cancer in cell phones when there is no way to prove in a court of law that phones cause cancer in the first place.”
But one thing is certain: for at least the present, there is no $49.99 fix that can protect you from risk. All you can do is put down your phone.