2006.01.11 Cell phone: thoughtful gift or present from hell?

Written by David Green.


Among the multitude of gifts I received for Christmas (is four a multitude?) was one of those pay-as-you-go cell phones that many people buy for emergency use. It seemed like a pretty good present at the time. If I had car trouble on the road, I wouldn’t have to worry about where the nearest telephone might be. It would especially be handy after dark. Then I made the mistake of reading the owner’s manual that came with the phone.

The manual contains a four-page message from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concerning the safety of wireless phones. While there hasn’t been any conclusive proof of health risks, most studies covered about a three-year period, while the FDA suggests a follow-up period of 10 years or more when looking for evidence of cancers and some other health maladies that might be caused by radiofrequency energy emitted by the phone.

While that alone may not be a cause for concern (although the manual devotes four pages of small print to the subject), there are enough other problems to give me second thoughts about the phone. Most people are aware not to use the phones around pacemakers, hearing aids and other medical devices, as well as to refrain from operating the phone on an airplane. But how about in a car?

According to the phone manual, signals from the phone could affect vehicle “electronic fuel injection systems, electronic antiskid (antilock) braking systems, electronic speed control systems, air bag systems.” Now, if your car starts acting strange, it might be the fault of your phone.

Especially watch out for that airbag, according to this manual warning: “Do not place objects, including installed or portable wireless equipment in the area over the airbag or in the airbag deployment area...serious injury could result.” Those people who insist on using their phones while driving may be in for a surprise when the phone causes the air bag to go off, leaving a phone-shaped indentation on the side of their face.

Then there’s the explosion possibility. Again, it’s fairly common knowledge that you are supposed to turn off your phone while refueling your vehicle, although I’ve seen many cell phone owners who ignore that warning. Unfortunately, the idiot with the phone won’t be the only one fried to a crisp if the phone emits that dreaded spark. 

The manual mentions other, less obvious locations when the phone could spark an explosion, such as below deck on a boat, or areas where the air contains particles such as grain, dust or metal powders. Farmers and factory workers, beware.

And if you’re clumsy, watch out. The latest issue of Consumer Reports contains the comforting news that a dropped cell phone with a fully charged battery could overheat from the impact and explode. Their advice is to “leave it on the ground for a few moments to make sure there’s no problem.” You may want to use those few moments wisely by running for your life.

By now, you may have come to the conclusion that the cell phone is more trouble than it’s worth. If you’re not the type who likes to test the odds, getting rid of your phone may be your best option. But what to do with it?

You can’t just throw it away. The manual warns against disposing of the phone in a fire or as household waste.

Putting it in your garage or basement is out, too, as the manual also rules out keeping it in environments that are hot, cold, dusty, dirty, humid, or wet.

This is getting to be a bit of a problem, isn’t it? Offhand, I can think of only two possible solutions.

First, if you’re made of money, you could rent one of those temperature-controlled storage units and put the phone inside, hoping for the best.

Or, wrap up the phone, think of the name of your worst enemy, and send them an early birthday present. And don’t include the manual.

– Jan. 11, 2006
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