5 Facts To Know About Specific Absorption Rate (SAR)

We discover 5 facts consumers should know about smartphones and SAR

Recently, the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection released a report that listed smartphones with the most and least radiation emissions. Sharing this data, we  had readers who were doubtful whether we should be worried about this. After all, is it not possible that the emission of radiation by these smartphones, no matter how high it is, will not have much of an impact at all? Because if it is, most of us would be affected by now.

In fact, all this data seems to be leading more towards unnecessary fear mongering, or even more fuel for aunties to forward this in Whatsapp and warn us youngsters of the dangers of being on smartphones for too long. As if we need more of that! 

So why do governments and health ministries take note of smartphone radiation, while the general public could care less?

Understanding SAR and how it works

Almost all technology around you releases some level of radiation, and the best way to measure it is through SAR. The SAR (Specific Absorption Rate) gives an indication of how much electromagnetic radiation emanates from a mobile phone and is measured in watts per kilogram (W/kg). 

The reason why the health ministry is taking note of SAR is because it ultimately indicates the degree of warming that occurs when radiation is absorbed into the tissue. This is similar to how a microwave works, with the difference being that the food is being targeted with much more concentrated radiation which results in a correspondingly higher heating effect. This would explain why when making calls, a smartphone feels warm against your ear. 

According to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) SAR is measured by creating tests with phantom body parts. For example; testing in the head is tested using a 'phantom' head and the SAR in the body is tested using a 'phantom' torso. The phantoms are filled with liquids that simulate the electrical properties of human tissue. 

The SAR values are then measured with the phone or device: 

  • at maximum power

  • at its different operating frequencies

  • and in a range of positions.

  • the probe inside the liquid measures the electric field strength inside the phantom and uses this to determine the maximum SAR value for the model of phone or device in each particular configuration. 

As you can see, the testing is both complex and time consuming. The process can take up to several weeks depending on the model in question, but whatever it is, all smartphones must go through this vigorous process to ensure that the SAR levels are safe. 

But based on this information, here are five facts you need to know about SAR

1. You need to research a smartphone's SAR yourself 

As consumers don't really take note of these things, it's unsurprising to discover that the SAR of the smartphone you just bought isn't easily available. It's definitely not something you can find on the box or the user manual of a smartphone; you have to do your own online research on this. 

There are a number of general websites out there to help you check, while specific brands such as Apple, LG, Motorola, Samsung and Sony have their own sections on their website to help you determine their smartphone's SAR. 

This is also why the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection released their data as not all smartphones SAR information is easily available, and they may also have their own way of testing a smartphone's SAR. 

2. The SAR reported is likely overstated 

Even with that said, it's important to know that the data revealed is always the highest possible level that a smartphone can produce. This is because smartphones are tested at the highest possible power level, and not all of us will be using smartphones at such a high level for a long period of time. It's likely you won't use it at such a high level at all! 

This means that the SAR values reported for each model of mobile phone tend to significantly overstate real-life exposure levels, as they rarely operate at maximum power levels during everyday use. So as much as the levels may seem scary, the levels are not a constant. 

3. A low SAR smartphone does not make it safer 

With the revelation of SAR levels, you would think the obvious choice of smartphones is to aim for those with lower SAR levels. Sadly, it's not as simple as that. In fact, MCMC outright states that a lower SAR does not make it safer. 

There are other technical parameters to consider such as the placement of the antenna in a smartphone, operating frequency and more that could affect a person's health and safety when using a smartphone. There's also the possibility that the way testing is done does not fully reflect how a person will use it daily, as mentioned earlier, and the data may be understated as it could be overstated. 

For example, the declared maximum SAR value of a phone does not reflect that once a call is established the mobile phone will power down to the minimum power level required to reach the base station and maintain a quality call. 

4. There is no universally safe/dangerous SAR number 

In America, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) limit for public exposure from cellular telephones is an SAR level of 1.6 watts per kilogram (1.6 W/kg), while in Germany the German certification for environmental friendliness 'Der Blaue Engel' (Blue Angel) only certifies phones which have a specific absorption rate of less than 0.60 watts per kilogram.  

Malaysia's MCMC does not have any limit, but have stated that they are aware that the SAR from a mobile phone varies considerably during use and that a maximum SAR value does not provide sufficient information about the amount of radio frequency exposure under typical usage conditions. 

Which leads us to the final fact... 

5. There is not enough data to prove that SAR truly affects a person's health in any way 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), "A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use." 

To put it simply, smartphones are a rather new age phenomenon and there's just not enough data to prove any health issues that smartphones may be causing. But you can bet research is being done right now, and while it may take a while, we'll get something conclusive someday as WHO continues to promote further research on the matter

So should we be afraid of SAR?

Based on these facts, it sure doesn’t seem like something we should worry about. With that said though, it's still something that shouldn’t be dismissed and that’s exactly why data on SAR will continue to be shared. While consumers could care less as there’s nothing to prove or disprove about the dangers of SAR, it’s still good information to take note and be aware of. We’re living in a world of new technology, with no idea of the possible consequences it brings yet. If we are already seeing effects on nature, it’s a matter of time until we see how it affects our health. 

Until then, enjoy your smartphone but to be safe; keep calls as quick as possible and don’t sleep so close to it either