What is behind France’s ban of Apple’s iPhone 12?

Radiation watchdog claims smartphone breaches European standards, while Apple says global standards have been met.

A man poses with an Apple iPhone 12 in a mobile phone store in Nantes, France, September 13, 2023.
A man holds an Apple iPhone 12 in a mobile phone store in Nantes, France, September 13, 2023 [Stephane Mahe/Reuters]

France’s radiation watchdog has banned sales of Apple’s iPhone 12 after tests that it said showed the smartphone breached European radiation exposure limits.

The French agency, the ANFR, said on Wednesday that testing found that the model’s Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) – a measure of the rate of radiofrequency energy absorbed by the body from a piece of equipment – was higher than legally allowed.

The ANFR said it “ordered Apple to remove the iPhone 12 from the French market from September 12”. If Apple does not resolve the issue, the ANFR said it would order a recall of the device across France.

Apple has disputed the watchdog’s conclusions, saying the iPhone 12 was certified by multiple international bodies as compliant with global radiation standards.

Here’s what you need to know about the dispute:

What is SAR?

“Standard Absorption Rate” refers to the dose of energy that the body absorbs from any source of radiation. It is expressed as watts per kilogram of body weight.

The radiation from mobile phones is a result of the way they work, by transmitting radiofrequency waves, creating electromagnetic fields.

Unlike the radiation from X-rays or gamma rays – caused by radioactive decay – phones cannot break chemical bonds or cause changes to cells in the human body, a process which can ultimately cause harm, such as cancer.

What has ANFR found?

The ANFR recently tested 141 mobile phones and found that when the iPhone 12 is held in a hand or carried in a pocket, its level of electromagnetic energy absorption is 5.74 watts per kilogram, higher than the EU standard of 4 watts per kilogram.

The phone passed a separate test of radiation levels for devices kept in a jacket or in a bag, the agency said.

Smartphone radiation tests have thus far led to 42 imposed sale stops in the country, it said.

In independent laboratory tests, two iPhone 12s did not comply with EU standards, the office of the Digital Minister told Reuters.

How dangerous is it?

Mobile phones have been labelled as “possible” carcinogens by the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, putting them in the same category as coffee, diesel fumes and the pesticide DDT. The radiation produced by mobile phones cannot directly damage DNA and is different than stronger types of radiation, such as X-rays or ultraviolet light.

The main issue caused by a phone’s “non-ionizing” type of radiation is the heating up of body tissue. Above set limits, and depending on the duration of exposure, this can lead to health effects such as burns or heat stroke, according to the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), a body which sets guidelines for the limits globally.

However, radiation limits are set “well below the level at which harm will occur,” and therefore a small increase above the threshold “is unlikely to be of any health consequence,” said Malcolm Sperrin, director of medical physics at the UK’s Royal Berkshire hospital group.

Users of the iPhone 12 should be able to download an update that prevents radiation exposure from surpassing the limit, Sperrin said.

It’s not clear why this particular model appears to throw off higher radiation but it “may be associated with the initial stage of connection when the phone is ‘looking’ for a transmit/receive signal,” he said.

How has Apple responded?

The ANFR has said a software update should be sufficient to fix the issue.

In simple terms, this is because the software – the apps, programmes and other operating information running on a device – affects how the hardware (the device) works. So a software update should be enough to reduce iPhone 12 users’ SAR exposure.

Apple said the iPhone 12 has been certified by multiple international bodies and complies with all applicable regulations and standards for radiation around the world.

The US tech company said it has provided the French agency with multiple lab results carried out both by the company and third-party labs proving the phone’s compliance.

Are there more bans to come?

The ANFR said the iPhone 12 had failed to meet European Union standards, raising questions over whether more sales bans could be coming elsewhere.

While it remains unclear if other authorities are investigating, Germany’s Federal Office for Radiation Protection said on Wednesday the “the question of the need for change is currently the subject of discussions.”

The France ban came as Apple was already facing significant headwinds after reports emerged that some Chinese government agencies and firms, as well as state-owned enterprises, had told staff to stop using the phones at work.

The Chinese government refuted these claims on Wednesday, saying it had not issued a ban on the buying or use of foreign phone brands.

Nevertheless, the news has caused concern among Apple investors, as the world’s second-largest economy is a major market for the US tech company.

Source: News Agencies