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Reactions: France halts iPhone 12 sales after finding it exceeds European radiation limit

France has temporarily halted the sale of the iPhone 12 phone because it does not comply with European radiation regulations. In a press release, French regulator ANFR (the National Frequency Agency) has asked Apple to withdraw the iPhone 12 from the French market from 12 September 2023, after its tests showed that the device exceeded EU limits for a measure known as the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR). The SAR measure looks at the levels of electromagnetic radiation that could be received by the body if the phone were held in the hand or trouser pocket, and should be below 4W/kg. The ANFR says the test measured the SAR at 5.74 W/kg.

14/09/2023 - 10:22 CEST
Expert reactions

Alberto Nájera - radiación EN

Alberto Nájera

Physicist, professor at the University of Castilla-La Mancha and Scientific Director of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Radio Frequencies and Health of the Official College of Telecommunications Engineers.

Science Media Centre Spain

On 12 September, the French ANFR (Agencie Nationale Des Fréquences) issued a public notice announcing the temporary withdrawal of the Apple iPhone 12 from the market after a study of 141 devices found that the model exceeded the SAR (Specific Absorption Rate) for extremities by 1.7 W/kg (the European limit in this case is 4 W/kg). The ANFR publishes the results of the DAS monitoring programme openly. On this page, the ANFR explains the process of SAR determination in its DAS programme. 

What is SAR? SAR (Specific Absorption Rate) is a measure that indicates the amount of radio frequency (RF) energy, the typical frequencies of devices used in telecommunications (WiFi, Bluetooth, mobile phones, antennas, etc.) that is absorbed by the human body when using a device such as a mobile phone. This measurement is expressed in units of watts per kilogram (W/kg) and is used to assess whether a mobile device complies with safety guidelines set by regulatory authorities such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States or the European Union. European Recommendation 1999/519/EC sets the limits that these devices must meet in Europe.

SAR is calculated under controlled laboratory conditions, and devices must meet certain SAR limits to be considered safe for human use. For example, in the United States, the most restrictive SAR limit for mobile phones is 1.6 W/kg, while in the European Union it is 2.0 W/kg. It is important to note that a higher SAR value does not necessarily imply a higher health risk, as these limits are set with considerable safety margins. In the case of the limits for the general public, this safety margin is a factor of 50. These margins ensure that mobile devices are safe in terms of RF exposure. 

In the European Union, SAR regulations are mainly governed by the recommendations of the International Committee on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). According to the ICNIRP guidelines, the SAR limits for mobile devices are as follows: 

  1. For the head and trunk (thorax): the limit is 2.0 W/kg, averaged over 10 grams of tissue. 
  2. For the extremities (hands, wrists, feet and ankles): the limit is 4.0 W/kg, also averaged over 10 grams of tissue.

These limits are designed to provide a meaningful margin of safety and are based on scientific research evaluating the effects of RF exposure on human health. It is important to note that these are maximum permissible limits and that mobile devices typically operate at much lower SAR levels under normal use. Manufacturers of mobile devices must test for SAR and comply with these limits in order to sell their products in the European Union.  

What margin of safety is set? These limits were recently revised by ICNIRP, which published its new recommendations in 2020. In order to ensure user safety, ICNIRP sets its maximum allowable values by applying a safety factor of 50. 

For example, the SAR limit of 2.0 W/kg for the head and trunk in the European Union is set with a safety margin that is typically 50 times lower than exposure levels that have been shown to cause health effects. This margin of safety takes into account variations in absorption between different people and under different conditions of use.

It is important to note that SAR limits are designed to address the thermal effects of RF exposure, which are the only scientifically proven effects to date. Specific limits have not been set for possible long-term or non-thermal effects, as the scientific evidence in these areas is weak at typical exposure levels and is not yet conclusive. 

In summary, SAR limits are set with substantial safety margins to protect against the known thermal effects of RF exposure. These safety margins are designed to accommodate uncertainties such as variations in sensitivity between individuals and varying conditions of use. 

What will happen in Spain? I am afraid I do not have an answer to this question. I would expect an answer from the joint EU and not from the states and, also, to confirm the published data. Yesterday I read a note from Apple saying that they do comply, but I can't go into that. The important thing is that if they do not comply and a certified laboratory through a government agency such as the ANFR has said that they do not, action should be taken to withdraw them. For users: peace of mind, although the maximum may be exceeded in certain circumstances, the EU through ICNIRP establishes the limits with that safety margin. Moreover, at such low levels there is no scientific evidence of any effect on human health.

The author has declared they have no conflicts of interest

Rodney Croft - radiación EN

Rodney Croft

Presidente de la Comisión Internacional de Protección contra las Radiaciones No Ionizantes y catedrático de la Universidad de Wollongong (Australia)

The Australian Science Media Center

Although it was reported by French authorities that exposure from the iPhone 12 is not compliant with their regulations, it is important to note that this will not have any impact on health.

The international guidelines that the French regulations are based on (ICNIRP, 2020) specify that adverse health effects of this type of exposure have not been demonstrated below 40 W/kg, whereas the exposure level from the iPhone 12 was only reported to be 5.7 W/kg (i.e., 1.7 W/kg higher than the ICNIRP 2020 limit of 4 W/kg).

The maximum exposure that the iPhone 12 can produce is thus many times lower than would be required to cause any harm. To put the exposure level into context, 5.7 W/kg would only cause a temperature rise in the limbs of less than 1°C, and only in a very localised region; this is far less than normal temperature variation during the day.

The author has not responded to our request to declare conflicts of interest

Ken Karipidis - radiación EN

Ken Karipidis

Deputy Director, Health Impact Assessment, Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency.

The Australian Science Media Center

Many of the internationally recognised safety limits, including Australia and France’s, are set at conservative levels, well below where harm is expected to occur. Australia and France impose the same safety limits on the energy that is absorbed by the body from a mobile phone.

While it’s not ideal, and we do not condone safety breaches, there should be no immediate danger from exposure slightly above the limit. Health effects may occur from exposure to radio waves, namely body tissue heating. But this would occur at levels much higher than the safety limit.

In Australia, the Australian Communications and Media Authority regulates the exposure from mobile phones and is responsible for any matters of compliance.

Ken is a member of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection’s (ICNIRP) Main Commission. ICNIRP produced the guidelines which many countries, including France and Australia, have adopted into their radio wave exposure safety limits.


Malcom Sperrin - radiación EN

Malcolm Sperrin

Member of the Institute of Medical Physics and Engineering (IPEM).

Science Media Centre UK

The SAR acceptable level is not as simple as it may seem since it depends upon the testing regime, but the recommendation by the European professional body is for it to be below 2W/kg for head and neck but for a 10g tissue mass.  Different territories have different SAR limits based upon their own legislative and guidance frameworks.

The SAR limit is set at a level that places it well below the level at which harm will occur and hence a small increase in exposure above the SAR limit is unlikely to be of any health consequence.  However, limits are there to ensure that controls are in place to prevent ‘creep’ toward the onset of effects so it is reasonable to adhere strictly to those limits.  The limits have been well published and understood for some time.

It should be possible for a patch or update to be downloaded in order to prevent the exposure from the phone rising above the limiting value. It is not clear why this particular phone appears to have a high SAR but it may be associated with the initial stage of connection when the phone is ‘looking’ for a transmit/receive signal.

Although considerable research on the matter continues, at the exposures associated with mobile phone usage, there have been no conclusive findings to suggest that health detriment arises from the use of mobile phones other than that arising from electrical heating and possibly effects that arise from long periods of use that alter sleep patterns.

The author has not responded to our request to declare conflicts of interest

Ian Scivil - radiación EN

Ian Scivill

Consultant Clinical Scientist in Medical Imaging and Medical Physics at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital (UK).

Science Media Centre UK

The guidance/exposure limits for radio frequency electromagnetic fields (RF EMF), covering those used by mobile phones can be obtained from ICNIRP. For example, p491, Table 2 shows that the local head/torso SAR is 2W/Kg for the general public between frequency range 100kHz to 6GHz for averaging intervals ≥6min over 10g.
After many years of large populations using mobile phones, epidemiology/research studies have reportedly not determined a clear link to adverse health effects like cancer, headaches, cognitive function etc. 
Noted is that there can be a heating effect from RF EMF that the body can normally tolerate well within guidance exposure levels. Therefore, mobile phone technology should comply within ICNIRP recommended exposure limits.
I suspect general public opinion considers a mobile phone a benefit to modern life, given that there is no categorical evidence to suggest adverse health effects. This public confidence level is the benefit from the NRPB/ICNIRP exposure guidelines and numerous epidemiology/research study outcomes that have influenced mobile phone development and design. However, it is important that studies continue to review new technologies with the same level of scrutiny to reassure the public that newer generation mobile communications remain safe to human health.

The author has not responded to our request to declare conflicts of interest
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