Smartphone Case Aims to Cut Radiation Risks

LOS ANGELES ( TheStreet) -- As wireless industry experts debate whether cell phones cause brain tumors, a start-up company called Pong Research has developed a solution to the possible problem: a silicon case for the Apple ( AAPL) iPhone and BlackBerry Storm that redirects radio waves so they don't get absorbed by a user's brain.

The case was the brainchild of Alfred Wong, a physics and astronomy professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. "When I saw that the amount of radiation going into the head was much greater than the natural electric activity in the brain, I got alarmed and thought I'd try to find a way to redirect the radiation away from the head."

Cell phones have become necessities to everyone from school children to seniors during the past decade. They've become even more popular with the rise of smartphones, such BlackBerry devices and iPhones. As phones become more powerful, they emit more potentially hazardous radiation, says Albert Liu, vice president of business development at the Los Angeles-based company.

In lab tests, the Pong case significantly reduced the "specific absorption rate," or SAR, which is the rate at which the body absorbs electromagnetic energy when exposed to radio waves. According to Liu, the case reduced the SAR level of the iPhone from 1.181 watts per kilogram to 0.421 watts. "Not only do we lower the SAR value, but at the same time we can increase the signal strength," Liu says.

The Federal Communications Commission prohibits SAR levels of more than 1.6 watts per kilogram. "The smartphones all push the limit," Liu says. "They're very powerful."

SAR regulations date back to the early 1990s, when relatively few people owned cell phones, and those who did used them sparingly because they were big and expensive. Those regulations haven't changed with the times. Wireless customers used more than 1.12 trillion minutes in the last half of 2009, up 38 billion from the last half of 2008, according to the CTIA, a Washington-based organization that represents the wireless industry. Wireless service revenues for the last half of 2009 amounted to about $77 billion, up from about $75 billion in the last half of 2008.

The Maine state legislature earlier this month rejected a bill that would have required phone makers to add statements to packaging warning users, especially children and pregnant women, to keep the device away from their heads and bodies to avoid exposure to electromagnetic radiation.

The Federal Drug Administration says on its Web site the "weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems."

But those lobbying for better safety measures take no solace in that message. "Yes, the FDA says there is no problem from cell phone use in adults and children," says Lloyd Morgan, a retired electrical engineer and lead author of a recent study, Cellphones and Brain Tumors: 15 Reasons for Concern. "The FDA also approved (the painkiller) Vioxx, even though they had data prior to approving Vioxx that it was causing heart attacks."

Many phone makers post warnings in manuals. From the Apple iPhone guide: "For body-worn operation, iPhone's SAR measurement may exceed the FCC exposure guidelines if positioned less than 15 millimeters (0.63 inches) from the body." Apple recommends that when people talk on the iPhone they hold it "with the 30-pin connector pointed down toward your shoulder to increase separation from the antenna."

"Read those manuals," says Pong's Liu. "They're pretty ironic."

In the coming months, Pong plans to ship cases for Research In Motion's ( RIMM) BlackBerry Storm and Bold, as well as the Google ( GOOG) Nexus One and the Motorola ( MOT) Droid. "Whatever the leading smartphones are, that's what our products will address," says Liu. It takes about a month for the company to develop a case for a new phone, he says.

So far the case is available only online for $59.95. Apple and AT&T ( T) stores so far have declined to carry it, he says.

The company's name stems from the notion that "pong" is the opposite of "ping."

"You're getting pinged not just by radiation, but by all the technologies of modern life," Liu says. "This is a way to pong it back."

-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.