ALTOM: Relax, your cell phone isn’t out to get you

Tim Altom
July 27, 2013
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Tim Altom

Tim AltomI had intended to devote space this week to something dull, like cost-justifying technology. But I was mentally drawn away by something far more interesting: deadly cell phones that explode or electrocute their owners.

A story has been making the rounds about a cell phone user who unwisely attempted to answer a call while the phone was recharging, and was mysteriously electrocuted when he did it. As always when I read something that not only borders on the outlandish, but attempts to actually invade and take up residence there, I go to snopes.com, a debunking site that follows such claims.

Snopes couldn’t find any contemporary support for the story, but does relate one from India in 2004 in which a man was supposedly killed by his cell phone when he answered it while it was charging. Details aren’t available, and Snopes notes that the absence of other coverage probably means that, if it took place at all, the incident was specific to the victim’s defective cell phone.

Cell phones in developing countries are often knock-offs that could have dangers American phones don’t. Snopes found yet another story from China in 2013, but again no details are available so it’s hard to tell what’s tabloid fodder and what might be true.

This isn’t the first time cell phones have been associated with deaths, however unlikely. Some users have been concerned that holding a radio-frequency device next to their brains for perhaps hours each day could lead to cancer. The government’s National Cancer Institute calls studies on the subject “inconsistent,” which is a tactful understatement. The site goes into detail about why studies are inconsistent, but the final conclusion is that far and away most researchers say no.

The American Cancer Society says it relies on the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s classifications of things that are or might be carcinogenic to humans, and that the IARC has placed cell phones in group 2B (possible carcinogen), along with auto exhaust and coffee.

The FDA has refused to regulate phones, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flat out says research hasn’t shown any significant probability that phones cause cancer. Personally, I’m not terribly worried. I’ve been bathed in electromagnetic radiation my entire life, having been born deep into the TV age, and so far neither “My Mother the Car” nor Jerry Springer has been the death of me. To be honest, I’m a little surprised.

But there is a way cell phones can go tragically wrong, and it’s not entirely the province of conspiracy nuts.

One of the keys to making cell phones, laptops and other mobile devices popular is to provide a lengthy operating time. A cell phone that poops out in an hour isn’t going to get great reviews. And the batteries have to fit into snug little places. The industry’s answer is the lithium-ion battery. These batteries offer a lot of attractive features. They pack a lot of power into a small space, for example, which is highly desirable in consumer devices from phones to electric cars.

But the batteries also have dangerous attributes, such as the tendency to spontaneously break into flame or even explode if overheated or overcharged. There are documented cases of this happening, although they are rare anywhere in the world, and all but unknown in the United States. When it happens, though, it can be pretty spectacular. A lithium-ion battery was reported to have ignited in a South Korean man’s pocket, burning him severely. Oddly, officials said the battery wasn’t in a device when it went off.

A few other cases have been reported, including one in China where a store employee had just charged his cell phone and dropped it into his shirt pocket when it detonated, killing him.

There’s little doubt that a lithium-ion battery that has been improperly used and badly designed is a danger. Batteries from developing countries are often both misused and poorly designed. The ones that are common in this country, however, are equipped with multiple safeguards, and to my knowledge there has not been a case of spontaneous combustion here in the past decade.

Every year, Americans use mobile devices for hundreds of millions of hours, and their batteries provide faithful service to the end. Americans answer many millions of calls while their phones are charging, and never suffer from anything other than a stiff neck from bending down to accommodate the short adapter cord.

As much as we seem to love the stories about danger and destruction, rest assured they’re just blog fodder. Treat them as you’d treat a late-night monster movie—as entertainment, not as fact.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. If I were a developer I would be looking at the Fountain Square and Fletcher Place neighborhoods instead of Broad Ripple. I would avoid the dysfunctional BRVA with all of their headaches. It's like deciding between a Blackberry or an iPhone 5s smartphone. BR is greatly in need of updates. It has become stale and outdated. Whereas Fountain Square, Fletcher Place and Mass Ave have become the "new" Broad Ripples. Every time I see people on the strip in BR on the weekend I want to ask them, "How is it you are not familiar with Fountain Square or Mass Ave? You have choices and you choose BR?" Long vacant storefronts like the old Scholar's Inn Bake House and ZA, both on prominent corners, hurt the village's image. Many business on the strip could use updated facades. Cigarette butt covered sidewalks and graffiti covered walls don't help either. The whole strip just looks like it needs to be power washed. I know there is more to the BRV than the 700-1100 blocks of Broad Ripple Ave, but that is what people see when they think of BR. It will always be a nice place live, but is quickly becoming a not-so-nice place to visit.

  2. I sure hope so and would gladly join a law suit against them. They flat out rob people and their little punk scam artist telephone losers actually enjoy it. I would love to run into one of them some day!!

  3. Biggest scam ever!! Took 307 out of my bank ac count. Never received a single call! They prey on new small business and flat out rob them! Do not sign up with these thieves. I filed a complaint with the ftc. I suggest doing the same ic they robbed you too.

  4. Woohoo! We're #200!!! Absolutely disgusting. Bring on the congestion. Indianapolis NEEDS it.

  5. So Westfield invested about $30M in developing Grand Park and attendance to date is good enough that local hotel can't meet the demand. Carmel invested $180M in the Palladium - which generates zero hotel demand for its casino acts. Which Mayor made the better decision?