Technology often promises to improve your life, but few gadgets live up to that claim. Everything is revolutionary in this industry, and it can be challenging to separate enthusiastic marketing from distorted facts and outright lies. Scaremongering is a common sales tool. So how do you discern whether a product is offering genuine protection or if it’s pure snake oil? It can be surprisingly difficult to get definitive answers.
We researched four categories—cell phone radiation and electromagnetic fields, UVC sanitizers, antimicrobial materials, and radio frequency identification—and asked experts to diagnose whether gadgets in these spheres offer any real benefits or protection.
Cell Phone Radiation and EMF Blocking
There’s still some debate about the potential of cell phone radiation and other radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic fields (EMF), such as those created by Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, to cause cancer. Of the various studies conducted, there is overall no conclusive association between cell phone use and cancer, though most organizations like the American Cancer Society and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences say more research is needed.
Whether cell phone radiation or EMF is harmful or not, there’s a thriving industry claiming to reduce your exposure. There are shielding products, like special phone cases and protective clothing, but do they really work? Kenneth Foster, a bioengineering professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, is skeptical.
“First, there is no way for the average consumer to know how effective such a protective device is, and they would probably be wasting their money for little reduction in exposure,” Foster writes via email. “Second, there is no demonstrable health benefit as long as the cell phone operates within safety limits (which all devices that are legally sold do).”
The Federal Trade Commission issued a warning about scams that claim to protect you from cell phone radiation. Worse yet, some of these protective devices can have the opposite effect. Cloth shielding material might have metal woven into it, Foster says, which can reflect or absorb radio waves, potentially increasing exposure. But it’s more likely that some supposed EMF blocking products, such as pendants or stickers, simply do nothing at all.
“I am not aware of any physical principle by which such devices could work,” Foster says. “It is expensive and requires special equipment to test, and from what I can tell, vendors of such devices do not demonstrate their effectiveness by means of scientifically valid tests but rely on technical jargon to sell the gadgets.”
If you are worried about exposure to radiation, RF, and EMF from your phone, forget about buying products. It’s best to modify your phone use. Foster says you can use a Bluetooth speaker instead of pulling your phone up to your ear for phone calls, and avoid cell phone use in areas with weak signals, because when network coverage is poor your phone boosts power to the internal radio to try to maintain connectivity. The other alternative is to not use a cell phone, but that’s not easy in today’s digital world.
A new wave of products, rapidly growing in the backdrop of a pandemic, promise to clean devices and surfaces by bathing them in ultraviolet light. These devices range from light wands to small boxes you can place phones or earbuds into, but all use UVC light to sanitize. The C refers to the wavelength of the light, which is between 200 and 280 nanometers. UVC has the shortest wavelength and is the most harmful UV radiation to all living things, including bacteria.
“It is very important to recognize that UVC is classified as a secondary disinfectant, not a primary disinfectant,” says Andrea Armani, professor of chemical engineering and materials Science at USC. “It should be used in conjunction with a primary method, like soap and water or wiping with a disinfectant, to be effective.”
For UVC light to be effective often requires lengthy exposure. It can take 15 minutes of exposure to clean a small area, for example. This is with a UVC cleaner that requires you to place devices inside a box, like the popular PhoneSoap. Lamps and wands are a different matter, because the light isn’t contained. So they may be dangerous.
“Using UVC as a consumer comes with many potential health risks if used improperly,” Armani says. “For example, eye damage is possible even with brief exposure.”
Manufacturers will also publish test data showing the device’s effectiveness against organisms like E. coli, but keep in mind that a chemical wipe is likely more effective and takes less time. There’s also little evidence that UVC cleaning offers protection from viruses such as the novel coronavirus behind the pandemic. The US Food and Drug Administration notes there isn’t enough data to measure their effectiveness for inactivating a virus and that there are many health risks if a lamp is not installed properly or used by untrained individuals. The risk of transmission through surfaces is also low.
“The primary transmission mechanism is airborne,” Armani says. “Vaccination, wearing masks, and social distancing are the most effective ways to prevent infection and spread.”
From phone cases to face masks to jackets, more companies are embedding antimicrobial agents in their construction, like nanostructured coatings or silver, to reduce exposure to bacteria and reduce infection risk.
“The benefit of antiviral, antibacterial, and antimicrobial products has been an active area of debate for over a decade and really depends on the execution,” Armani says. “There is the clear benefit of reducing infections and transmission.”
Chemical methods, such as antibacterial soap, can increase the resistance of bacteria and decrease the efficiency of our immune response, but antimicrobial materials are different. They work passively and don’t require you to do anything.
Armani says it has the potential to be beneficial. But, as with UVC light, there’s a lack of evidence that these kinds of products work against viruses and can reduce the risk to Covid-19 and other diseases. They are definitely no substitute for proper hygiene, masks, social distancing, and vaccinations.
Some credit cards, passports, and travel cards use radio frequency identification (RFID) to communicate with terminals wirelessly for functions like contactless payments. RFID skimming is where a criminal armed with an RFID reader sneaks up to scan the card in your pocket or the passport in your bag. The aim is to steal enough payment information to make a purchase on your card, sell or clone your card data, or perhaps create a counterfeit passport.
The threat of RFID skimming has spawned a multimillion-dollar industry. You can buy RFID-blocking bags, clothes, and wallets. These products do block RFID signals, but it’s not clear that this kind of protection is really necessary.
“There is not a single case of a real-world crime involving RFID skimming that an RFID-blocking product would have prevented,” says Roger Grimes, data-driven defense evangelist at security company KnowBe4.
The RFID-related crime that does happen typically occurs at the point of sale when people turn over their credit cards. But the information credit cards transmit by RFID is also very limited.
“Today, most RFID-enabled credit cards will not transmit even the credit card number,” Grimes says. “For at least a few years now, what most credit cards allow to be taken via RFID is usually not enough to actually commit credit card fraud.”
Without a valid merchant payment system, it’s unlikely that an RFID skimmer can get anything usable. Even if they do, the transactions are limited to low amounts and the criminal has to be physically present. Grimes rhetorically asks why scammers would risk that when they can buy valid credit card information cheaply on the dark web and use it anywhere without a restrictive transaction limit. “It shows you how irrational fear or a lack of accurately measuring risk often leads us to wasting money,” he says.
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The tech industry is full of dubious devices the average person can’t easily assess. Always do your own research before you buy, and look at reputable sources like peer-reviewed studies and independent testing. And you should be wary of the fantastical claims and scaremongering that are the hallmarks of snake-oil salespeople.
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