Tawkon, a company that makes an app of the same name that purports to let users "see the level of radiation they are exposed to from their mobile phone," has released its app on Cydia, an online app store for jailbroken iPhones, because Apple would not accept it.
"[W]hen Steve Jobs personally closed the front door with a curt two-word email stating: 'No Interest,' we were left with no alternative but to climb through the Cydia window to let iPhone users see and lower their exposure to cellphone radiation," declared Tawkon CEO Gil Friedlander in a blog post.
Apple's reason for rejecting the Takwon app, said Amit Lubovsky, Tawkon co-founder and CTO in a phone interview, was that it used private APIs. An Apple representative the company had been dealing with had been pushing for the Apple to make those APIs public, Lubovsky said, but then the issues with the iPhone 4's antenna surfaced last year. When Tawkon published a video showing that holding the iPhone 4 in a certain way could affect its signal strength, Apple became less interested in helping Tawkon.
"We assume they didn't want to deal with anything to do with radiation due to this issue," said Lubovsky.
Asked about the usefulness of the Tawkon app, John Sedat, professor emeritus in the department of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF in San Francisco, said he would be suspicious about the app in the absence of more detailed technical information about how it works.
"One has to be very specific about what wavelength one is measuring," he said.
Effective measurement of environmental radiation, he suggested, would require dedicated external hardware. The Tawkon app doesn't measure radiation through a radiation sensor -- Geiger counters are not included in mobile phone hardware, though the idea is being explored by researchers. Rather, the app attempts to measure radiation exposure based on SAR data obtained through phone model testing, the phone's proximity to the user, the user's proximity to cell towers and other environmental factors.
Lubovsky says the app measures actual phone radiation output using test models. "Each device launched with Tawkon to the market is being calibrated prior to the launch on a SAR machine," he wrote in an e-mail.
Yet, the app, the company says in its legal disclaimer, "is not standard measurement equipment and therefore provides imperfect accuracy with respect to its results and indications. Furthermore, the Software's output shall serve for reference purpose only and does not replace an accurate and professional examination."
Lubovsky says that RIM had asked his company to add the disclaimer as a condition for inclusion in its BlackBerry app store. "I'm sure about the accuracy of the software," he said. And he points to UCLA epidemiology professor Leeka Kheifets as an expert who has endorsed his company's approach.
But if one accepts the utility of the app as a way to measure radiation, it's far from clear that exposure to cell phone radiation matters. Ionizing radiation, like x-rays, can harm people at high enough intensity But that's not what cell phones emit. "Microwave cell phone radiation is non-ionizing," explained Sedat.
The data about non-ionizing radiation is inconclusive, which is to say that most reputable studies have found that cell phone radiation has no significant effect on human health. A few studies, however, suggest otherwise or demonstrate effects on animals. Sedat characterized the situation as "a can of worms." The consensus among scientists seems to be that being prudent and trying to minimize cell phone radiation exposure is probably worthwhile. But no one's really sure.
Lubovsky insists his company's app provides a valuable service. "Tawkon believes in giving users the ability to 'see' exposure to radiation for the first time...", he wrote. "In addition, Tawkon provides practical real-time suggestions how to reduce exposure to radiation – like telling the user to go back to where they were, change the orientation of their phone (vertical / horizontal and vice versa), activate bluetooth, and other suggestions. Users can also monitor their own stats to see how much non-ionizing radiation exposure they avoided by heeding Tawkon prompts over the last call, day, week, month and six months."
To the extent that the Tawkon app, which is available for Android phones as well as BlackBerry devices and iPhones, makes users aware of radiation as an issue and encourages them to take ownership of decisions affecting their health, that's probably a good thing.