French regulators halted iPhone 12 sales on Tuesday over concerns that the devices emit levels of radiation over the legal limits. The government’s Agency of National Frequencies (ANFR) said it will send agents to Apple stores to ensure the devices aren’t being sold, and threatened to recall all iPhone 12s in circulation if the company doesn’t address the problem. Apple said its phones comply with international radiation guidelines.
Hours before Apple announced the iPhone 15 at its “Wonderlust” event, France’s radiation watchdog announced that iPhone 12s were temporarily withdrawn from the French market “due to non-compliance of these devices with European regulations.” The ANFR said tests found that the phone’s “specific absorption rate,” which measures the level of electromagnetic waves absorbed by the human body, was over limits set by the European Union.
EU standards set allowable radiation levels lower than standards in Asia and North America out of an abundance of caution, in the typical consumer-friendly European regulatory mode. Barrot told Le Parisien the EU standard “is ten times lower than the level of emissions which, according to scientific studies, can have consequences for users,” (translated from French).
The ANFR found the iPhone 12’s specific absorption rate exceeds the legal limit at a distance of five millimeters, a test set to replicate the radiation exposure when a phone is in your hand or pants pocket. At a distance you’d expect for a phone in a jacket pocket or a bag, radiation from the iPhone 12 is within legal limits.
Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but told Reuters that the iPhone 12 was certified as compliant with global radiation standards by multiple international bodies.
It seems the problem isn’t inherent to the design of the device. Jean-Noel Barrot, France’s junior minister for the digital economy, who oversees the ANFR, reportedly told Reuters that a software update could fix the problem. “Apple is expected to respond within two weeks,” Barrot said. “If they fail to do so, I am prepared to order a recall of all iPhones 12 in circulation. The rule is the same for everyone, including the digital giants.” Barrot said he expects the ANFR’s finding would cause a “snowball effect” of similar action from other countries in the EU.
Before you dunk your iPhone in concrete, understand that most electronic devices emit radiation. The word “radiation” often brings images of mushroom clouds to mind, but radiation is the just name for energy that travels through space, and it isn’t necessarily dangerous. Not all radiation is “ionizing” radiation, the kind that can melt your skin off or alter your DNA at high levels. The heat given off by a candle is a form of radiation, for example, and it’s safe at a distance of a few inches.
Cell phones communicate using microwaves, the same frequencies used by WiFi and the microwave in your kitchen, as the name implies. (That explains the interference that makes your voice sound like a robot on phone calls sometimes, or why the WiFi cuts out in some houses when you heat up a Hot Pocket.)
There’s a conspiracy theory — and a small amount of evidence-based medical debate — that suggests the radiation emitted by cell phones is dangerous. However, the current medical consensus is that cell phones are safe.
Correction, Sept. 14th, 2023, 11:38 a.m. EST: A previous version of this story mistakenly used the word “radioactive,” which typically referrers to ionizing radiation, to describe the iPhone 12. We regret the error.