An online warning states that using a cell phone while charging is dangerous due to increased radiation and potential for explosion or electrocution. Is this true or false?
Let’s first take a look at a recent warning regarding the use of cell phones while charging. The text below was posted on Facebook in late January 2014, and had over 100,000 shares in its first week.
PLS. SHARE THIS TO ALL RELATIVES & FRIENDS!!!
Today another boy died because of attending a call while his mobile was still charging. That time he had a sudden vibration to his heart and then his hands got burned.
So please don’t answer calls or call out while charging your cell phone. When the phone’s battery is low to the last bar don’t make a call or answer any incoming calls because the radiation is 1000 times stronger. This can happen to any brand of mobile phones out there.
Please pass this info to all whom you care and don’t forget to share this to your love ones for their own safety. Like=>
An earlier version of the post had an alternate opening paragraph, which read, “Today another boy died in Mumbai, because of attending a call while his mobile was still charging. That time he had a sudden vibration to his heart and then his hands got burned.”
Yet another variation, using the same photos, writes:
My Beloved Plz Pass 2 al ur contacts. Again a boy died in Mumbai, Bcoz of attending a call while his mobile was at charge. That time he had sudden vibration 2 his heart & fingers were burnt. So pls don’t attend calls while charging ur cel. Pls pas this 2 al whom u care. Wen phone’s battery is low to last bar, don’t answer the phone, bcos the radiation is 1000 times stronger.
The photo collage below has been circulated with the stories above.
History: Recent Cell Phone Electrocutions
Every year there are a small number cell-related deaths and injuries reported in the news. In 2015, there were a few cases of portable phone chargers also exploding. Below are some notable cases.
July 2015: Student Burned by Exploding Charger
A medical student was burned after her portable phone charger exploded while recharging via her laptop. “I was charging my EE power bar through my Mac computer overnight and at I was woken up by something which sounded like a firework around 1am,” she said. “The power bar had exploded up the wall and flames began spreading around my bedroom.”
In December 2015, two similar incidents happened in Hong Kong within hours of each other.
February 2015: Two Women Die From Phone-Bathtub Elecrocution
The Moscow Times reported in February 2015 that two women – in two different incidents – died from electric shock when using their phones while bathing. In at least one case, it was suspected that a plugged-in phone fell into the bathtub while the woman was accessing a social media site.
June 2014: Woman’s Death Blamed on Cheap USB Mobile Charger
Police suspected a cheap, “sub-standard” mobile phone charger as a possible cause of the death of an Australian woman, found deceased with burns on her chest and ears. The charger did not meet safety requirements and was found to be made with inexpensive plastic and insulation materials. Lynelle Collins from the Department of Fair Trading noted:
The phone was also plugged into a USB-style charger. That charger had failed. Somehow power from that charger has connected to her body. Whether she had it (the phone) to her ear or was holding it in her hand, we don’t know.
Collins recommended to avoid using mobile phones while charging, and to avoid using non-approved chargers.
January 2014: 10-year old in India injured while phone charged
The multiple variations of the narrative above likely reference the real account of a 10-year old boy in the Dewas district in India, who was reportedly injured when his cell phone “exploded” in his hand while charging. As the New Indian Express reported:
A 10-year-old boy from Dewas district was seriously injured when a mobile phone, said to be of Chinese-make, exploded in his hand while charging, police said today.
The incident occurred last night when Arihant was playing games on the handset while charging it at his home at Uday Nagar village, 100 km from here, they said.
Police said Arihant has fractured his fingers and also sustained injuries on his face and in eyes due to the blast.
He was taken to a private hospital in Indore last night.
A doctor treating Arihant said he was out of danger.
“However, blood supply to one of his fingers is stopped. If there is no improvement in the condition of that finger, we might have to amputate it”, he added.
Note that the boy did not die, nor was a low battery suspected. The narratives at the beginning of this article – with altered details from the story above – appeared about a week after the real incident in India occurred.
November 2013: Thai man dies from alleged electrocution while charging iPhone
AppleInsider reported in November 2013 of a 28-year old Thai man who was reportedly killed while lying shirtless on an iPhone 4s which was charging with a “knockoff third-party” charger. The man’s father found him dead, with scorch marks on his chest. The cause of death was suspected to be electrocution.
July 2013: Woman in China dies while using iPhone 5
23-year old Ma Ailun from Xinjiang, China died when she answered a call on her iPhone 5, which was charging at the time. Apple issued an apology, stating, “We are deeply saddened to learn of this tragic incident and offer our condolences to the Ma family. We will fully investigate and cooperate with authorities in this matter.”
The woman’s family insisted that, unlike the Thai man’s case above, she was using the original charger, purchased at an Apple store. AppleInsider, however, described the woman’s charger as “an unofficial third-party adapter.” Some reports of the incident point out that woman answered the phone just after getting out of the bath, and that overloads and electrical failures are common in Xinjiang. As The Guardian noted:
A current of more than 200mA (0.2A) can be lethal if it passes through the heart. If the charger is not earthed, or if the person taking the call provides a better path for current – say from a damaged wire – then the effect could be lethal. Someone who was wet after a bath might provide just such a pathway for a lethal current.
Note that other “debunking” sites have said it isn’t clear if this event ever really occurred, but we feel that Apple’s apology, along with reports by AppleInsider and Reuters, is sufficient confirmation that the incident did in fact happen.
July 2013: Chinese man allegedly electrocuted by iPhone 4
A week after the incident above, a 30-year old man was left comatose after being “suddenly shocked” while plugging in an iPhone 4.
As with the other incidents listed above, his adapter was described as “counterfeit.”
July 2013: Apple Response
Apple reacted to the two electrocutions in July 2013 with a statement urging customers in China to avoid using counterfeit products, and posted instructions how to spot real and fake Apple chargers.
2008: Apple 3G power adapter recall
In September 2008, Apple issued a recall for the iPhone 3Gs, stating that rare conditions could cause “risk of electric shock” to those who touched an exposed connection.
The recall was a proactive move by Apple, and no injuries were reported prior to the recall.
In addition to accidents resulting in injury or death, there have also been a number of incidents in which individuals escaped a potentially dangerous event, such as a phone catching fire while charging.
Take, for example, two similar cases in 2014, in which Samsung cell phone users woke in the middle of the night to find their phones smoldering. One incident was that of a 13 year old girl in Texas, while the other was a 25 year old woman in Kent. Samsung has warnings not to smother phones:
Covering the device with bedding, your body, thick clothing or any other materials that significantly affect air flow may affect the performance of the phone and poses a possible risk of fire or explosion, which could lead to serious bodily injuries or damage to property.
Further, it is recommended not to use non-approved chargers, “Use of a non-Samsung-approved battery or charger may present a risk of fire, explosion, leakage, or other hazard.”
As noted above, portable cell phone chargers which are recharged separately and then act as a battery backup, have also had a few isolated cases of explosion in recent months.
Is a Cell’s Radiation 1000 Times Stronger when the Battery is Low?
Another assertion made in the narrative above is that the boy’s phone exploded due to increased radiation caused by a low battery. This was not part of the original report by The New Indian Times, and was apparently added later to the “warning” which circulated on social media.
The assertion that a cell phone emits more radiation when the battery is low, however, is incorrect. It is a weak signal that will prompt your mobile phone to work harder, not a weak battery. A CNN article notes, “A weak signal will also cause your phone to work harder, giving off more radiation. So avoid using your phone in elevators, buildings and rural areas. Research shows your device emits more radiation when transmitting than when receiving.”
The story in circulation in 2014 about a boy who died while using his charging cell phone is likely based on a real event in India in January 2014. The boy in the real incident, however, did not die, and his injuries likely occurred due to the non-approved Chinese-made cell phone he was using. Samsung phones contain a warning that non-approved chargers can result in fire or injury.
In virtually all reported incidents of people being shocked or electrocuted by cell phones plugged into the wall over the past year, a counterfeit or Chinese-made product of questionable quality was the culprit. In the case of the Chinese woman, other contributing factors could have been that the woman was wet along with common power overloads in that region. There have been reports of deaths associated with using a plugged-in phone while bathing, which is dangerous.
Finally, none of the recent incidents resulted from increased radiation, as the narrative in circulation claims, nor would a low battery be the cause for increased cell radiation.
Updated January 8, 2016
Originally published February 2014