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Mobile phones: A trade-off between speech intelligibility and exposure to noise levels and to radio-frequency electromagnetic fields

Thielens, Arno, Bockstael, Annelies, Declerck, Sofie, Aminzadeh, Reza, Aerts, Sam, Botteldooren, Dick, Martens, Luc, Joseph, Wout
Environmental research 2019 v.175 pp. 1-10
absorption, ears, electromagnetic field, head, mathematical models, mobile telephones, noise pollution, radio waves, speech
When making phone calls, cellphone and smartphone users are exposed to radio-frequency (RF) electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and sound pressure simultaneously. Speech intelligibility during mobile phone calls is related to the sound pressure level of speech relative to potential background sounds and also to the RF-EMF exposure, since the signal quality is correlated with the RF-EMF strength. Additionally, speech intelligibility, sound pressure level, and exposure to RF-EMFs are dependent on how the call is made (on speaker, held at the ear, or with headsets). The relationship between speech intelligibility, sound exposure, and exposure to RF-EMFs is determined in this study. To this aim, the transmitted RF-EMF power was recorded during phone calls made by 53 subjects in three different, controlled exposure scenarios: calling with the phone at the ear, calling in speaker-mode, and calling with a headset. This emitted power is directly proportional to the exposure to RF EMFs and is translated into specific absorption rate using numerical simulations. Simultaneously, sound pressure levels have been recorded and speech intelligibility has been assessed during each phone call. The results show that exposure to RF-EMFs, quantified as the specific absorption in the head, will be reduced when speaker-mode or a headset is used, in comparison to calling next to the ear. Additionally, personal exposure to sound pressure is also found to be highest in the condition where the phone is held next to the ear. On the other hand, speech perception is found to be the best when calling with a phone next to the ear in comparison to the other studied conditions, when background noise is present.