Answer Man: Is it dangerous to use a cellphone being recharged?

News-DemocratMay 31, 2014 

I received an email from a friend warning me never to talk on a cellphone while it is recharging. It cites the case of a boy who did just that and was killed when "electricity flowed into the cellphone unrestrained and the young man was thrown to the floor with a heavy thud." The email said it was a warning from the University of Miami Hospital that should be passed on. Should I? -- W.P., of Belleville

If there's one thing I learned quickly in the Internet Age, it is to ignore all mass e-mails that are long on fear-mongering but short on facts.

As soon as I started to read your warning, accompanied by a quartet of appropriately grisly photos, my journalistic mind started asking some basic questions: Who was this kid? Where did he live? When did it happen? What exactly were the circumstances? Who was the doctor who treated him? To what hospital was he taken?

The email, of course, offered no details and the hospital certainly wasn't at the University of Miami. To find the answers, I had to enlist several of my favorite urban legend-busting sites, including Snopes and Hoax-busters. They agreed that the idea that you might be dialing up death by using a recharging cellphone is false bordering on the preposterous.

As it turns out, this particular tale of woe has been floating around the Great Web since 2004. Apparently it is based on one or, at most, two cases in India and China of people using phones of unknown origin and quality.

The one documented case involved 31-year-old K. Viswajith. According to a story out of Chavara, India, on Aug. 11, 2004, Viswajith "was electrocuted when he attended a call on the mobile phone that was put for charging." (In 2005, an Ethiopian man supposedly suffered the same fate, but the wording was the same, so the claim is doubtful.)

Now, if this were a real threat, I'd expect hundreds or thousands of similar incidents, considering the astronomical rise in both the number and use of cellphones. Just look at GM's woes. But guess what? Only one other potentially legitimate account of a 23-year-old woman in Xinjiang, China, has surfaced, but information is scant and the story has never been confirmed.

Besides, if the phone were well-manufactured, the Indian man most likely could not have died as described. That big cube you plug into the socket converts normal household current into low-voltage direct current voltage, so your phone -- and, presumably, yourself -- can't be fried. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission makes no mention of the practice being unsafe and you can bet your apps that legitimate cellphone companies would make prominent black-box warnings to avoid lawsuits. My own phone, for example, merely mentions that I can expect a default ringtone while it is charging.

The best guess is that this Dr. Doom warning was fueled by several reports of exploding batteries. In January 2004, for example, a Malaysian man had his buttocks scalded when a recharging phone exploded nearby as he napped. A year earlier, Nokia said a number of similar reports were caused by the use of third-party or counterfeit batteries, many of which had been further compromised by phones being dropped, etc. But even these incidents have all but disappeared.

So while I might not talk on a recharging cellphone while doing dishes or taking a shower, I wouldn't clog up my friends' email boxes with this ancient rehash.

While watching a channel specializing in old movies, my grandson fell in love with a cartoon called "Boulevardier from the Bronx." Any chance I can buy it somewhere? -- D.E., of Belleville

Your grandson has good taste. After Warner Brothers adopted "Merrily We Roll Along" as the theme for its Merrie Melodies cartoons in 1936, "Boulevardier From the Bronx" is usually cited as the very first short to feature it.

And, if he's a sports fan, it's no wonder he loves it. If you watched it, you already know that it is a parody of St. Louis Cardinal great Dizzy Dean. In this toon, however, he shows up as Dizzy Dan, an overly cocky rooster and the pitching ace of the Chicago Giants.

"Every small-town bush leaguer is anxious and eager to meet me when I go slummin'," he sings in a tune ripped off from a song of the same name in the 1936 Warner Brothers musical "Colleen." "But with all of my poise, I'm still one of the boys -- just a boulevardier from the Bronx."

Anyway, he and his Giants arrive in Hickville to thrash a bunch of rural hayseeds led by their pitching standout, Claude. What happens? Let me just say "Chicago" and leave it at that.

Unfortunately, I'm told that this classic short is unavailable on DVD, but he can watch it on his computer (at least, I did) at www.dailymotion.com/video/x11btml_boulevardier-from-the-bronx-1936_shortfilms

Th-th-th-that's all folks.

Today's trivia

What's the name of Chewbacca's wife in the Star Wars universe?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: She's five stories tall and her vital statistics are 36-24-36 -- feet, that is. Those are the dimensions of the Betty Boop helium balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, according to the Los Angeles Times. It takes 40 handlers to guide her through the streets -- and they're not always successful. See her 1986 swoon at www.cbsnews.com/pictures/balloons-on-parade/5.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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