Yeah, there is a thing about Bluetooth type of radiation, but does that mean you should freak out about your wireless earbuds?
The internet has been buzzing with questions about the new tech-fad-turned-health-hazard, with reports warning that wireless headphones are a possible cause of brain cancer, including Apple’s fashionable AirPods.
And indeed, our attention was definitely captured by articles suggesting that the little white devices could “pump radiation into your brain” But let’s look at all the evidence before we freak out too much.
Those headlines you might see today seem to derive from last week’s Medium post, which asked the question, “Are AirPods and Other Bluetooth Headphones Safe?”.
“The article quotes Jerry Phillips, PhD, a biochemistry professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, who says that he is concerned about AirPods because” their location in the ear canal exposes tissues in the head to radio-frequency radiation levels that are comparatively high.
The article also states that in his reservations regarding wireless Bluetooth devices, Phillips is “not alone,” citing a petition sent to the United Nations and the World Health Organization and signed by 250 researchers from more than 40 countries.
But here’s something that’s going to get lost in this week’s news reports: that request doesn’t mention AirPods by name, or even wireless headphones. Instead, the letter expresses ‘strong concern’ about the possible health hazards of all Bluetooth systems using non-ionizing electromagnetic field (EMF) technology.
The petition, too, is not new. It was first released in 2015 and was last revised this year on 1 January. “Cellular and cordless phones and their base stations, Wi-Fi, broadcast antennas, smart meters, and baby monitors” are among the gadgets it calls out by name.
Ken Foster, PhD, a University of Pennsylvania bioengineering professor whose study includes the protection of electromagnetic fields, says he’s not buying the new earbud hype. By resurrecting this petition, someone’s trying to play the media,’ he informs Wellbeing.
Yeah, it’s true that radiation emitted is released by wireless Bluetooth headphones. It is also true that last year, Apple sold an estimated 28 million pairs of its famous Apple AirPods, and that there is not a lot of long-term research on the protection of this radiation type.
Bluetooth devices, Foster points out, often give off less radiation than mobile phones, just about one-tenth or less. “If you use a mobile phone on a regular basis as well, it’s strange to think about the dangers of these earphones,” he says.
Sure, the exposure could add up if you use them for hours a day to listen to music or podcasts, of course. But if you’re just using them to have telephone calls, you’re potentially going to get less exposure than if you were to keep the phone close to your head.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any research: the federal government sets safety guidelines for the amount of radiation that can be released from consumer devices, and even when positioned directly against the skin, Bluetooth devices are far below that limit.
Plus, Foster points out, within the ear canal, the AirPod antenna that actually absorbs and transmits radio waves does not sit; it’s in the portion that stays outside and spreads below the ear. Foster says:
“There is really no issue with these things, I can’t say, because people can still argue that there is no evidence that they’re 100 perfect healthy and I can’t tell people what to worry about, but I dont’t worry about it personally.”
He adds that if individuals want to be unnecessarily careful, they should easily avoid using wireless headphones. But they should also be mindful that from their mobile phones and other Bluetooth devices, they get a similar exposure, Foster, says.
The state of California released guidelines last year for individuals who would like to limit their exposure to mobile phone radiation.
The guidelines state that “some laboratory research and human health studies have indicated the possibility that long-term, high usage of mobile phones could be related to certain forms of cancer and other health effects, although there has been no conclusive correlation between health risks and radiofrequency energy.”
The guidelines suggest keeping phones away from the body when they are not in use, sleeping away from the bed with phones, and making phone calls using headsets or headphones.
They point out that Bluetooth devices (at lower levels than mobile phones) often emit radiation, and that when not in use, wireless devices should be separated from the head and ears.
Joel Moskowitz, PhD, director of the Center for Family and Environmental Health at the University of California at Berkeley, suggests that the Medium article from last week also provides a clever recommendation for those who want to limit their exposure to radiation: stick with wired headphones instead of wireless.
Yes, you may need an adapter to make your new phone work with those old-school earbuds. But, on the bright side, you won’t have to charge them!
And, Foster points out, no matter what kind of headphones you use, it’s important to look out for health hazards that could be more urgent than small levels of radiation. That’s a lot riskier than any potential tumor 20 years down the line.