The internet is abuzz today with worries about the latest tech-fad-turned-health-hazard, with headlines warning that wireless headphones—like Apple’s trendy AirPods—are a potential source of cancer. And yes, articles claiming that the little white devices could “pump radiation into your brain” certainly caught our attention. But before we freak out too much, let’s look at all the facts.
Those headlines you may be seeing today seem to stem from a Medium article published last week, which posed the question, “Are AirPods and Other Bluetooth Headphones Safe?”. The article quotes Jerry Phillips, PhD, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, who says he’s concerned about AirPods because “their placement in the ear canal exposes tissues in the head to relatively high levels of radio-frequency radiation.”
The article also points out that Phillips is “not alone” in his concerns about wireless Bluetooth devices, citing a petition addressed 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 getting lost in the news reports this week: That petition doesn’t mention AirPods by name, or even wireless headphones. Rather, the letter expresses “serious concern” about the potential health risks of non-ionizing electromagnetic field (EMF) technology, which is used by all Bluetooth devices.
The petition’s not new, either. It was first published in 2015 and last updated on January 1 of this year. Among the devices it calls out by name are “cellular and cordless phones and their base stations, Wi-Fi, broadcast antennas, smart meters, and baby monitors.”
Ken Foster, PhD, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania whose research involves the safety of electromagnetic fields, says he’s not buying the latest hype about earbuds. “What’s the news here? Someone’s trying to play the media by resurrecting this petition,” he tells Health.
Yes, it’s true that wireless Bluetooth headphones emit radiation. It’s also true that Apple sold an estimated 28 million pairs of its iconic AirPods last year—and that there’s not a ton of long-term research on the safety of this type of radiation.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not any research: The federal government does set safety standards for the amount of radiation that can be emitted from consumer devices, and Bluetooth devices are well below that level—even when placed directly against the skin. Plus, Foster points out, the AirPod antenna that actually receives and transmits radio waves doesn’t sit inside the ear canal; it’s in the section that remains outside and extends down, below the ear.
Bluetooth devices also give off less radiation than cell phones—only about one-tenth or less, Foster points out. “If you also use a cell phone on a daily basis, it’s bizarre to worry about the hazards of these earphones,” he says. Sure, if you use them for hours a day to listen to music or podcasts, of course, that exposure could add up. But if you’re using them mainly to have phone conversations, you’ll actually get less exposure than if you were to hold the phone up to your head.
“I can’t say there’s absolutely no problem with these devices, because people can always argue that there’s no proof they’re 100% safe,” says Foster. “And I can’t tell people what to worry about—but personally, I have no concern.”
If people want to be overly cautious, he adds, they can simply stop using wireless headphones. “But they should also be aware they’re getting similar exposure from their cell phones and from other Bluetooth devices,” Foster says.
Last year, the state of California issued recommendations for people who want to reduce their exposure to cell phone radiation. The guidelines note, although there’s been no definitive link between health risks and radio frequency energy, that “some laboratory experiments and human health studies have suggested the possibility that long-term, high use of cell phones may be linked to certain types of cancer and other health effects.”
The guidelines recommend keeping phones away from the body when they’re not in use, sleeping with phones away from the bed, and using headsets or headphones to conduct phone calls. They point out that Bluetooth devices also emit radiation (at lower levels than cell phones), and that wireless devices should be removed from the head and ears when not in use.
Last week’s Medium article also makes a smart suggestion for those wishing to lower their exposure to radiation: Stick with wired headphones instead of wireless, suggests Joel Moskowitz, PhD, the director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California at Berkeley. (Yes, you may need an adapter to make those old-school earbuds work with your new phone. But on the bright side, you won’t have to charge them!)
And no matter what type of headphones you use, Foster points out, it’s important to watch out for health risks that may be more immediate than tiny amounts of radiation. “If you’re walking around with your earbuds blasting and you walk out in front of a car, that’s a lot more dangerous than some theoretical tumor 20 years down the road,” he says. “If you want my advice, it’s to watch out for that.”