Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN
March 15, 2019
A recent flurry of stories across the media have questioned the safety of wireless headphones or earpieces, and have focused in particular on Apple's AirPods.
One of the concerns is whether having such devices in the ear increases the risk of cancer. Medscape Medical News reached out to several experts to ask about potential health hazards.
News stories began circulating in early March, with headlines such as "Are AirPods and Other Bluetooth Headphones Safe?" or "Wireless headphones could 'pump radiation into your brain and cause cancer.' "
Most of the articles cite a petition to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) that was signed by 247 scientists from 42 countries, warning about the potential dangers of radiation from wireless technologies, and then add on concerns over newer devices such as AirPods.
This petition, however, was released in 2015 and does not discuss AirPods, which didn't exist at the time, or Bluetooth technology. Yet despite this, sensationalist headlines — such as "Over 200 scientists say AirPods could cause cancer" — have emerged, even though the petition makes no mention of AirPods and alludes only to a possible increased cancer risk, along with other health concerns.
AirPods, in fact, are also not brand new; Apple introduced them in 2016. They have been exceedingly popular, with 28 million pairs sold last year and 16 million in 2017.
New research citing health concerns of AirPods or Bluetooth has been lacking. John E. Moulder, PhD, a radiation biologist and professor emeritus at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, told Medscape Medical News that the "last time I researched this issue was in 2016, and at that time I saw no scientific basis for concern. I haven't heard of any concerns on the subject after 2016 until the last month or so."
It is believed that the current onslaught of articles was ignited by a story posted on the website Medium, which mentions the petition to the WHO/UN, and also quotes Jerry Phillips, PhD, executive director, Excel Centers, and director, Excel Science Center, at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.
"My concern for AirPods is that their placement in the ear canal exposes tissues in the head to relatively high levels of radio-frequency radiation," Phillips was quoted as saying. He added that the risks are not restricted to AirPods and that existing evidence "indicates potential concerns for human health and development from all technologies that operate at radio frequencies."
However, experts approached by Medscape Medical News had different opinions.
"AirPods use standard 0.01-watt Bluetooth," said Kenneth Foster, PhD, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. "A cell phone transmits 0.1-1 watts, and FCC records indicate that radio-frequency exposure from AirPods is far below their limits for cell phones and those measurements were done under 'worst-case' conditions that far overstate actual exposure under real world circumstances."
The antenna in the AirPod sticks out from the ear and lies a half-inch or so above the head. "Radio-frequency exposure is minimal, and is to the cheek area over the jaw," Foster added. "The device does not radiate energy into the ear."
Foster went on to suggest that the media "is being played" on this issue. "It started with a no-facts statement by a scientist citing a 4-year-old petition by a self-selected group of scientists that expressed general concerns about EMF — but no mention of Bluetooth earbuds."
Henry Lai, PhD, a bioengineering professor emeritus at the University of Washington, Seattle, and editor emeritus of the journal Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine, explained that he didn't know if AirPods were less safe than other devices. "I don't know whether the dosimetry of different wireless ear buds and headsets has been investigated," he told Medscape Medical News. "Without this information, it is not possible to compare the potential biological effects of the different devices."
Joel M. Moskowitz, PhD, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at University of California, Berkeley, and one of the scientists who signed the petition, explained that the stories about wireless headsets are based on a September 2016 post from his own website; the post was updated in December 2016.
He pointed out that there has been very little research on the safety of long-term exposure to the head from Bluetooth radiation and none on near-field magnetic induction (NFMI).
Moskowitz told Medscape Medical News that AirPods may be more harmful than other types of wireless headsets for three reasons. "One is that because they are inserted in the ear, they are closer to the acoustic nerve and brain tissue which are susceptible to the effects of microwave radiation," he said. "Two is that they also emit near-field magnetic induction, and long-term exposure to these two types of electromagnetic fields has never been tested for safety."
The third, he said, is that the Specific Absorption Rate seems rather high for a Bluetooth device.
Wireless technology and, in particular, cell phones, have been widely studied but continue to produce conflicting results. For example, approximately 30 epidemiologic studies have attempted to evaluate the association between cell phone use and the risk for brain and salivary gland tumors.
The controversy over cell phones heated up when the WHO announced in 2011 that radiation from cell phones can possibly cause cancer, and classified radio-frequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (group 2B) on the basis of an increased risk for glioma that some studies have associated with the use of wireless phones.
As health concerns remain unresolved, as do the long-term risks of using Bluetooth devices, Moskowitz points out that there are "safer ways to use a cell phone."
He recommends the use of corded headsets or hands-free use of cell phones, and not wireless earbuds. "Moreover, one should never keep a cell phone next to your body, especially during a phone call, but also whenever the phone is powered on," he said.