Last week the internet was abuzz with news that Bluetooth and wireless headphones could boost your risk for cancer.
Coverage took off when a story posted to Medium referencing an appeal from 2015 in which 247 scientists from 42 countries expressed their concern about the health effects associated with exposure to the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emitted from wireless devices.
The appeal called on the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations to adopt stricter guidelines for EMF exposure from our wireless devices to better protect people against potentially harmful health effects.
Although there’s been substantial research on the health risks associated with EMFs, there’s been very little on the safety of long-term radiation exposure from Bluetooth or wireless headphones, according to Joel M. Moskowitz, PhD, the director of the Center for Family and Community Health at University of California, Berkeley.
While we currently don’t know the exact health risks associated with chronic use of in-ear wireless earbuds, scientists are beginning to understand the potential harm they may cause.
Electromagnetic fields are invisible areas of energy, or radiation, that are produced by electricity.
When we use Bluetooth and wireless headphones — in addition to our computers and cell phones and even microwave ovens — they emit a specific type of nonionizing (or low-level) EMF called radio frequency radiation (RFR).
In 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified this type of radiation as possibly carcinogenic to humans. This classification was based on an increased risk of glioma, a type of brain cancer, related to cell phone use.
Furthermore, in 2018, research from the National Toxicology Program (NTP) found that exposure to high levels of RFR — like what’s used in 2G and 3G cellular phones — could cause cancer in rats.
The biggest questions we now face are how these findings relate to humans and what specific levels of RFR may pose a threat to our health.
In general, the amount of radiation Bluetooth headphones emit is significantly less than what’s generated from a typical cell phone, according to Moskowitz.
However, emissions aren’t the only factor that’s at stake when it comes to breaking down the impact of this sort of radiation. The specific absorption rate (SAR) — or the amount of radiofrequency the human body absorbs from a device — also helps us determine how much radiation actually seeps into our bodies.
While Bluetooth and wireless headphones do emit lower levels of radiation compared to a cell phone, their placement is a big concern to some health experts.
“Because of the proximity of the Bluetooth devices — particularly the wireless headsets or earpieces to the body or the head — the actual exposure to the head is only maybe half as much or a third as much as you might get from your cell phone,” Moskowitz explained.
According to Moskowitz, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently requires the SAR for wireless devices to be 1.6 watts per kilograms or less. This figure was developed in the mid-1990s to protect consumers against short-term heating risks. The SAR for Apple AirPods is about 0.466 watts per kilogram, he adds.
While the AirPod’s SAR is well within the range of permitted amounts, many scientists worry that the current SAR regulations don’t effectively account for the risks potentially associated with prolonged exposure to these lower levels of radiation.
Some experts predict that even at lower SAR levels, prolonged, chronic use of our wireless devices could very well add up over time and hurt our health.
“If one uses the AirPods many hours a day, the cumulative exposure to the brain from this microwave radiation could be substantial,” Moskowitz stated on his website.
All things considered, it appears there’s a great need to collect more data on chronic exposure to the radiation that’s emitted from our wireless devices and how it affects or health as well as revisit the exposure limit guidelines accordingly.
Until we have that data, all we can really do is take special precautions to avoid the potential health risks.
“If planning prolonged phone calls, the safest alternatives are using the speakerphone feature on your phone and wired headphones,” Dr. Santosh Kesari, a neuro-oncologist and chair of the department of translational neurosciences and neurotherapeutics at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Healthline.
The same goes for those who listen to music or podcasts for hours on end each day. This is especially important for children, who are still developing and therefore are more sensitive to radiation.
“Children are higher risk since they have small heads and thinner skulls. So they would be expected to have higher exposure to any EMF radiation,” Kesari explained.
Other general precautions include keeping your cell phone about 10 inches from your face when you can and only use your cell when the signal is strong, as poor reception emits more radiation, says Moskowitz.
It may be near impossible to completely avoid radiation these days, but we can all take a few steps to reduce the amount we’re exposed to on a regular basis.
News regarding an appeal written to the WHO in 2015 picked up last week, noting the potential health risks associated with exposure to the radiation that’s emitted from Bluetooth and wireless devices.