Since the day they were introduced to the world, AirPods have been a symbol of innovation, wealth and style. We’ve all seen the memes: People who own AirPods simply don’t speak broke, man. And that’s probably a good thing because if rumors are true and wireless headphones do raise the risk of developing cancer, then users of said devices will need all the money they can get. That goes for all wireless headphones, even the Samsung Galaxy Buds.
Now before you start hyperventilating and frantically searching Google, just take a second and breathe. I already did your Googling for you, so let’s just examine the facts.
In short, there isn’t anything particularly harmful about wireless headphones compared to other electronic devices such as laptops, TVs, virtual reality (VR) goggles and, of course, smartphones. However, scientists around the world can’t guarantee that these aren’t without potential health risks. As you may have learned in middle school, each electronic device emits a specific type of radiation called radio-frequency (RF) radiation that is spread across electromagnetic fields (EMF).
The rumors that you may or may not have heard on the internet, particularly on Reddit or Twitter, stem from a blog post by serial blogger Markham Heid back in March of this year. Heid’s post includes quotes from Jerry Phillips, a biochemistry professor at The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Phillips expresses concern for AirPods in particular because “their placement in the ear canal exposes tissues in the head to relatively high levels of radio-frequency radiation.”
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According to Business Insider, Phillips’ research indicates that it’s possible these RF emissions possess the potential to harm tissue cells and maybe even brain cells. Although, the aforementioned article does continue to clarify that there is no conclusive evidence that the doses of RF radiation from wireless headphones, or even cellphones, is enough to cause the development of tumors in people, let alone cancerous cells.
Heid’s blog post also referenced a 2015 petition sent to the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) by about 250 researchers from over 40 countries. The petition expressed “serious concern” for the integrity of international regulations on EMF, warning that current standards aren’t doing enough to protect citizens.
Healthline lists “cancer, genetic damage, neurological disorders, learning and memory deficits, and reproductive issues, among others,” as the possible health risks associated with prolonged exposure to EMF activity.
The 2015 petition also cites a study from The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which warrants the classification of EMF exposure as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans. For those who don’t know, carcinogenic means having the potential to cause cancer. The study took place in 2011 in Lyon, France, as an inquiry designated to the IARC by the WHO.
According to the study, the research was done in response to “an increased risk of glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use.” The 31 scientists involved in the case hailed from 14 different countries around the world, each of whom combined both their resources and personal theories on the subject.
The collective effort focused on three key areas: exposure to radar and microwaves in the workplace, long-range exposure due to radio, television and wireless communication and short-distance exposure from personal electronic devices.
Don’t let the pundits scare you. The IARC study did find that long-term EMF exposure is potentially carcinogenic, but it did go on to state that the evidence was “limited among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, and inadequate to draw conclusions for other types of cancers.
The evidence from the occupational and environmental [long-range] exposures mentioned above was similarly judged inadequate.” However, this simply means that there could be a risk and, as the study concludes, more research is still needed to find solid answers that people are hoping for.
What the study did say for sure is that each person should be cautious when using any electronic device and to keep in mind that there are potential risks to personal health involving the extended use of any EMF emitting device. That’s about the only concrete fact involved in this topic. Other than that, as Joel Moskowitz from University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Family and Community Health says, “we’re basically flying blind.”
There is certainly decent merit to Moskowitz’s comment. Much like the vaping illness epidemic, scientists can’t seem to come to any concrete verdict. Apart from the IARC study, the rest of the scientific community is heavily split on the issue.
Kenneth R. Foster, a bioengineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied the effects of what he calls “wireless radiation” on human health and claims there is “no credibility” to data that paints Bluetooth and similar technology in a dark light. He cites the lack of concrete evidence from other professional studies alongside his assertions.
Meanwhile, Martin Pall from Washington State University alleges that advanced personal devices such as smartphones and AirPods give off stronger EMF “pulses” for communication purposes and that current guidelines don’t account for the biological effects of those pulses.
The most recent breakthrough in this research came in 2018. Research done by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) found a strong link between continued exposure to EMF and the development of cancer in rats. The NTP’s findings show “clear evidence of tumors in the hearts of male rats, some evidence of tumors in the brains of male rats and some evidence of tumors in the adrenal glands of male rats.”
For the study, the lowest level of EMF exposure was about equal to the maximum amount allowed in a typical cell phone. The highest was four times that. So, take from that what you will. Human DNA and rat DNA have some similarities, but mostly differences, so more studies must still be done. However, it’s clear some progress is being made so that’s a positive.
In conclusion, don’t be too alarmed by any social media posts or “breaking news” blogs that tell you to ditch your AirPods or even your Galaxy Buds. But at the same time, be aware of the potential risks. If you are concerned about long term risks, there are steps you can take to be proactive.
For instance, if you’re spending hours on hours doing the “endless scroll,” you can logically assume that’s not healthy. Reducing the time spent staring at your screen is a great way to reduce exposure to EMF and put some of your worries to bed.
Also, if you really are worried about wireless headphones, try switching to a headset. Yeah, it’s slightly more cumbersome, but at least you aren’t putting RF directly in your ear canal. Other than that, keep an eye out for more information, and be aware of when someone is trying to feed you “fake news.”