Last week on the Internet, the news was buzzing that Bluetooth and wireless headphones could increase the risk of cancer.
The coverage took off when the Medium story of 2015 was published, in which 247 scientists from 42 countries expressed concern about the health effects of electromagnetic fields (EMF) emitted by wireless devices.
Scientists warned that potential health risks from chronic exposure to EMF include cancer, genetic damage, neurological disorders, learning and memory deficits, and problems with the reproductive system.
The appeal called on the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations to adopt more stringent guidelines on the effects of electromagnetic interference from our wireless devices, in order to better protect people from potentially harmful health effects.
Although there was a substantial study of the health risks associated with EMF, there was very little about the safety of long-term exposure from Bluetooth or wireless headphones, says Joel M. Moskowitz, Ph.D., director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California, Berkeley.
Although we currently do not know the exact health risks associated with the chronic use of wireless in-ear headphones, scientists are beginning to understand the potential harm they can cause.
What exactly is electromagnetic radiation?
Electromagnetic fields are invisible regions 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 special type of non-ionizing (or low-level) EMI, called radio frequency radiation (RFR).
In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified this type of radiation as possible carcinogenic to humans. This classification was based on an increased risk of glioma, a type of brain cancer associated with cell phone use.
In addition, in 2018, a study of the National Toxicology Program (NTP) showed that exposure to high levels of RFR, such as what is used in 2G and 3G cell phones, can cause cancer in rats.
The biggest questions we face now are related to how these results relate to people and what specific levels of RFRs can pose a threat to our health.
Scientists believe that current EMF guidelines are inadequate.
In general, according to Moskovich, the amount of radiation emitted by Bluetooth headphones is significantly less than the radiation of a regular mobile phone.
However, emissions are not the only factor that is at stake when it comes to disrupting the effects of this kind of radiation. The specific absorption rate (SAR) – or the amount of radio frequency that the human body absorbs from the device – also helps us determine how much radiation actually penetrates our bodies.
Although Bluetooth and wireless headphones emit lower levels of radiation than a mobile phone, their placement is a matter of serious concern to some health professionals.
“Because of the proximity of Bluetooth devices — especially wireless headsets or headphones to the body or head — the actual impact on the head is only half or a third of what you can get from your mobile phone.” Moskowitz explained.
According to Moskovich, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently requires that the SAR for wireless devices be 1.6 W per kilogram or less. This figure was developed in the mid-1990s to protect consumers from short-term risks associated with heating. The SAR for Apple AirPods is about 0.466 watts per kilogram, he adds.
Although the AirPod SAR is within the acceptable range, many scientists are concerned that the current SAR rules do not take into account the risks potentially associated with the long-term exposure to these lower levels of radiation.
Some experts predict that even with lower SAR levels, prolonged chronic use of our wireless devices over time can lead to poor health.
“If a person uses AirPods for many hours a day, the cumulative effect on the brain from this microwave radiation can be significant,” said Moskowitz on his website.
Considering all the above, it seems that more data is needed on the chronic effects of radiation emitted by our wireless devices and how it affects health, and also to revise recommendations to limit exposure accordingly.
There are certain precautions you can take.
As long as we do not have this data, all we can really do is take special precautions to avoid potential health risks.
“If you are planning long phone calls, the safest alternatives are to use the speakerphone feature on your phone and wired headphones,” says Dr. Santosh Kesari, a neuro-oncologist and head of the department of translational neuroscience and neurotherapy at the Providence Institute of Oncology. St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Healthline.
The same applies to those who listen to music or podcasts every day for several hours in a row. This is especially important.