There's a rumour that AirPods and other wireless headphones cause cancer, but the truth is more complicated

  • Apple’sAirPods Pro and other wireless headphones emit small amounts of radio-frequency radiation. So do mobile phones.
  • Scientists still aren’t sure if the dose is enough to harm us, and the studies they have done so far suggest that radiation from mobile phones (which is a far greater amount than what Bluetooth devices emit) isn’t leading to more cancer.
  • The evidence we have so far suggests that consumers should probably be more worried about jamming something noisy into their ear canals every day than the radiation those devices emit.

If you’ve been on the internet lately, you might’ve heard that you should be worried about how Bluetooth headphones, such as Apple’s $US250 AirPods Pro, are affecting your risk of developing cancer.

The short answer: Everybody, calm down. There’s nothing especially harmful about Bluetooth radiation compared with other electronic devices. Still, like many of the other electronics that surround us, scientists can’t say for sure this wireless technology is 100% harm-free.

The hubbub stems largely from a Medium blog post that came out earlier this year. The post cites Jerry Phillips, a biochemist who has studied DNA damage from electromagnetic fields. His research suggests it’s possible, but not certain, that electromagnetic-field activity might be messing with human DNA in a harmful way and that people should limit their exposure as a result.

“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,” he said.

There’s no conclusive evidence that AirPods Pro or other Bluetooth headsets are dangerous

Airpods proCrystal Cox/Business Insider

There’s really no evidence that radio-frequency (RF) radiation can cause brain cancer or noncancerous brain tumours in people.

The author of the post also said that, in 2015, a group of more than 200 international scientists sent an “appeal” to the United Nations and the World Health Organisation “expressing ‘serious concern’ about the non-ionizing electromagnetic field (EMF)” that is emitted by Bluetooth devices, such as AirPods.

That’s true, but the letter in question didn’t specifically mention Bluetooth devices or headphones.

The scientists behind that letter are concerned about all kinds of electronics that emit nonionizing electromagnetic fields – the energy waves that travel at the speed of light in many electronics, including mobile phones, WiFi devices, smart meters, baby monitors, and broadcast antennas.

“EMF Scientists have serious concerns regarding the ubiquitous and increasing exposure to radiation from wireless devices and antennas from all sources, including the pulsed digital signals Bluetooth transmits,” Elizabeth Kelley, the director of the International EMF Scientist Appeal, told Business Insider in an email.

However, most other scientists still hesitate to say there is conclusive evidence that the small doses of radiation from mobile phones and Bluetooth headsets are dangerous.

SmartphoneAndreas Rentz/Getty Images

“They don’t have enough energy to cause cancer by directly damaging the DNA inside cells,” according to the American Cancer Society.

The radio waves of electric and magnetic energy that radiate from mobile phones, radios, and other types of wireless technology, such as Bluetooth, are different from stronger types of radiation we’re exposed to, including X-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun, which can break the chemical bonds in DNA.

In fact, as the California Department of Public Health has said, holding a mobile phone up to your face emits much more RF energy than Bluetooth headsets, such as AirPods.

(AirPods Pro use the same type of Bluetooth technology that’s in regular AirPods. The new “pro” noise-cancelling function does not rely on any radio-frequency radiation. Instead, the new AirPods create their own sound waves which cancel out other noises.)

There’s evidence that mobile phone radiation can be harmful to rats but not humans

Lab ratShutterstock

Scientific studies to date don’t suggest this kind of phone radiation is harmful to humans in the way that bigger doses of radiation from X-rays or solar UV rays are.

But the same isn’t true for rats. The US National Toxicology Program has found “clear evidence” that male rat exposure to extensive daily mobile phone radiation is linked to more heart tumours, as well as “some evidence” that it’s linked to more brain tumours. They can’t say the same for female rats, or for mice (both male and female).

As scientists have found many times before, just because something happens in lab rats doesn’t mean the same will happen in humans. It’s tough to know if the dose of radiation from a mobile phone that humans are exposed to, day in and day out, is doing people any harm.

The evidence we have so far isn’t convincing. One 10-year study across 13 countries that the International Agency for Research on Cancer conducted on mobile phone-radiation risks concluded that there’s no increased risk of brain tumours in average mobile phone users, but those scientists cautioned that more research is needed on some of the most intense phone users. (Again, the dose of radiation from Bluetooth devices is lower than from a mobile phone.)

If you are worried about radiation risks, Kelley recommends swapping out Bluetooth headphones for wired headphones. Even that technique leaves only a few feet of space between your brain and the RF radiation from your mobile phone.

Whether you use AirPods, or any other kind of audio-listening device, it’s probably best to spend more time worrying about moderating volume.

There, the science is more conclusive. Constant, repeated exposure to loud noises can lead to noncancerous acoustic neuroma tumours that cause hearing loss, as well as constant ringing in the ears called tinnitus. If that happens, you might have to put a different kind of wireless technology into your ears. It’s called a hearing aid.

Update: This story was originally published on March 21, 2019. It has been updated with details about the new AirPods Pro.

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