The New York Times published an article on Wednesday titled “Could wearable computers be as harmful as cigarettes?” In it, writer Nick Bilton theorised that wearable devices like the Apple Watch could be harmful because of the amount of radiation they give off, and their proximity to your skin.
But hours after publishing, the article’s headline was changed to the slightly less alarmist “The Health Concerns in Wearable Tech,” and much of the medical research cited has been called into question.
One of the first publications to take a close look at Bilton’s article was Discover Magazine. It takes issue with the central argument in Bilton’s article, which is that prolonged mobile phone use can cause brain tumours. That’s an ancient rumour, and there’s no conclusive evidence that using your phone is going to cause cancer.
But it’s not just the rehashing of old claims that publications like Discover Magazine and Popular Science take issue with. Bilton quotes Dr. Joseph Mercola, a specialist in alternative medicine. In case that wasn’t already raising red flags, Dr. Mercola thinks that drinking distilled water will kill you and his website suggests that he is also an anti-vaxxer. For a full look at Mercola’s worrying background, the Chicago Magazine article “Dr. Mercola: Visionary or Quack?” delves into his run-ins with the FDA and bizarre medical claims.
So why is Bilton relying on alternative health practitioners? It looks like he cherrypicked the most alarmist studies and quotes he could find to make it seem like smartwatches are more dangerous than they really are.
Popular Science talked to a medical expert who doesn’t think that distilled water will kill you. Professor Geoffrey Kabat, who teaches epidemiology, explains that “Bilton went to exactly the worst of the studies.” He went on to say that “if you read the best overviews by the most competent people, you’d come away saying that there’s no consistent signal that cell phones are causing brain cancer.”
Bilton’s strongest source for the dangers of wearable devices is from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a study which he calls “definitive and arguably unbiased.” He explains that if you “hypothesize a bit,” wearable tech could be dangerous.
But the Verge reports that the IARC study Bilton cites is accompanied by a footnote (missing from the New York Times article) which states that “chance, bias, or confounding could not be ruled out with reasonable confidence.” And the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published a lengthy rebuttal of many points in in the IARC study, drawing attention to that critical footnote.