The headphone jack is becoming a thing of the past, but not everyone is happy about the wireless future we’re heading towards.
Despite underwhelming evidence, concerns persist electronics like wireless headphones pose a potential health risk. Those worried say harmful radio waves being pumped into our head could lead to tumours and other conditions associated with abnormal cell functioning.
Dr Jerry Phillips, professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, is the latest to reignite such fears, claiming a product like Apple’s AirPods could be subjecting users to harmful radiation so close to the blood brain barrier.
“My concern for AirPods is that their placement in the ear canal exposes tissues in the head to relatively high levels of radiofrequency radiation,” he told Medium recently.
It’s true some experts who study wireless technologies have concerns about their health effects, and Dr Phillips says there is some evidence that “indicates potential concerns for human health and development from all technologies that operate at radio frequencies”.
Bluetooth uses radio waves in the 2.4-2.48 GHz frequency range to wirelessly transmit signals between devices. That range is also used by microwaves, Wi-Fi, cell phones and other devices.
Dr Phillips is far from alone in his apprehension about how the technology impacts humans.
As of September last year, 244 researchers from more than 40 countries, including Australia, had signed a petition to the United Nations and the World Health Organisation expressing “serious concern” about the kind of radiation emitted by wireless devices known as a non-ionising electromagnetic field (EMF).
“Their concern is based on the vast number of studies that reported biological and adverse health effects of non-ionising EMF far below the current exposure guidelines” the group said.
However, while there is still more research to be done, much of the science points to the absence of harm below certain levels.
In Australia, these things are governed by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. Dr Ken Karipidis, the assistant director of the Assessment and Advice Section of the agency, believes there is very little for people to worry about when using their AirPods or other wireless gadgets.
“Any type of telecommunications that uses wireless transmissions emit radio waves which is basically electromagnetic energy in the radio frequency spectrum,” he explained to news.com.au.
“Radio waves at very high power levels, the only established health effect is a rise in temperature.”
The obvious example is the microwave.
Dr Karipidis is heavily involved in the scientific and regulatory aspects of radiation protection from electromagnetic radiation sources. While he admits there “are studies that show possible effects”, at such low levels there is no compelling evidence these devices result in adverse health effects, including causing cancer.
The AirPods’ specific absorption rate (SAR), which measures how much radiation is absorbed by the body, is 0.466 watts per kilogram.
This is well below the legal limit of 1.60W/kg set by regulators in the US. The SAR limit in Australia for mobile phone handsets is 2W/kg.
In Australia, the SAR limit for the general public is set at 50 times below known health risk levels, according to ARPANSA.
“Yes, sure, there are still unanswered questions,” Dr Karipidis said. “We think there’s nothing to worry about.”