Your AirPods are Not Killing You

Time for some straight talk about EMF concerns

A small crowd of people wearing earbuds

 Lifewire / Catherine Song

Talk about a buzzkill.

I was so excited about trying out Apple’s new AirPods Pro noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones that I started posting photos, videos, and commentary on Twitter as soon as I got them. Within minutes, I had someone asking me about EMF exposure.

Seriously? Can’t I just enjoy new technology without worrying about possible side-effects?

It’s true, using almost any technology, whether hardware, software, or social media, comes with certain risks, but the concerns over electromagnetic fields (EMF) and our mobile technology have hung like a dark cloud over consumer electronics for years.

In hindsight, I realize that my overly-cautious Twitter follower asked a reasonable question:

“How long do you have them in for each day and do you worry about any issues around EMF [or] Bluetooth exposure over an extended period of time?”

I wasn’t about to let anyone rain on my new gadget parade. So, I responded somewhat snippily:

“I only just got them but, no, I do not worry about EMF.”

That shut him down pretty fast, but should I be worrying? Am I making some kind of devil's bargain trade-off for excellent in-ear Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) and the ability to play rich, lush uninterrupted music for 4.5 hours or more a day?

Lance Ulanoff wearing AirPods pro
That's me wearing the new Apple AirPods Pro.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

What's EMF?

Most of our wireless transmission technologies create invisible, low-energy EMF fields. This includes Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular signals. As a result, we are basically swimming in low-grade EMF.
And yet, even though we’ve lived with these technologies for almost two decades, there’s no conclusive information on whether or not any of it affects us. The concern, though, is very real. Four years ago, a group of scientists under the banner of, naturally, EMFScientists.org, submitted a letter to the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO) calling for the groups to do something to protect people from EMF exposure.

Sources of EMF:

  • Computers
  • Power lines
  •  Broadcast TV
  • Remote Controls
  • Radio
  • Mobile Phones
  • Wi-Fi
  • Microwaves

The WHO did launch something called “The International EMF Project.” There’s even a full-color brochure. But the group has actually been looking at radiation risks from cellphones for years. It produced a report in 2010 based in information gleaned from a decade of phone use at a time when most of us were putting our phones to our heads. The report essentially declared, “An increased risk of brain cancer is not established from the data from Interphone.”

Similarly, the WHO’s EMF brochure notes that decades of EMF research have produced no major health risk warnings. It does add, though, that they still don’t entirely understand how low-level EMF might affect human cells. As of this year, the WHO is renewing its call for further study and plans to synthesize available evidence from almost a dozen available research projects.

We Don't Know But

I’m glad the WHO and others are still studying EMF exposure, especially as our exposure increases and new technologies and frequencies, like 5G, hit the market. On the other hand, the rise of smartphones and wireless transmission technologies has not, at least based on data from the American Cancer Society, coincided with a rise in cancer rates. 

The American Cancer Society, which measures cancer rates based on cancer deaths, noted in its most recent report that while cancer deaths rose throughout the 20th century (mostly due to smoking), the death rate had tumbled 27% by 2019. Granted, the organization attributes the change to fewer people smoking, but I’d posit that far more people were using phones and other wireless technology than were smoking in 2000.

Still, there’s a big difference between you walking through low-grade wireless transmissions or even holding your phone in your hand (how many of us still make phone calls?) and putting tiny devices with up-to-three wireless radios inside your ears—which is right next to your brain.

Seriously? Can’t I just enjoy new technology without worrying about possible side-effects?

Which is why my Twitter friend expressed concern. This is about proximity and I guess it does give me pause if I stop to think about it. Instead of panicking, I try to keep a couple of things in mind. 

First, I’ve been wearing Bluetooth AirPods for almost three years for many hours per week. I am, according to my most recent doctor visit, fine. The concerns about AirPods and cancer are valid, but the reported incidence of them or any other popular Bluetooth headset actually causing cases of cancer (in-ear or over-the-ear) is virtually zero. 

The other factor to consider is that, as the WHO first found almost ten years ago, there was no definitive proof that their use caused cancer, either. This is even after the first decade of cellphone use when few of us had smartphones, apps, or social media and most of us actually used our phones to make calls, which meant putting them against our ears and next to our squishy brains all the time.

Finally, the National Cancer Institute defines EMFs as “in the non-ionizing radiation part of the electromagnetic spectrum and are not known to damage DNA or cells directly.”

Cancer death charts
Cancer deaths do not appear to chart with the growth of mobile tech.  Chart: American Cancer Society

So What

It’s not time to dismiss concerns about EMF. We simply don’t know enough about the interaction of invisible waves and our soft bits. If you are concerned, maybe limit your AirPods use to an hour a day or a few hours a week. 

Still, long-term studies and available science point to no real danger. With that in mind, I say Apple’s AirPods Pro are some super sweet ANC headphones at a not-too-expensive price. Buy them. Put them in. Enjoy the music.

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