In 2015, 250 scientists from 40 countries signed a petition calling on the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations to strengthen international guidelines regarding safety and electromagnetic fields (EMF), radiation that is "generated by electric and wireless devices." Fast forward to March 2019 when news stories ricocheted across the media ecosystem that wrongly reported the petition specifically called out Apple AirPods wireless headphones as a cancer risk.
The petition never named AirPods nor even mentioned wireless headphones. The products listed as examples of EMF-emitting devices were "cellular and cordless phones and their base stations, Wi-Fi, broadcast antennas, smart meters, and baby monitors as well as electric devices and infra-structures used in the delivery of electricity that generate extremely-low frequency electromagnetic field (ELF EMF)."
So how did AirPods become the subject of stories about a cancer risk posed by the energy they emit? A game of telephone played by various news outlets apparently resulted in the repetition of the same error.
"The 250 scientists said the current guidelines are inadequate, but the appeal doesn’t specify any products or manufacturers," said Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health in the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the scientists who signed the petition. "That was misconstrued by [British tabloid] The Daily Mail, and many other news sites picked it up."
On 7 March 2019, an article headlined "Are AirPods and Other Bluetooth Headphones Safe?" was published on the blogging platform Medium. The article quotes a researcher stating his concerns about AirPod safety, and although the story mentions the petition, the story doesn't claim the petition was focused on AirPods. Journalist Markham Heid reported:
“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,” says Jerry Phillips, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He mentions tumors and other conditions associated with abnormal cell functioning as some of the potential risks. These risks are not restricted to AirPods. Existing evidence “indicates potential concerns for human health and development from all technologies that operate at radio frequencies,” he says.
In the past, Apple spokespeople have responded to concerns about the AirPods with assurances that they comply with current safety guidelines.
Phillips is not alone. Roughly 250 researchers from more than 40 countries have signed a petition to the United Nations and the World Health Organization expressing “serious concern” about the non-ionizing electromagnetic field (EMF), which is the kind of radiation emitted by wireless devices, including Bluetooth technologies.
Perhaps sensing the potential viral quality of the story with the release of Apple's second-generation AirPods pending, the Mail ran with their version of the story on 11 March 2019, using the headline, "Are AirPods dangerous? 250 scientists sign petition warning against cancer from wireless tech including the trendy in-ear headphones." The Mail reported:
Some 250 have signed the petition, which warns against numerous devices that emit radiofrequency radiation, which is used in WiFi, cellular data and Bluetooth.
AirPods in particular are concerning because they sit deeply enough within the ear canal to emit expose [sic] these fragile parts of the ear to dangerous among [sic] of radiation, some experts warn.
(Bluetooth refers to short-range, wireless technology that allows people to use headsets or a computer mouse, for example, with no cables.)
From there, the story took off, and some mainstream outlets replicated the Mail's mistake, possibly because it involved a "glitzy product that people are dying to have," University of Pennsylvania bioengineering Professor Kenneth Foster told us.
"The story that has been getting so much publicity is purely hype," he said.
The Mail's story was updated the next day, Moskowitz told us, but it was too little too late. "I don’t know why so many media sources picked up the Daily Mail story, but it was too late to correct the damage the next day."
Although AirPods weren't yet in existence when the petition was first drafted, the latest round of viral stories aren't the first regarding the safety of wireless earbuds. Apple addressed the controversy in 2016 when AirPods debuted, stating that, "Apple products are always designed and tested to meet or exceed all safety requirements."
Ultimately, the scientists who signed the petition did not claim wireless technology causes cancer, rather they expressed concern that research is inconclusive as to whether it does. But some studies show evidence that it could be detrimental. The petition calls for stronger public health protection from WHO.
The stories kicked into public view an ongoing controversy in the scientific community about the long-term effects on health of EMF radiation.
Speaking to Health.com, Foster stated that:
Bluetooth devices also give off less radiation than cell phones — only about one-tenth or less, Foster points out. “If you also use a cell phone on a daily basis, it’s bizarre to worry about the hazards of these earphones,” he says. Sure, if you use them for hours a day to listen to music or podcasts, of course, that exposure could add up. But if you're using them mainly to have phone conversations, you’ll actually get less exposure than if you were to hold the phone up to your head.
“I can’t say there’s absolutely no problem with these devices, because people can always argue that there’s no proof they’re 100% safe,” says Foster. “And I can’t tell people what to worry about — but personally, I have no concern.”
Because wireless headphones are so new, no research conclusively demonstrates any health risk and probably won't for a while. Moskowitz pointed to studies that show a possible relationship between certain types of brain cancer and cognitive impacts on functions like figural memory.
"My understanding is that many people wear these earbuds to listen to music for hours at a time, so their cumulative exposure (to radiation) may exceed what they're getting from their cell phone," Moskowitz told us. "In the long term, that might be a significant risk factor."
"I think we need more research to understand these kinds of effects," he added.
AirPods and similar wireless earbuds are a special case because, "They're not just something you hold up to your head. They're something you insert into your ear for longer periods of time than you would hold your phone up to your head," said Jerry Phillips, a biochemist with a background in cancer research and director of the Excel Science Center at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. "So you have a source close to the auditory nerve and brain depositing energy that can do things and no way to know yet what the effects will be. That’s the bottom line."