Are truly wireless earbuds (like AirPods) safe?

Truly wireless earbuds are having a moment. But does inserting tiny transmitters in your ears pose health risks? Experts are divided.

"Truly wireless" Bluetooth earbuds, like Apple’s AirPods, are cool and convenient. AirPods are both a runaway success, according to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Slice Intelligence, and a runway success — check out how Kristen Stewart rocks her AirPods.

But does inserting tiny transmitters in your ears expose you to cancer or other health risks? It’s a timely question. While AirPods can still be hard to get (expect a six-week shipping delay when ordering from Apple’s website), other completely wireless earbuds such as Jabra Elite Sport are proliferating.

Expert opinions on the safety of truly wireless earbuds

Adequate research on risk and health effects, “especially to long-term exposure of even low levels of microwave radiation and other wireless technologies, has not been done…which is why many doctors are so concerned,” according to Dr. Devra Lee Davis, founder and president of the Environmental Health Trust, a nonprofit research and education organization focused on environmental health hazards. “We have no proof of safety.”

jabra earbuds Jabra

Davis continues: “The fact is that wireless earbuds still place a microwave transmitter next to the head and as a result these microwaves penetrate into your skull and brain. Yes, they are considered ‘low level’ microwaves as they do not cook your tissue, but these very low levels have been shown to cause biological effects.”

The current evidence “indicates we should take precautions whenever possible,” Davis notes. “Research indicates not only increased brain cancer but a myriad of other effects such as effects on brain function, sleep, memory, increased headaches, hearing loss, inflammation and more.”

On the other hand, Dr. Kenneth Foster, professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, says he is “not aware of any advisory by health agencies that any of these devices pose a health risk due to radiofrequency energy.” 

Foster adds: “All earbuds on the U.S. market are tested to comply with FCC radiation exposure limits, which are similar to other major international limits,” he adds.

Activists have been “cherry-picking the literature to argue that even low levels of exposure to RF energy is dangerous,” Foster continues. “They don’t accept the exposure limits.” He says that potential wireless earbud users have a choice in where to place their trust — “in the activists who assert that low level RF energy is dangerous, or in health agencies who do not find clear evidence of any health risks at levels below international limits, which these devices certainly comply with.”

An Apple spokesperson said that the company always designs and tests its products to meet or exceed all safety requirements. A Jabra spokesperson referred me to a blog post the company published, which cites research from the American Cancer Society and other organizations. Some of those organizations say that Bluetooth headsets are actually safer than putting a cell phone to your head.

So… wear truly wireless earbuds or not?

Since receiving my AirPods in mid January, I’ve tended to only wear them during daily exercise and occasional short phone calls, which is consistent with how I've worn previous earbuds. Based on what I’ve learned thus far, I'm not planning to change how I wear AirPods, mainly because I don't wear them that often or for very long. 

But that’s me. If you’re worried about a possible cancer or other health risk, wireless earbuds may not be for you.

Also, you shouldn't put a smartphone directly up to your ear for phone calls. Instead, use the phone’s speakerphone (or a pair of corded headphones or earbuds). And don’t keep your smartphone stored in a pants pocket; the FCC recommends storing your phone 5 to 25 millimeters away from your body.

Further reading

Here are a few additional, related resources for more information.

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