By: David Lesser
People take for granted that in a matter of seconds they can tune themselves out of reality. Bluetooth headphones allow us to live life in the outside world, while also remaining in our own personal bubbles. Bluetooth earphones or headphones, have become a necessity that society can’t seem to live without. These devices allow people to connect wirelessly to various devices, such as their laptops or cell phones, in an easy and hassle-free fashion. In 2018 alone, Apple sold roughly 35 million Airpods and is ranked as “the most popular hearable brand” in the U.S. The Bluetooth headphones market is currently a multi-million-dollar industry and is growing rapidly.
It is apparent that most of us idolize our Bluetooth headphones and can’t imagine living without the value they provide us. As such, we don’t pay attention to any possible health risks that can develop from them. We have all heard that x-rays carry health risks and now even cell phones are thought to pose a hazard to our well-being. The Bluetooth device was meant to be the solution to this problem, by minimizing cell phone–body exposure. Is it possible, however, that the Bluetooth device may be less benign than we thought? In order to gain a better understanding of the potential dangers Bluetooth headphones pose, we must understand how it operates and if its operation can indeed cause potential health risks.
Simply put, Bluetooth headphones operate through the use of RF (radiofrequency) energy, a form of electromagnetic energy composed of electric and magnetic energy waves moving together through a space or electromagnetic field. These waves travel between device receivers (ex. your phone to your headphones) instantaneously transferring the electrical information and sound from one device to another. RF energy is seen as being harmless due to its long wavelength and low frequency; it is significantly lower than the commonly used x-ray, as well as the household microwave The electromagnetic spectrum deals with frequencies of electromagnetic radiation and their respective wavelengths and photo energies, and lists RF energy as the lowest form of energy.
RF energy is a form of nonionizing radiation. In a nutshell, ionizing radiation, which is above the ultraviolet energy level, has the ability to alter the position of electrons between atoms, playing a crucial role in chemical reactions. Ionizing radiation can be harmful, but being that RF energy is not a form of ionizing radiation, it is not associated with these types of risks. However, if RF energy is absorbed in large quantities by the body, it can produce heat, which can cause burns and tissue damage which can make the body susceptible to diseases. Additionally, various health issues are linked to Bluetooth technology such as tumors, dizziness, sleep issues, depression, anxiety, and more.
Many still believe there is some risk involved. As a precaution, to limit the amount of RF absorbed by the body, all wireless products that are sold in the U.S. that emit RF energy must abide by specific standards set by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). These devices must abide by the FCC’s SAR (Specific Absorption Rate) guidelines, which deal with the rate of RF absorbed by the body. The maximum allowable exposure, when a device is running at full power, is 1.6 W/Kg as averaged over 1g of body tissue. If an item doesn’t comply with this rule, the FCC can withdraw its approval and pursue enforcement action against the appropriate party. The FCC opines that there is not enough research and evidence to conclude causation between RF energy exposure and health defects and it promises to vigilantly monitor research results and update its regulations and data as needed.
In opposition to earlier scientific data, there are those such as Kevin Mottus of the U.S. Brain Tumor Association, who state that Bluetooth technology produces a higher frequency, and thus a higher level of energy, than most cell phones do, making them even more hazardous than cell phones. Additionally, Mottus explains that long term exposure to low RF radiation is more dangerous to the body than short durations of higher energy exposure. Being that Bluetooth devices emit RF radiation constantly, as long as the device is on, and it is typically used for long periods of time, it can be seen as something quite hazardous. A survey conducted in 2014 found that 53% of people ages 18-34 had at least three pairs of Bluetooth headphones and used them for roughly four hours a day; this time is significantly longer than the daily use of a cell phone.
Although there is no unanimous opinion regarding the dangers of RF energy to the body, many studies suggest a level of harm. While this form of technology is extremely beneficial to humanity, proper modification of bodily exposure to such devices can limit the possible toxicities they produce. With this balance, one should be able to enjoy the benefits of his or her device, while minimizing or even eliminating any potential risk.