By Sy Mukherjee
March 14, 2019

Good afternoon, readers.

A slew of reports from earlier this week suggested that a significant coalition of scientists worry that wireless, Bluetooth-powered headphones such as Apple’s popular “Airpods” may pose a cancer risk. The story was picked up by multiple outlets and quickly climbed up the ranks of Google’s influential news aggregator.

Public health stories with tantalizing claims, especially when they involve mass consumer products, tend to become Internet gold. But some much-needed nuance can get lost in the process.

For instance, as Quartz’s Zoë Schlanger points out, the petition from nearly 250 scientists across dozens of nations being cited in many of these stories is from 2015. Titled “International Appeal: Scientists call for Protection from Non-ionizing Electromagnetic Field Exposure,” the document encompasses far more than Airpods and other Bluetooth devices. In fact, they extend to everything from cell phones to baby monitors, all of which create the titular “non-ionizing electromagnetic field exposure.”

“[W]e have serious concerns regarding the ubiquitous and increasing exposure to EMF generated by electric and wireless devices. These include–but are not limited to–radiofrequency radiation (RFR) emitting devices, such as 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,” wrote the authors of the 2015 document.

Now, this doesn’t mean that cell phones, Bluetooth-powered devices such as Airpods and other wireless headphones, and a number of other wireless products definitively don’t increase cancer risk. For instance, some research has suggested that cell phone radiation may be linked to rare tumors in rats; but those findings haven’t been confirmed in humans. And there simply isn’t a whole lot of existing evidence to affirmatively support the cancer risk claims—and carrying out a randomized control trial to get to the bottom of that issue would likely be complicated. Furthermore, Bluetooth technology isn’t the same as cell phone tech or WiFi.

One of the complicating factors here is that these technologies have only been a common part of human life for about two decades. What we’ll find out down the line is an open question.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


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