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Brainstorm Health: Airpods and Cancer, Sandoz Chief Steps Down, Depression and Social Media

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


Virta brings in some old hands. Diabetes-focused digital health firm Virta has snagged a pair of industry veterans to join its executive roster. Derek Newell, former president of Castlight Health and CEO of Jiff, as well as former Patreon executive Lucia Guillory. The two vets will be charged with, among other duties, expanding Virta’s influence among employers and health plans (as we’ve previously reported, the company’s tech has produced some notable results in both diabetes and fatty liver disease).


Novartis’ generics unit chief heads for the exits. Adding to the rumor mill that drug giant Novartis may be planning to spin off its generic drug arm, the unit’s head—Sandoz chief Richard Francis—is stepping down at the end of the month. He will temporarily be replaced by Sandoz executive Francesco Balestrieri. Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan has talked up a “de-integration” effort for the generics unit since taking the reins and touting the company’s branded pipeline; time will tell if that turns into full-on “disintegration.” (FiercePharma)


Social media and its discontents. A new study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology points the finger at social media for massive increases in youth depression and suicidal thinking. “There is an overwhelming amount of data from many different sources, and it all points in the same direction: more mental health issues among American young people,” says one of the study’s authors, Jean Twenge. The pronounced effect on young people and adolescents is part of the reason that digital media and smart phone use took a hit in the study. But it’s also important to note that mental health is a holistic enterprise, and no one technology or socioeconomic factor necessarily determines someone’s behavior. (TIME)


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee
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