What Is the Possibility of Wireless Bluetooth Headphones Increasing Cancer Risk?

Bluetooth radiation is a thing—but that doesn't mean you should worry about your wireless earbuds.

The world of technology is continuously evolving, especially when it comes to wireless and hands-free devices like tablets, home security systems, speakers, and headphones. With these developments also come worries and concerns about how the way the technology functions may affect our health, such as if cell phones and increased cancer risk are related.

The use of Bluetooth wireless headphones is another realm of technology that has raised concerns about brain cancer risk. A March 2019 Medium article posed the question, "Are AirPods and Other Bluetooth Headphones Safe?" The article quoted Jerry Phillips, PhD, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, who said he was concerned about Apple AirPods because "their placement in the ear canal exposes tissues in the head to relatively high levels of radio-frequency radiation."

The article also pointed out that Phillips was "not alone" in his concerns about wireless Bluetooth devices, citing a petition addressed to the United Nations and the World Health Organization and signed by 250 researchers from more than 40 countries. The letter also expressed "serious concern" about the potential health risks of non-ionizing electromagnetic field (EMF) technology, which is used by all Bluetooth devices.

Still, how much of a risk do wireless headphones with Bluetooth technology really pose when it comes to brain cancer? Here's what you need to know.

What Is Bluetooth Technology?

Bluetooth technology is used for creating connections between two different devices wirelessly, according to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). The CISA says that Bluetooth operates by using short-range radio frequency as the connection method for devices within a particular distance.

Because Bluetooth devices are wireless, they also utilize radio frequency radiation, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). This type of radiation falls under electromagnetic radiation (EMR), which travels in waves with the use of electric and magnetic fields per the NCI. It also occurs in natural and manmade states; further, devices like cell phones, AM and FM radio, and televisions emit radio frequency radiation as well.

It's important to note that Bluetooth devices give off less radiation than cell phones—only about one-tenth or less, Ken Foster, PhD, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania whose research involves the safety of electromagnetic fields, pointed out. So, if you use wireless Bluetooth headphones for hours a day to listen to music or podcasts, 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.

What's the Connection Between Radiation and Cancer?

Per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radiation exists as non-ionizing or ionizing. Radiation that is non-ionizing has enough energy to move atoms around but not remove electrons from those atoms, whereas ionizing radiation has energy to do both. Because of the lack of energy non-ionizing radiation has, it is less likely to be harmful for your health. However, ionizing radiation, which includes ultraviolet (UV) radiation, X-rays, and radioactive waste, has the ability to cause damage to both tissue and DNA according to the EPA.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) says that carcinogens are any substances or exposures that result in cancer. One exposure that falls under the list of possible carcinogens is medical treatments, which might include radiation (such as that associated with chemotherapy). Furthermore, the EPA says that a cell could become cancerous if not repaired in the right way—in cases of exposure to ionizing radiation.

So, Does Bluetooth Technology Pose an Increased Cancer Risk?

The FDA states that Bluetooth technology falls under the non-ionizing radiation category, noting that this kind of radiation is not cancer-causing and has not been shown to be harmful when radio frequencies do not exceed exposure limits.

Still, conclusions about Bluetooth and its cancer risk possibility are under review. As of March 2022, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) agrees with the FDA about the effects of non-ionizing radiation on health. However, the NIEHS notes that, although research is inconclusive about radio frequency radiation and negative health effects (for cell phones specifically), more research is needed.

What To Do if You're Worried About Radiation From Wireless Devices

The federal government does set safety standards for the amount of radiation that can be emitted from consumer devices, and Bluetooth devices are well below that level—even when placed directly against the skin. Plus, Foster pointed out, the AirPod antenna that actually receives and transmits radio waves doesn't sit inside the ear canal; it's in the section that remains outside and extends down, below the ear.

For Bluetooth technology specifically, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) said in its 2017 guidelines that wireless devices should be removed from the head and ears when not in use. However, if people want to be overly cautious, Foster added, they can simply stop using wireless headphones. "But they should also be aware they're getting similar exposure from their cell phones and from other Bluetooth devices," Foster said.

The 2019 Medium article also made a smart suggestion for those wishing to lower their exposure to radiation: Stick with wired headphones instead of wireless, suggested Joel Moskowitz, PhD, the director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California at Berkeley. You may need an adapter to make those old-school earbuds work with your phone, but you won't have to charge them.

And no matter what type of headphones you use, Foster pointed out, it's important to watch out for health risks that may be more immediate than tiny amounts of radiation. "If you're walking around with your earbuds blasting and you walk out in front of a car, that's a lot more dangerous than some theoretical tumor 20 years down the road," Foster said.

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