Ask the Doctors: Wired or wireless earbuds? It's your call
Q: Are those wireless earbuds everyone seems to be wearing nowadays safe? I heard that some international researchers are petitioning the World Health Organization about them because the signals that they emit may be hurting our brains. Should we be concerned?
A: When it comes to wireless devices, which have been swiftly and near-universally adopted over the last two decades, advances have far outpaced our ability to monitor or even understand the potential health effects and consequences.
Wi-Fi, which first became commercially available in 1997, is one of the fastest-growing technologies in history. Cellphones quickly moved from a pricey niche product to the ubiquitous pocket computers of today, their telephone functions now barely an afterthought. (Fun fact — the first truly wireless phone call was made in 1973 on a "mobile" phone that weighed 2.5 pounds.) And now, with the advent of wireless earbuds, phone manufacturers are bringing wireless tech into even closer and more sustained contact with the body.
At issue are EMFs, or electric and magnetic fields. These fall into two categories — ionizing and non-ionizing. Ionizing EMFs are high-level radiation with the potential to cause damage to cells and DNA. Non-ionizing EMFs, which are low-level radiation, are the ones generated by wireless devices. Non-ionizing EMFs haven't been proven to be harmful to humans. But they haven't been shown to be harmless, either, and so the debate rages on.
As you point out in your letter, some scientists and researchers are raising an alarm. In 2015, a group of 250 doctors and scientists who specialize in EMF research signed a petition directed at the WHO and the United Nations. In it, they state their belief that the non-ionizing EMFs released by wireless devices pose a range of health hazards. These include cancer, memory problems and reproductive and genetic disorders. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, does not consider the low-level EMFs released by cellphones and wireless devices to be a health hazard.
The debate about non-ionizing EMFs doesn't hinge on the power of the energy fields generated by our wireless devices, which everyone agrees are on the low end of the non-ionizing EMF spectrum. Instead, it focuses on the effects of sustained exposure from the growing number of wireless devices we're letting into our lives. Now, with wireless earbuds being placed into the ear canal, the concern is that we have moved from being bathed in non-ionizing EMFs from a distance to directing them into our bodies and close to our brains.
As we mentioned earlier, the results of ongoing research into the health effects of low-level EMFs remain mixed at this time. Scientists point out that Bluetooth devices, which include wireless earbuds, give off less than 10 percent of the radiation of cellphones. But if you're at all worried, skip the wireless earbuds and stick with the old-school wired ones. Yes, it's true that a number of cellphone manufacturers have ditched the headphone jack in their devices in recent years, but you can get an adapter that lets you use wired earbuds or headphones.
Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.
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