Technology has advanced in every field, and headphones are one of the technologies where this rapid development is most evident because, during our lifetimes, most of us have owned more than one set of headphones. Each time you buy a new set or receive a set with another device such as a mobile phone, laptop, or tablet, the headphones are smaller, they have changed shape, the sound is crisp and clearer, and the connectivity is better. From giant cushioned headsets to barely visible earbuds, the race to develop ever more impressive headphones is a keen one. One of the latest developments in recent years has been the advent of wireless headphones. But as the use of wireless headphones has increased, so too have concerns about their safety. With headlines across the world proclaiming the dangers of wireless headphones, consumers keen to purchase the latest generation of headphone technology have joined with experts to ask the big question; are wireless headphones safe, and if not, what can we do?
How do Wireless Headphones Work?
Wireless headphones work by communicating with an electronic device such as a mobile phone, tablet, or computer through Bluetooth technology. Bluetooth connections are different to other wireless connections that you might use to connect to the internet, even though they appear to work in the same way. However, Bluetooth connections rely on radio-wave technology. It was designed to be used for temporary connections, like hooking up your mobile phone to your car radio, so you can talk hands-free or using a wireless mouse or keyboard with a tablet computer. The idea is that Bluetooth connections are easy to link up and can be connected or disconnected to form a mini-network of devices wherever you need to. Bluetooth typically only works over short distances. For it to work, the devices you are using must have built-in radio antennas. Most of the gadgets we use have these transmitters and are ‘Bluetooth enabled.’
The radio waves used to connect Bluetooth headphones to a device are low-power waves. A chip inside the radio enables the headphones to pair up with an audio source. Audio sources such as phones, tablets, digital music players, etc., broadcast the radio waves and the headphones pick this up. By linking a device and wireless headphones together, you are basically choosing to put both devices on the same frequency so they are able to communicate via radio waves. It sounds very simple and very useful, so why are so many scientists and experts of electromagnetic radiation asking are wireless headphones safe?
Are Wireless Headphones Safe to Use?
In 2015, over 240 scientists from 42 countries wrote to the WHO to raise their shared concerns about the potential negative outcomes to human health when exposed to electromagnetic radiation coming from devices using wireless technology for long periods. Among the things that these experts were worried about were the risk of damage to DNA, cancer, neurological conditions, cognitive issues, and fertility. These experts were asking that there should be more research into the potential dangers and better guidance on what constitutes safe levels of exposure.
We have been using mobile phones for decades now, and researchers are still unsure of the long-term effects of this technology. Some studies have shown that there is increased risk of certain types of cancer from chronic exposure to the EMFs associated with mobile phone technology. New information is coming to surface all the time that highlights the newly discovered risks of technology that we previously believed to be safe. However, wireless technology is still relatively new. It is certainly new enough that no long-term studies can have been conducted into the potential dangers it poses to human health.
Special Absorption Rates and Headphone Concerns
Wireless headphones are often considered safe because they emit a low level of radiation. But are wireless headphones safe when used for long periods? Scientists are concerned not about how much radiation they emit but rather the issue of specific absorption rates (also known as SAR). This is about how much radiation the body absorbs. Concerns about wireless headphones are all about placement. Headphones are literally wrapped around the head – the very area most at risk from electromagnetic radiation -, and they are designed to be comfortable enough to wear for long periods, perhaps far long than we would even hold a mobile phone to our ear. The dangers of long-term, or chronic, exposure to low levels of radiation that might fall within the hotly contested safe limits are not known. In-ear headphones, also known as buds, are of even more concern because they are placed just inside the ear. Are wireless headphones safe when used inside the actual ear canal? There is no knowing what harm in-ear headphones like this may cause because there simply have not been studies done to prove that they are safe. It is not surprising that experts in the field are concerned that current guidelines on safe levels of radiation do not go far enough. Evidence suggests that exposure to EMFs, even at low levels, builds up over time, and damage could accumulate.
There is undoubtedly a need for more data on the dangers of EMFs associated with wireless technology before we can answer our original question, ‘are wireless headphones safe?’ Scientists are lobbying for stricter guidelines and more research, but in the meantime, it makes sense to limit the use of these gadgets and do what we can to reduce EMFs and our exposure to them.