Headlines range from: “Are AirPods and Other Bluetooth Headphones Safe?” to “Wireless headphones could ‘pump radiation into your brain and cause cancer.’” They are referring to a recent petition from to the World Health Organization (WHO) and signed by 250 scientists.

The spokesperson for this petition (at least the person I am seeing as most quoted) is Jerry Philips who is on the scientific advisory board for a group called Physicians for Safe Technology. The petition warns about the health risks for non-ionizing radiation from wireless devices, that current regulations and research are inadequate, and makes the following requests:

  1. children and pregnant women be protected;
  2. guidelines and regulatory standards be strengthened;
  3. manufacturers be encouraged to develop safer technology;
  4. utilities responsible for the generation, transmission, distribution, and monitoring of electricity maintain adequate power quality and ensure proper electrical wiring to minimize harmful ground current;
  5. the public be fully informed about the potential health risks from electromagnetic energy and taught harm reduction strategies;
  6. medical professionals be educated about the biological effects of electromagnetic energy and be provided training on treatment of patients with electromagnetic sensitivity;
  7. governments fund training and research on electromagnetic fields and health that is independent of industry and mandate industry cooperation with researchers;
  8. media disclose experts’ financial relationships with industry when citing their opinions regarding health and safety aspects of EMF-emitting technologies; and
  9. white-zones (radiation-free areas) be established.

What should we make of this petition and the included requests? First we need to recognize that this petition is coming from scientists with a particular point of view, not a general or all-purpose scientific or medical body. This does not mean their position is wrong, but it does make me more skeptical and concerned that they may be biased toward justifying their existence, rather than taking a totally objective look at the evidence.

There is also a huge red flag in the above requests that is strong evidence for such bias – #6 which refers to “patients with electromagnetic sensitivity” (EMS). On the PST website they openly defend the existence of EMS and multiple chemical sensitivity. This is highly problematic, and does not fill me with confidence that we are getting an objective scientific assessment of the evidence.

EMS refers to people who allegedly have a heightened sensitivity to the presence of electromagnetic radiation. We’ve discussed EMS before – the bottom line is that there is no evidence this condition is real. In fact when tested in a blinded condition, those with this alleged syndrome are unable to tell if they are being exposed to an electromagnetic field or not. The current best interpretation of the evidence is that EMS is not a real physiological syndrome. Citing it as if it is established therefore calls the credibility of this petition into question.

Reading the petition and the PST website feels like I am reading something that warns about GMOs or vaccines. I am not putting this in the exact same category, but what they have in common is the cherry picking of evidence for possible adverse effects, and then listing them as if they are established and non-controversial.

Further, organizations dedicated to warning about a potential health risk tend to confuse hazard with risk. A hazard is something that can potentially cause harm in the right setting. Risk refers to the actual probability of harm with the relevant exposure. The best analogy I read was a shark in a tank at the aquarium. The shark is a potential hazard, but the risk is pretty low as long as you stay outside the tank.

With radiofrequency or non-ionizing radiation, there are two questions. The first is – what is the potential hazard of exposure? Are there any biological effects that can potentially be a problem? The second question, which is more important, is – what is the risk from actual exposure to radiofrequency waves? What does the evidence say about hazard and risk from non-ionizing radiation?

The National Cancer Institute has an excellent summary of the research, which I read through, and there is no reason for me to replicate their thorough summary here. They also list the opinions of many scientific and regulatory organizations, reflecting the consensus of opinion. With respect to hazard they point out that the only biological effect that has been clearly established is tissue heating. This is why current regulations focus on heating, and provide safety limits.

No other biological effect has been clearly established. The FDA specifically points out that other effects have not been replicated in the research. Phillips and his cosigners, however, act as if all the biological effects are established.

With regard to risk there have been several large epidemiological studies with cell phones and cancer. The research focuses on cell phones because they are extremely common and have been so for over two decades. The research fails to consistently show any correlation between degree of cell phone exposure and risk of cancer or tumors.

So – the hazard seems to be limited, and the risk must be small to have eluded clear detection so far. But – we can never prove zero risk, and technology is always evolving. Therefore it is reasonable to call for more research as we further adopt wireless technology.

Of the requests above, the only ones I fully agree with are that scientists need to disclose contacts with industry (for the record, I have none), and more research is needed. Of course children and pregnant women need to be protected – but what does that mean? That is too vague to be useful. I also agree with public education, but not with what the petitioners want, which I think constitutes misinformation and unjustified fearmongering.

I think the best recommendation for right now is that, while there is probably little to no risk, if you want to make sure you are minimizing possible risk then use wired earbuds for electronic devices, rather than putting them up to your ear.

We are living in an increasingly wireless society, and the change is happening relatively quickly. We therefore do need to monitor for potential health effects and continue to do proper research. But so far the apparent risk from non-ionizing radiation from radiofrequency devices appears to be little to none, which is reassuring. Premature warnings that distort the current scientific consensus are not helpful. They tend to cause unwarranted fear, which leads to counterproductive laws restricting useful technology, and unfair lawsuits.

Even for an organization dedicated to assessing the risk of radiofrequency technology, it is advisable not to overstate the science, lest you lose credibility and may actually hurt the cause you are fighting for. I think this will be the ultimate result of this petition.


Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.