(CNN)Apple’s new iPhone 7 will ditch the ubiquitous headphone jack, senior vice president of marketing Phil Schiller announced Wednesday at the company’s keynote event in San Francisco.
Many tech writers are touting the positive implications of this seismic shift for cell phones: better sound quality, a thinner design and superior water resistance, to name a few.
But the new wireless AirPods (which will be available for purchase as a premium accessory) will effectively put radio transceivers in your ears, a decision that could impact your health.
“I think it’s unfortunate, because Apple themselves acknowledges in their fine print — often hidden — that you need to keep cell phones … away from the ear, and most people don’t do that,” says Dr. Anthony Miller, senior adviser to the Environmental Health Trust, an activist group that studies radiation and cell phone usage.
Most people talk on their cell phones while holding them directly in contact with their ear, and Apple does make warnings regarding radio frequency (RF) exposure available to consumers, but it’s buried in the legal section of the company’s website. You can also find it on your iOS by going to Settings -> General -> About -> Legal -> RF Exposure.
For the penultimate iPhone, the 6s, Apple recommends: “To reduce exposure to RF energy, use a hands-free option, such as the built in speakerphone, the supplied headphones or other similar accessories. Carry iPhone at least 5mm away from your body to ensure exposure levels remain at, or below, the as-tested levels.”
While wireless headphones do, in effect, increase the distance between your cell phone and your head, they are in reality just replacing one radio-transmitting device with another. With all new iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus purchases, Apple says it will include wired Lightning headphones, as well as an adapter for those consumers who wish to continue using their existing 3.5mm wired headphones. But for many users, necessitating this extra step will serve as a catalyst to make the switch to Bluetooth.
In 2011, the World Health Organization classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans, “based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use.”
The RF of any wireless device — a cell phone, Bluetooth headphones or a wireless router — emits non-ionizing radiation. These devices aren’t as dangerous as those that emit ionizing radiation, such as X-ray machines, but some experts remain wary of them nonetheless.
“The biggest problem we have is that we know most environmental factors take several decades of exposure before we really see the consequences,” Dr. Keith Black, chairman of the neurosurgery department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told CNN when the news broke.
“What microwave radiation does, in most simplistic terms, is similar to what happens to food in microwaves, essentially cooking the brain,” Black said. “So in addition to leading to a development of cancer and tumors, there could be a whole host of other effects like cognitive memory function, since the memory temporal lobes are where we hold our cell phones.”
In May, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a partial report, based on experiments in rats and mice, on potential health hazards from cell phone radiofrequency radiation.
CNN typically does not report on animal studies, because the results often don’t translate to humans. However, these rare, aggressive, malignant tumors that occurred in male rats are the very same tumors found in epidemiologic studies in humans using cell phones for the longest period of time.
“The reason they released a partial report was because the senior scientist leading the study realized how extraordinarily important those results were,” says Dr. Devra Davis, founder and president of the Environmental Health Trust. “There is no other substance I know of where results like this have occurred in the National Toxicology Program.”
HHS says the complete results from all of the rat and mice studies will be available for peer review and public comment by the end of 2017.
For now, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says, “If there is a risk of being exposed to radiofrequency energy (RF) from cell phones — and at this point we do not know that there is — it is probably very small.” Still, if you are at all concerned about your exposure, the FDA recommends reducing the amount of time spent using your cell phone, as well as using the speakerphone function or a wired headset to maximize the distance between your head and your cell phone.
“My understanding is that the current generation of phones contain more sophisticated accelerometers that indicate when the phone is held next to the head and automatically put the phone on the lowest power possible, in order to both save battery life and reduce [RF] exposure to the brain or body, which would indicate a recognition of the need to reduce exposures directly to people,” said Davis, who is also a visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Apple did not immediately respond to CNN’s request to confirm the existence of this technology, or its purpose.
CTIA, the nonprofit organization that represents the wireless industry, strongly disputes the idea that RF energy adversely affects the health of mobile phone users. “The scientific consensus, based on peer-reviewed evidence in the US and a number of other countries, indicates that wireless devices do not pose a public health risk for adults or children.” It does, however, advise “those with concerns … to place more distance between their body and the source of the RF, such as using a hands-free device, and reducing their talk time.”
Like Davis, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent and practicing neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta says he always uses a wired headset when talking on his cell phone.
“It’s a pretty simple thing to do, and nearly eliminates all exposure from the cell phone,” said Gupta.
Miller, a former World Health Organization adviser and self-proclaimed Mac aficionado, said he uses a wired internet connection in lieu of Wi-Fi whenever possible. He hardwires his desktop at home and, when he is forced to use a laptop while traveling, always places it on a tabletop instead of on his lap.
“With phones today, we’re kind of where we were with cars in the ’60s,” says Davis. “Some people said we needed seatbelts and airbags; now everyone agrees we do.”
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