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Last Updated on October 2, 2023
The Rise in Popularity of Wireless Bluetooth Earbuds
In 2017, over 368 million headphones and headsets were sold worldwide. Back in 2016, sales of wireless Bluetooth headphones surpassed that of wired headphones for the first time in history, amounting to 54% of revenue and 17% of total headphone sales.
That was the year Apple released wireless AirPods, which have become Apple’s most popular accessory. AirPods are truly wireless, unlike other headphones that have a short wire connecting the earbuds.
This year, the company could sell 50 to 55 million pairs, which is estimated to double by 2021. This doesn’t even take into account the number of knock-off AirPods that have hit the market. Future generations of AirPods are set to release, which could grow sales even more than estimated.
According to market researchers, “Consumers are already embracing a wireless future.” Many people enjoy the convenience of Bluetooth, as it is wireless and hands-free.
Yet at the same time, some consumers are cautious about these wireless headphones. Understandably so, when you consider how they operate and the EMF radiation emissions they produce. Bluetooth is a form of radio frequency radiation (2.4 to 2.485 GHz) that works by sending data (audio, video, text etc) through the air over short distances.
Most wireless Bluetooth headphones are “Class 2” which can emit energy up to 33 feet (the effective range of Bluetooth varies due to propagation conditions, material coverage, production sample variations, antenna configurations, and battery conditions).
Radio frequencies are low-energy radiation emissions, and recent research has made it clear that radio frequency radiation emitted by cell phones and mobile devices can have a multitude of biological effects, ranging from DNA fragmentation to neurological damage.
While it is true that Bluetooth generally operates at lower intensities than cellular signals (which themselves have been linked to a number of health risks) wireless headphones are designed to be placed directly in the ear, next to the head for long periods of time. This increases the contact time that EMF radiation has to your head and brain tissue.
Dangers of EMF Exposure to the Head
Your head is an ideal antenna as it is filled with conductive soft tissue and salty fluid. Your cells communicate through electrochemical signals, which can be interrupted by external electromagnetic fields. The following are just a few of the health concerns related to EMF exposure to the head:
Dr. Andrew Goldsworthy, a retired lecturer from the Imperial College of London, one of the top three UK universities after Oxford and Cambridge, described “The Biological Effects of Weak Electromagnetic Fields” in an extensive publication dated March 2012. Short wavelengths, as well as the rapid rise and fall times of the pulses emitted by Bluetooth and cell phones, can damage human cells by throwing off calcium ion signaling and causing ion channels to leak. This cellular disruption can cause irreparable DNA damage, which increases cancer risk. With this exposure close to the head, the blood-brain barrier thins and weakens, causing neuronal damage.
Dr. Goldsworthy also linked excessive EMF exposure to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) through the same mechanisms. EMFs are purported to create unscheduled calcium leakage into cells, making cells hypersensitive and more likely to transmit spurious signals. This may cloud normal mental activity, triggering random thoughts and contribute to a loss of concentration, which is typical for those with ADHD. Children are thought to be especially at risk, as their brains are still developing.
Headaches & Depression
On Reddit, a popular Internet community forum, users have posted threads describing the onset of headaches from use of headphones. Other forums have users self-reporting similar symptoms. Recently, Dr. Martin Pall of Washington State University published an article in September 2016 in the Journal of Neuroanatomy (Pall 2016) to help summarize current research to-date on EMF radiation and its neuropsychiatric effects, including those linked to depression and headaches. He essentially describes the mechanism by which EMFs act and cites numerous reports. Some observations he made include:
- EMFs were shown to activate VGCC (voltage-gated calcium ion channels) in the brain and these channels are responsible for neural communication.
- Animal studies showed that low level exposure had a wide range of impact.
- Genetic studies indicated VCGG cause widespread neuropsychiatric effects.
In a review of over 165 clinically relevant studies, a Brazilian study found that cell phone radiation emissions may trigger the onset or worsening of tinnitus. Tinnitus is the perception of noise or ringing in the ears, and affects as much as 20% of the population. According to the Mayo Clinic, tinnitus is not a condition itself, but an underlying condition that can be related to age-related hearing loss, ear injury or circulatory system disorder.
WATCH VIDEO: Are Bluetooth and Wireless Headphones Safe?
Alternatives to Wireless Headphones
Obviously, none of these symptoms and conditions are desirable, and are just a sample of potential impacts on your health. Watch our video below to learn more about the health effects of these wireless devices.
While wireless might be convenient for workouts and when you need to listen hands-free, both wireless headphones and the new wireless earpod option put you at a greater risk for experiencing the negative health effects listed above.
Standard Bluetooth headphones have a wire running from one earbud to the other, with a transmitter located at the nape of the neck. The Bluetooth transmitter is the source of radiation emissions, so while all Bluetooth headphones can be harmful after a long period of time, the truly wireless earpods with Bluetooth transmitters sitting directly in your ear canal are the most harmful headphone option.
Seeking to avoid such risks, many people are exploring alternatives to wireless technology. You can stay relatively safe from EMF emissions by using traditional wired headphones, or by converting the EMF electrical signal to an acoustic signal with air tube headphones.
Traditional Wired Headphones
Headphones operate by being plugged into “a signal source”, such as a radio or mobile phone. The sound coming from the source is converted into an electrical signal. As all electrical signals do, this emits a low form of EMF radiation, called Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) Radiation.
The signal is conducted through the headphone wire up to the earpieces, which release the signal through a speaker as an acoustic tone. As a result, EMF radiation is present throughout the entire source-to-ear process, although it is confined and less damaging then a Bluetooth signal that travels from point A to point B through the air.
Most people do not consider headphones as a potential source of harm. After all, it’s “just wires.” Yet, radiation strength dramatically increases as a function of its proximity to source. Essentially, all headphone earpieces are EMF-emitters stationed right next to some pretty important cells and tissues.
Being a curious bunch, some scientists have put their headphones to the test. They have published articles and even a number of YouTube videos, illustrating the amount of radiation released by traditional headphones. In one recorded test, the headphone EMF emissions reached levels over 3 mG, a warning threshold almost double the amount recognized as dangerous. For example, governmental agency studies have shown an association between household EMF exposure and a measurable increase risk of childhood leukemia at average exposures above 3 mG.
EMF Radiation-Free Air Tube Headphones
If you like listening to music or podcasts, but don’t like increasing your risk for certain ailments, you may want to consider non-traditional headphones such as EMF-free air tube headphones.
EMF-free headphones place small speakers—usually located right against the ear—down and safely away from the head. The speakers convert the electrical signal to an acoustic one BEFORE the signal reaches your head, and sends this acoustic signal through flexible hollow air tubes to your earbuds, which are free of metal conductors. This allows sound to travel, but not EMF emissions.
When put under the same test as regular headphones, they do not emit the same radiation readout. In fact, the readout is essentially zero Gauss as no electrical conduction or EMF transmission is taking place.
EMF-free air tube headphones are a smart alternative to other headphones, as they provide peace of mind. Besides listening to speakers, they are perhaps the safest way to listen to audio, because they completely eliminate any exposure of EMF radiation to your head.
Of course, you can always just ditch the headphones altogether and use speakers. Just make sure that you either have wired speakers, or, if it’s a Bluetooth speaker, keep the speaker and your paired device away from your body.