Earbuds & Headphones: The Impact on Your Health

Can You Hear Me Now?

Thinking about our iconic old friends, the portable cassette player and the portable CD player, may arouse nostalgia of simpler days. The idea of being able to listen to a tape or CD on the move was mind-blowingly exciting and, oh, so cool. But the world’s first portable, compact, private-listening devices also ushered in the demand for portable, compact, lightweight headphones. This independent listening experience was fresh and unique, and humankind would never go back.

Fast-forward four decades later, and people are as in love with headphones as ever. Headphone and headset sales have steadily increased, with 400 million being sold worldwide in 2019. The dominance of Bluetooth headphones came about in mid-2016, when Bluetooth headphone sales beat wired headphone sales. Finally, we were able to listen to music without the inhibiting attachment of a cord, and this new technology was received with open arms — and wallets.

Even though the use of these wireless wonders is prevalent from home offices to gyms, are they actually safe? What hidden health hazards, if any, do earbuds and headphones pose?

Electromagnetic Radiation from Bluetooth Is Possible

Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are energy waves produced by X-ray machines, microwaves and many electronic devices we use — such as cellphones, computers and, yes, Bluetooth devices. They all emit a low- to mid-frequency amount of non-ionizing EMFs. Ultimately, when it comes to wireless headphones, the dangers aren’t all that clear. Despite extremely low-frequency EMFs being possibly carcinogenic to humans, nearly 200 international scientists have still not observed a direct connection. The main concern regarding non-ionizing EMFs is that although they are low-frequency, electronics and power lines are essentially always “on” and oftentimes all around us.

So while Bluetooth devices give off only small amounts of EMFs, it is the length of time used and the physiological location of these devices that make them potentially more dangerous than smartphones. While there isn’t concrete evidence that Bluetooth devices cause harm to humans, it’s still probably a good idea to limit Bluetooth technology use.

High Volume Can Cause Hearing Loss

On the flip side, noise-induced hearing loss has been scientifically linked to headphone use. Listening to prolonged high-volume sounds using headphones or earbuds may cause permanent inner ear damage, the same way that standing next to a speaker at a rock concert can. This type of hearing loss occurs due to loud sound waves damaging the stereocilia (very small structures found on top of inner ears’ hair cells), prohibiting the hair cells’ ability to send signals to the brain. It’s very important to be aware of how loud the volume is when using headphones or earbuds of any type.

Remember the rule: The longer you listen, the lower the volume.

Safe Options and Tips

Oftentimes, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you’d like to protect yourself and your loved ones from potential health hazards, consider these headphone and earbud tips:

  • Use the speakerphone option instead of opting for wireless earbuds. There are also headphone extension cords available to provide several more feet of movement away from the device.
  • Purchase high-quality, wired headphones or earbuds. Their better sound quality may prevent you from having to increase the volume to hear better. Also, if you want to play it safe, choose wired headphones and earbuds over Bluetooth versions.
  • Remember the rule: The longer you listen, the lower the volume. If you plan on using earbuds or headphones for 90 minutes, don’t have the volume up past 80 percent. Then decrease the volume from there if you plan to use the headphones for longer than 90 minutes.

It’s wise to be extremely careful with what we expose our bodies to. While there currently may not be enough scientific evidence to ban Bluetooth earbuds, if you find yourself concerned about them, then use a pair of wired headphones. Help prevent inner ear damage by using high-quality headphones or keeping the volume to a moderate level. Even though we may feel like we can’t live without our mobile devices and headphones, remember that once upon a time, not too long ago, we did.

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