How safe are Ear buds?

The Maze, Safety Pin, Design icons

4 minute read


That seems like a surprising headline – but it’s a logical risk if you stop to think about it.

In product safety we always caution parents not to leave any loose objects in a cot which a baby may put in its mouth. Now it seems we may need to spread the word to people who like using wireless ear buds in bed.

Getting an ear bud stuck in your throat may be an unusual occurrence. But, it’s not the only ear bud safety risk – there’s a few more.

Choking risk

Ear bud safety

Let’s start with the physical hazard. This week we heard that a man in Boston is warning others not to go to sleep wearing wireless ear buds after he woke to find he couldn’t swallow any water. He then realised one of his ear buds was missing. A trip to the ER confirmed an ear bud was lodged in his oesophagus.

Maybe it’s better to listen on regular speakers as you go to bed, even if that means having to negotiate with your sleeping partner about what’s to be played …

And the size of ear buds was recognised as a children’s choking hazard when they first hit the market. Young children are known to put things in their mouth and there have been reports of kids choking on ear buds after they’re left lying around, or given to children too young to recognise the danger.

Do wireless ear buds affect your brain?

A lot of false information has be circulated around 5G (and even 3 or 4G) causing health issues. But don’t let that lead you into dismissing all safety messages on this topic.

Ear bud safety

Bluetooth devices emit low-frequency electromagnetic radiation (EMR), which is generally perceived to not cause adverse effects in humans. But while many Bluetooth devices are used in an indoor room where we move about, wireless headphones and ear buds are worn on the body right next to our brains.

The scientific jury is still out on the level of risk we face with EMR exposure. It’s all still relatively new technology, so there’s limited evidence to determine long term safety. In this case, it’s advisable to err on the side of caution, especially for the more vulnerable, such as children, teenagers and pregnant women.

The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer declared EMR to be a possible carcinogen back in 2011. Other concerns include neurological disorders and DNA damage. Pregnant women have also been advised to limit exposure due to an increased risk of losing the pregnancy and of bearing children with ADHD.

And, by the way, mobile phones emit more low-frequency EMR than headphones and ear buds, so care is also needed to manage the amount of exposure with phones held to the ear.

Turn that thing down!

The great benefit of headphones and ear buds is that others around don’t have to also listen (mostly). But one further, somewhat more obvious, risk is hearing damage.

As this article on TeensHealth points out, earbuds are really just tiny speakers you wear in your ears. It says chainsaws run at about 100 decibels and can cause damage within half an hour. An MP3 player at 70% of its top volume is about 85 decibels. Turning the volume up and listening for long periods of time can put you in real danger of permanent hearing loss. The article says this kind of hearing loss is becoming more of a problem among kids and teens. Tinnitus is also a risk.

Battery concerns

One other possible risk is exposure to the lithium ion battery that powers ear buds. If an ear bud is swallowed and lodges in the oesophagus (as we saw with the man in the headline), there is a small chance that the battery may become exposed to fluid and become activated. This would risk damage to the surrounding tissue, something we’ve seen with regular-sized button batteries. Dr Sean McGann, a Philadelphia emergency surgeon and spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians raised this issue in the article referenced above.

Safer practice – especially for children and teens

Wireless ear buds are a great innovation and they’ve become extremely popular. Between music, games, video streaming and podcasts, there’s so much to listen to on our phones.  Going wireless allows us to move around without getting tangled up in annoying cords. But using wired devices can reduce the level of direct radiation and is recommended by experts.

Health authorities recommend limiting time spent using wireless listening devices, but especially for children and teens whose brains are more sensitive to damage.

I know this can be a controversial topic and we still have much to learn. But I’ve heard it described as a giant experiment, perhaps the biggest ever, so I believe it’s worth exercising caution. All good things in moderation. Do your own research on authoritative websites and learn how best to protect your family and yourself.

Ear bud safety
Ear bud safety