Wearables and Health Concerns

The New York Times has published an article by Nick Bilton on Wearables in the Style section that tackles possible health concerns with the Apple Watch – surprisingly, it reads more like click-bait than a serious analysis:

We have long suspected that cellphones, which give off low levels of radiation, could lead to brain tumors, cancer, disturbed blood rhythms and other health problems if held too close to the body for extended periods.

Yet here we are in 2015, with companies like Apple and Samsung encouraging us to buy gadgets that we should attach to our bodies all day long.

According to Bilton, lingering suspicions about cell phones seem to be grounds for greater concerns about the wave of Wearable devices coming from Apple and Samsung. Reinforced with a scary image, the article cites the “arguably unbiased” results from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a World Health Organization panel of 31 scientists from 14 countries. That would be fine if it were true, but the panel relied largely on the work of one Swedish scientist, Lennart Hardell. The vast majority of studies indicate a “lack of association” between cell phone use and brain cancer.

However, the real surprise is that the article draws on the work of Joseph Mercola, a controversial osteopathic physician (easy to google the controversy around him) who is antivaccine and markets a variety of dietary supplements on his website. Bilton writes:

But what does all this research tell the Apple faithful who want to rush out and buy an Apple Watch, or the Google and Windows fanatics who are eager to own an alternative smartwatch?

Dr. Joseph Mercola, a physician who focuses on alternative medicine and has written extensively about the potential harmful effects of cellphones on the human body, said that:

‘The radiation really comes from the 3G connection on a cellphone, so devices like the Jawbone Up and Apple Watch should be O.K., . . . But if you’re buying a watch with a cellular chip built in, then you’ve got a cellphone attached to your wrist.’ And that, he said, is a bad idea.

There’s nothing wrong with a little skepticism on what mobile devices may do to our bodies, but it needs to be based it on the work of professionals with medical credibility. As ScienceBlogs argues:

Bilton ought to be ashamed, and the editors of the NYT ought to be mortified. Not only does he recycle every dubious cell phone-cancer trope out there, but he couples that misinterpretation of existing scientific evidence with quoting a quack who sells supplements.

We will be awash in a sea of Wearable devices within a year or so, and baring some concrete evidence missing in the NY Times article, the real challenges we face will be social – data privacy, interactions with others, etc. – and not health related. The New York Times can do better, even for an article in the Style section.