Wearable technology – is it safe?

“A big drawback of current Wearable Technologies is that they tend to be manufactured from inflexible materials making them uncomfortable and unattractive to consumers”, finds researcher and innovator Dr. Will Whittow from Loughborough University. Finding the way to combine functionality with comfort and aesthetic appeal in Wearable Technologies is one of the main research focuses of Will and his colleagues in the Wireless Communications Research Group and the Centre for Mobile Communications Research. He has been a very active contributor to a discussion about radiation and technologies worn close to the body in our Wearable Technologies group on LinkedIn and therefore we asked him to answer the following question for us – Wearable technology – is it safe?

Historically, there have been concerns that electromagnetic energy from mobile phones, base stations and WiFi, when absorbed by the body, may harm human health. While thousands of peer-reviewed academic papers have been published to investigate these on-going issues, the wider public have not always been kept in the loop and suspicions around the risks of electromagnetic energy continue. Understandably, these suspicions, often based on urban myths and newspaper headlines rather than rigorous science, stimulate fear and resistance to the acceptance of new wearable technologies.

So are electromagnetic waves dangerous? Will says: “At very high power levels, they can be dangerous – as shown by the power of microwave ovens. However, microwave ovens typically operate at 800W, whereas a mobile phone or most Wearable Technologies will have a maximum output power a thousand times less than this. Whilst it is impossible to prove categorically that exposure to these low-level electromagnetic fields is perfectly safe, it is comforting to know that, over the last 25 years, no statistical evidence from hospital data has emerged to suggest that electromagnetic waves at typical power levels increase rates of certain conditions.”

It is important to remember that mobile communication devices emit less power when sending signals over shorter distances. In most cases, Wearable Technologies will only be transmitting data from one part of the body to another. This means that the power levels are extremely low, roughly 1/1000th of a mobile phone. Ninety percent of us already carry a mobile phone in our pocket or close to the body all day. It seems reasonable to assume that consumer Wearable Technologies, with smaller communication ranges and hence their considerably lower power levels, carry even less risk than mobile phones. Any new, commercially available product that communicates wirelessly must be rigorously assessed before getting to market, and therefore Wearable Technologies will have a maximum power level comparable to a mobile phone and will generally emit much lower power levels.

The many lifestyle advantages modern technology and 24-7 wireless connectivity offer us are generally considered to outweigh any disadvantages caused by low-level risks. Wearable Technologies are likely to be a valued feature of our future communication technologies, blurring the boundaries between form and function to devise technologies that are not only highly functioning but also aesthetically pleasing and comfortable to wear.