Radiation sounds like an alarming word, and when paired with your favorite smart home devices, which are present in growing numbers in homes around the U.S., it's logical to wonder if there are any health risks that may arise from devices like your Nest thermostat, Ring doorbell, or even your beloved Echo Dot. Let’s explore what radiation smart home gadgets emit, whether they should be considered a perilous health risk, and what measures we can take to limit our exposure.
What is radiation?
At its simplest definition, radiation is the emission of energy from any source. Not all radiation is the same, though—it exists across a wide-ranging spectrum called the electromagnetic spectrum, and it ranges from low to high frequency (or energy).
High-energy radiation includes X-rays and gamma rays as well as UV ionizing radiation, which can damage DNA and lead to an increased risk of cancer (think nuclear reactors). On the other end, we find low-energy radiation, which is often called radiofrequency (RF) radiation and includes radio waves and microwaves.
Dr. Nikola Djordjevic from MedAlertHelp.org notes that RF radiation is a type of non-ionizing radiation, which means it doesn't have the power to break chemical bonds, damage DNA, or directly increase the risk of developing cancer.
What kind of signal does my device use?
On the packaging or instructions that came with your smart device, you’re likely to see phrases like “WiFi-enabled,” “Bluetooth connectivity,” or “Bluetooth LE.” The LE in Bluetooth LE stands for Low Energy and has the lowest energy output of the three, while WiFi has the highest energy due to the higher range needed to operate each device or gadget. WiFi has a stronger signal when compared to Bluetooth, and is often used in smart home devices such as your Echo Dot, your Ring Doorbell, or your Nest Thermostat (although Nest products use Bluetooth LE briefly during installation).
Also, it's important to remember that there are plenty of natural sources of RF radiation as well, including the sun, outer space, lightning storms, and a small fraction of radiation emitted from the earth itself. And whether you have any smart devices or not, you're likely exposed on the regular anyway from manmade sources, including commercial broadcasting (both TV and radio) and telecommunications facilities. Even the so-called dumb devices in your home, such as your microwave oven, expose you to radiation. Oh, and don’t forget about those radioactive bananas your kids love to eat.
However, as it's easy to surround yourself with smart home devices, it's natural to be a little concerned about potential risks, if there are any.
The health safety of smart home gadgets
We're probably A-OK in this department, explains Dr. Evan Sengbusch, president of Phoenix LLC, a nuclear laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. “Most consumer devices undergo rigorous testing to ensure that any radiation they emit is non-ionizing and thus does not pose a risk for DNA damage or a human health hazard,” he shares.
One of the concerns about this type of radiation, though, is that it can emit heat and make devices pretty hot. “They can heat up objects, but their penetration power is only skin deep,” says Dr. Djordjevic. “In fact, they can be therapeutic and have been used for over 100 years in diathermy because they cause muscle relaxation. However, they can also cause damage—a strong enough concentrated radio wave beam can penetrate the eye and cause cataracts.”
The jury's still out
Experts admit that there is not enough evidence to clearly rule that smart home devices are completely safe (even on the cancer risk front) or that they will definitely not damage our health in any way.
He suggests eliminating RF radiation-emitting devices completely from your bedroom, and limiting their use in your workspace as much as possible—just to be on the safe side, as these are the places you where you spend two-thirds of your day.
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), RF radiation is classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” (Group B) but this was based on a single study where there was a possible link to cell phone use and a specific type of brain tumor.
While this isn't absolute proof, the American Cancer Society notes that all studies to date have shown no definitive link between cell phone use and development of tumors, but admits there are limitations in the studies as this technology is relatively new and is also constantly changing.
As far as your smart home gadgets go? Since you don't hold them up to your ear, in your pocket, or near your body all the time like your cell phone, the risk is probably even less than when using your favorite handheld devices. While it isn't an absolute certainty that keeping these gadgets at arm's length will help, it definitely will not hurt.