Have a pacemaker and an iPhone? Could be a deadly combination

Apple itself has issued a warning that its newest iPhone could attack your heart — literally.

CSO > Hands connecting halves of a broken heart.
Alex Ugalek / Getty Images

Forget about all those contradictory reports about whether smartphones could give you brain cancer. Apple itself this week issued a warning that the iPhone 12 could attack your heart.

The Jan. 23 Apple advisory said iPhone magnets can affect “medical devices such as implanted pacemakers and defibrillators.” Fear not, though. There are only about 1.3 million Americans with pacemakers, a figure growing rapidly each year. Defibrillators are also common, but I couldn’t find any reliable stats for them.

The warning pointed out that the latest iPhones contain magnets, radios and “components” (when Apple makes a point of using vague terms like components, I get nervous) that emit electromagnetic fields. The company's new MagSafe charging accessories also contain magnets and some contain radios.

“These magnets and electromagnetic fields might interfere with medical devices,” the advisory said.

Apple then offered up something a bit confusing: “Though all iPhone 12 models contain more magnets than prior iPhone models, they're not expected to pose a greater risk of magnetic interference to medical devices than prior iPhone models.”

Hold on a moment. If magnets cause the issue, wouldn’t more magnets cause more of an issue? Do the iPhone 12 models include weaker magnets, perhaps, but more of them? Apple’s not saying.

Apple continued: “Medical devices such as implanted pacemakers and defibrillators might contain sensors that respond to magnets and radios when in close contact. To avoid any potential interactions with these devices, keep your iPhone and MagSafe accessories a safe distance away from your device — more than 6 inches apart or more than 12 inches apart if wirelessly charging.”

When walking around, many people place their phones in a coat breast pocket, a shirt pocket or in a pants pocket. The first two would definitely be fewer than six inches from an implanted heart device and the pants pocket could easily be, depending on the person’s height and build. In other words, where exactly does Apple expect people with these medical devices to put their iPhones when walking?

When the wording comes from a medical journey and not Apple, the words get more alarming. A January 2021 story in Heart Rhythm Journal, for example, said: “When an external magnet is applied to a defibrillator, high voltage shock therapy for ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation is suspended.”

That’s not good, so the publication tested it on a patient.

What happened? “Once the iPhone was brought close to the (defibrillator) over the left chest area, immediate suspension of ICD therapies was noted, which persisted for the duration of the test. This was reproduced multiple times with different positions of the phone over the pocket.”

This, the publication noted, “can potentially inhibit lifesaving therapy in a patient, particularly while carrying the phone in upper pockets. Contemporary studies have shown minimal risk of electromagnetic interference with ICDs and prior smartphones without magnetic arrays.”

The journal also noted that “a recent case report highlighted magnetic interference with a fitness tracker wrist band deactivating a (defibrillator) up to distances of 2.4 cm,” which is roughly one inch.

If Apple is so concerned, why not offer a special case designed to block the magnetic signals? It can certainly charge for this case, which could slide onto the phone when needed. How about offering a non-magnetic version of the new line so that the phones wouldn’t, well, kill their customers?

While it's helpful Apple has warned customers about the problem, more helpful would be a solution from the company that deals with the issue.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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