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Gadgets Can Pose Risks to Pacemakers

American Heart Association cautions against keeping phones, other electronic devices near chest due to magnets

Having electronics like smartphones and ear bud chargers near your chest can put your pacemaker at risk.
Charles O'Rear / Getty Images

 

People fitted with pacemakers or other implanted cardiac devices (ICD) should avoid keeping portable electronic devices — including pens and earbud charging cases — in chest pockets because some contain strong magnets that may interfere with these medical devices, cautions a new study published in Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology.

“Heart patients should be aware of these risks, and their doctor should tell them to be careful with these electronic devices with magnets,” lead study author Corentin Féry, a research engineer at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland, said in a statement. 

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Previous research has found that the magnetic field produced by strong magnets in some newer smartphones is strong enough that if it is held within an inch of a pacemaker it can interfere with the ability of the device to deliver lifesaving shocks. 

The latest study found similar results from other portable electronic devices containing strong magnets, including: 

  • Apple AirPods Pro wireless charging case
  • Microsoft Surface Pen
  • Apple Pencil 2nd Generation

How the study worked

The researchers measured the magnetic field strength of these products at various distances, then determined the distance at which the portable electronic device would cause a defibrillator to malfunction through tests using five defibrillators from two representative manufacturers.

The results showed that when the devices come within about an inch of the implanted pacemakers it is possible for the strong magnets to interfere with them. The maximum distance where this is possible was found to be around 2 centimeters (0.78 inches) from the Apple products or 2.9 centimeters (1.14 inches) from the Microsoft Surface Pen.

“If you carry a portable electronic device close to your chest and have a history of tachycardia [rapid heartbeat] with an ICD, strong magnets in these devices could disable your cardioverter defibrillator,” Féry said.

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What the AHA recommends

The American Heart Association has previously recommended that cellphones be kept at least six inches away from ICDs or pacemakers — advising people to avoid storing their phone in chest pockets and, when in use, to hold the phone to the ear opposite the implant. The new study points to the need to consider other portable devices that may contain strong magnets.

“Patients with cardiac electronic implantable devices should be instructed to keep all electronic devices that can generate a magnetic field several inches from their pacemakers or ICDs,” Mark A. Estes, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiology Fellowship Program at the Heart and Vascular Institute of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and an American Heart Association volunteer, said in a statement.

“These devices can cause a problem when carried in your shirt or jacket pocket in front of the chest, as well as when you are lying on the couch and resting the electronic device on your chest, or if you fall asleep with the electronic device,” Féry added. “The main thing to remember is that any electronic device may be a danger, especially ones with a magnet inside.”

The researchers are planning to test other portable electronic devices — including e-cigarettes and other pencils for tablets — for potential magnetic interference with an ICD. Further research is also needed to see if the devices interfere with devices that have been implanted in people.

“This research was the first step in identifying the importance of assessing some products for safety. The next step is to confirm these interactions by testing implanted devices in volunteer patients who are at the hospital for routine tests,” study coauthor Sven Knecht, a research engineer at the University of Basel in Switzerland, said in a statement.

Peter Urban is a contributing writer and editor who focuses on health news. Urban spent two decades working as a correspondent in Washington, D.C., for daily newspapers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio, California and Arkansas, including a stint as Washington bureau chief for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His freelance work has appeared in Scientific American, Bloomberg Government and CTNewsJunkie.com.

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