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iPods have joined late-opening restaurants and children playing on old people's lawns on the list of things that can make pacemakers go haywire. A new study, presented today to a meeting of heart specialists by a 17-year-old high school student, suggests that the music-playing device can interfere with the electromagnetic …

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old farts

It ain.t the age and the elecricity that gets the pacemaker pumpin.....It's the beat

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Doesn't that seem bizarre?

Just how badly designed are pacemakers if you can mess with them by putting, up to a foot away, a piece of electronics that's (1) very small, (2) very low power, (3) all low frequency (no radio components in there!), (4) well enough shielded to satisfy government requirements? Think about that! How about your computer that's burning 100 times as much power, has radio-frequency transceivers in it, and is frequently just a couple meters from your chest. Surely that should cause at least as much interference, yes?

Does a wristwatch mess with them too?

Frankly I have to doubt this study just on general physical principles. I'd be truly surprised if a medical device were that hypersensitive. An awful lot of these kinds of studies are very poorly done and full of methodological holes.

Whenever I fly I'm always tempted to turn on my handheld battery operated GPS receiver and see if the plane suddenly swerves out of control.

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Possible explanation?

"The interference usually just caused the equipment to misread the heart's pacing"

I'm assuming they determined this by using one of the monitoring devices that receives data from a pacemaker by a radio signal, could it be that what the iPod was doing by placing it that close to the pacemaker is simply physically blocking the signal (after all it is just a large (in relation to a pacemaker anyway) chunk of metal) and hence making it appear the pacemaker was malfunctioning?

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inverse square and transmitting wires

They don't mention which iPod it is, given the larger ones have a full metal backing. But that wouldn't cause the issue to go away when it's turned off. I suppose, in theory, the length of headphones wire could serve as an antenna, messing with either the pacemaker or the test equipment. (Although iPods 'mess with our pacemaker-monitoring-sensors' makes for a much less compelling tag-line) Especially since headphone wires are neither twisted pair nor coaxial.

As for danger from other things, don't forget that distance is important. 2 inches is 5cm. 1 m is, well, 100cm. That means a 20:1 distance ratio. A computer 100 times stronger but 20 times further means it's 100/(20*20)=100/400= a quarter of the influence. (Besides, the bigger danger was the CRT, not the computer)

That said, I'd say it's a fluff article until there's confirming and significant proof. It's great that the 17 year old is starting research so early. But he probably knows as well as anyone that, until it's been reproduced by others, it's just an interesting theory.

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Anonymous Coward

Is this a double blind study?

Did they try with a random selection of half the study group, by putting a switched off iPod close to their chest? Or just a pack of playing cards as they probably couldn't tell the difference.

Or perhaps they should have used a Zune in half the cases which may have caused a heart attack in the old fogies.

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Well I Never.....

So iPods can cause malfunctioning pacemakers, or is it the excitement of someone over 60 using a piece of technology which is cauing the heart to flutter.

Seriously though I agree with Bryan Reed in the fact that the deivce itself is unable to cause issues. I question the methods behind the test. Did they try putting any other metal boxes close to the pacemaker to see if it causes issues.

Still good for a chuckle though..............whats my inheritance worth?..........damn my parents don't have pacemakers ;-)

..........infact they do not have ipods either........yet ;-)

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Anonymous Coward

They are so radio frequency...

Bryan Reed:

" (3) all low frequency (no radio components in there!), (4) well enough shielded to satisfy government requirements? "

Stop and think about it for a second: why would they need to be shielded to FCC requirements if they don't emit any radio frequencies? They do, of course: they are computers, and like all modern computers, they have very high frequency clocks and emit measurable EM radiation at those frequencies. I don't think you should be doubting this study on "general physical principles", because these people actually *did* it, and you're just sitting in your armchair attempting to reason a priori about something empirical.

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Anonymous Coward

Aha!

Does this mean that if the Microsoft Zune had been included in the study there would be a risk of stopping the pacemakers of other folk when you "squirt" tunes to the other Zune user?

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Anonymous Coward

re: Doesn't that seem bizarre?

Quite...

It has always astonished me that electronics and devices that are critical to safety and life are apparently the most prone to interference from what should be benign devices. I.e. All medical equipment, and aircraft navigation and flight control computers. The truth is I suspect that there isn't a real problem. Even Mythbusters failed to get any kind of effect on an aircraft's systems using mobile phones, and I believe they even tried boosting the signals beyond normal levels, with no noticeable effect. They even proved that mobile phones in petrol station forecourts would not cause a problem, and that forecourt fires are caused by static from peoples clothing.

I believe that these sorts of equipments should be designed and tested to survive and work faultlessly, whilst being subjected to the worst conditions that would be normally expected in normal life. For example, medical equipment should work in a hospital that is next door to a mega-watt radio station. There should be no need to worry about the possibility that someone uses a mobile phone on a ward, and it should be unnecessary to ban mobile phones from hospitals and aircraft for any other reason than social thoughtfulness.

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does it explain this?

When I go to the gym and use machines with heart monitors, they always report back a steady figure that often changes when a new song comes on when I'm wearing my ipod. But... when I wear a proper sensor round my chest rather than use the metal plates on the handles the effect vanishes and I get a true report that does vary up and down with effort.

I suspect it's radiation so we should ban them from schools now just in case ;-)

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Some pacemakers will kill if they malfunction...

The majority of pace makers just regulate the speed of the heart, but not all. Some are designed so that they take over all control and the heart has to be deliberately damaged to stop it beating on its own during installation.

If one of the majority type goes wrong the heart will beat out of rhythm or at the wrong speed, but the patient will be ok and once the device is back to normal the patient will recover.

If one of the full-function type pacemakers stops, so does the heart so I would give the patient a low chance of surviving.

Nevertheless, I would tend to doubt the methodology of the test as I suspect that the EMI protection on a pacemaker would be pretty good!

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Stu

Generally means poor electronics design

I wholely agree with Mr Reed -

I'd like the participants of this study to answer one question - did the operation of the pacemakers ever disrupt the operation of the iPod?

Of course a pacemaker is more important - my point being is that because the design of the iPod is done properly, even a malfunctioning 1000w microwave oven on full blast most likely wont disrupt an iPod from playing.

Modern circuit and microcontroller design undergoes testing for extreme radio and electrical interference, all you have to do is minimise circuit path lengths and heavily integrate the logic into shielded ICs (the IC packaging is usually sufficient).

I don't personally know about the design of pacemakers but if this study is worth its weight in water, then they should have done a proper analysis and rating of the circuit design of the pacemakers before putting them up against anything.

I wonder why they chose the iPod and nothing else from the multitude of electronics gadgets on the market, are they iPod-ist??? I'd bet the iPod ranks highly in the gadget radio/electrical interference stakes.

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Anonymous Coward

I won't be flying with Bryan Reed

"Whenever I fly I'm always tempted to turn on my handheld battery operated GPS receiver and see if the plane suddenly swerves out of control."

It's people with your kind of attitude who end up with Darwin Awards.

I'm not aware of whether this poses a risk or not, but I'm sure as shit not getting on a plane with somebody who has so little regard for anybody else's safety.

Still, it would make a great epitaph...

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Pacemaker interference

Bryan Reed

Just how badly designed are pacemakers if you can mess with them by putting, up to a foot away, a piece of electronics that's (1) very small, (2) very low power, (3) all low frequency (no radio components in there!), (4) well enough shielded to satisfy government requirements

the actual pacemakers are pretty well shielded in a metal case.

Its most likely the pacing wires that are embedded in the heart muscle (and the heart muscle for that matter) that are being affected.

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Stuck on Bossa nova

Bearing in mind that not all pacemaker recipients are all denture-wearing, incontinent grannies, I found this article quite amusing/interesting. I'm 31 years old and got my personal boom box fitted last year.

Bryan - you're partially right. It does seem bizarre that an iPod could mess with a pacemaker in some way but I've experienced the odd sensation that results many times! I'm fine with PCs (apart from their own inbuilt deficiencies, of course) and wristwatches definitely don't cause any problems... I don't believe that an iPod could cause a major malfunction with a pacemaker (they've got built-in safety mechanisms to prevent complete shutdown) but having one within close proximity of the device does cause a fluttering sensation. This is similar to what a pacemaker recipient feels when their onboard computer is sending test signals to their heart.

I guess I'll just have to add my iPod to the brief list of things to keep at a "safe" distance from myself - hairdryers being another odd one. To be on the safe side, I only use my mobile on the right side of my head, but I'm probably just concentrating the emissions and increasing my chances of getting brain cancer... We're also advised to not to loiter in shop doorways, for fear of interaction with shop alarms but I think that's more for social behaviour reasons...

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Silver badge

Interference on planes

I've flown on a plane with my phone switched on before. Not deliberately I hasten to add, I just left it in my bag by accident. We didn't get end up in Stuttgart so I can only assume there weren't any adverse effects.

I'd guess that the reason they're not allowed on planes (for example) is that the risk is minimal, but when you're hurtling through the air at 500mph at 30000 feet in a large cigar tube, you want to minimise any risk you can. And multiplying the effects of one phone by the number of passengers will probably increase that risk. Given you can't get a signal up there anyway it makes sense to switch them off.

The report only states a similar fact. There is an element of risk from interference. The risk goes up as the interference goes up (isn't that why pacemaker users are told to stay away from microwaves?). But then, there's a risk involved in everything, no matter how slight. There's no such thing as a 0% probability (just because something hasn't happened before, doesn't mean it won't happen in the future, it just makes it extremely unlikely).

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GPS

"Whenever I fly I'm always tempted to turn on my handheld battery operated GPS receiver and see if the plane suddenly swerves out of control."

Tried it, and no, we didn't crash. It was on a BA flight, and the flight attendants were quite happy about me using it, just not during take-off and landing - ie. the most interesting times! Mind you, I've left my mobile on during flights before - I've forgot about them in my luggage - and no, phone networks didn't crash and neither did the plane.

Are people with pacemakers advised to not use mobile phones?

On a similar note, we're forbidden from using mobiles on petrol station forecourts, for fear of causing a spark through the radiation, and yet I frequently get out the car and get a static shock off the car. Nothing blows up. The car is also a mass of electric spark causing machinery, and yet THAT is allowed on the forecourt.

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Pacemaker interference

I am 28 and have a pacemaker. It's not just grannies who need them! There is a lot of misinformation about what will interfere with pacemakers. They are shielded and mobile phones, microwaves and most electrical equipment has no effect on them. Some equipment does need to be kept at a safe distance from the chest which is about six inches.

I have an ipod and one of those itrip radio transmitters (which is actually more likely to cause interference) and have had no trouble with either of them.

It is a study I would ike to see done properly and in more detail. As Blain Hamon commented I would like to see it repeated and confirmed that it is not an artifact of the monitoring equipment. As well the reporting of the study could be a bit better. It's a funny joke about an ipod killing you until you actually have to think about it seriously. As well commenting that since most pacemaker patients are old we don't need to worry about this is a bit glib.

Laura

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Other warnings

As a 39yr old on his second pacemaker (wired since 1989), I have always been aware of the need to keep a reasonable from mobile telephones, pagers, microwaves and libraries.

The small print in all mobile handbooks (you kow,the small glossy thing you never open) warns not to use within 18" - limiting you to one side, and not to use any breast pockets.

I've often flouted these 'rules', so far to no ill effect - but then I'm not pacemaker dependent, so a disruption isn't critical for me.

The human body is an electrical system, the pacemaker another. Any third system nearby could cause an effect, and if it does the effect will be different for every person.

Love the fact this student research it made El Reg, perhaps you're all down the pub (It's Friday after all), and the Work Experience has posted his school friend's thesis - or it's just a slow news day....

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Phones on planes

One of the major reasons for saying no to phones on planes is due to problems it could cause to the phone networks.

A plane travels very fast in comparison to everything else, e.g. walking, car journeys etc. This means the phone goes between cells very quickly, causing lots of cell handovers for the network to cope with.

With just one phone, it's not really a problem, but imagine a 747 full of people all with phones, the handover traffic could easily flood the network and cause significant problems for people on the ground (especially around busy areas like Heathrow where you have lots of planes) ...

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Actually seems likely

Consider:

If it is one of the i-pods with a hard drive, that means it contains an electric motor, and every motor generates an electro-magnetic field. If the pacemaker sensors are reading body electrical signals controlling the heart muscle contractions, the input signal levels are pretty small (microvolts). Perhaps the weak fields generated by the motor and its controller are picked up on the sensors.

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I love it!

I love how a story about MP3 players in general always becomes a story about iPods. I'm sure that this affects all MP3 players, but note how only the iPod is mentioned. Now, I know granny blow dries her hair, and it would stand to reason that a device consuming upward of 18 amps would interfere with a pacemaker more than a device using a miserly .22 watts. Go figure.

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Anonymous Coward

Modern pacemakers are...

designed to switch to fixed pulse mode in case the sensing wires malfunction. Many people are not aware of this switch because they either need the fixed pulse or their pacemaker is emitting the same frequency in feedback and fixed mode.

Anything can cause a mode switch that disrupts sensing or blocks normal operation. The fixed mode circuit is extra emi tolerant, compared to the computer controlled feedback mode.

The case where the pacemaker stopped was either a bug in the device or it was set up as an auxiliary device and it tought that it is not needed based on the feedback.

The strange feeling many pacemaker patitents feel sometimes is their system switching into fixed mode and their pulse changing rapidly from the feedback value to the preset. (the base frequencly is usually set to 60 ppm)

About aircraft controls and digital systems: Many aircraft systems are now digital and the newest ones are based on an optical connection. They can not be disturbed as easily as an old analog system, but putting the right device into the right spot can cause problems. (at least temporal ones as the emp spike hits the system) It's usually not fatal but it can be, depending on the effected system.

Gps receivers doesn't send out anything, so they should be safe on a plane. Laptops and cameras should be safe too. (except in case of a battery fire)

Mobile phones are especially bad because they jam the cells below the plane when it's flying very low. This could be eliminated with a good truely cellular cell design, but that would seriously impact the perforamance of a cell tower and it's maxial capacity.

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Anonymous Coward

It's not about age, duh!

I got a pacemaker when I was 24 and I resent the "old fart" comments. There are tons of young people with heart conditions and a pacemaker is a great way to track symptoms since the wires are there and recording events.

It is really good to know that certain things like iPods are going to cause issues, especially since you can wear the iShuffle on a cord around your neck while exercising, and that's right over a pacemaker!

But please, don't be stupid and think that only old people use internal monitors for heart conditions.

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Anonymous Coward

Compatibility?

Sounds like there's a gap in the market for yet another Apple product.

The iPacemaker?

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Silver badge

MP3 players and heart rate monitors

I've noticed that my MP3 player can sometimes cause interference with my heart rate monitor (Polar brand, with a chest strap and wrist readout) to the extent that I sometimes get a reading of 233 beats per minute.

It seems to be mostly when my wrist is close to the player because the distance between the player and the chest strap doesn't change.

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Anonymous Coward

RE : It's not about age, duh!

The "old fart" comment is ageist, I have had a pacemaker since I was 3 and I know of a couple of people who have them too.

You don't often find out information about this but it is handy to know even though I shall not stop using my iPod.

People need to be more open minded about these conditions.

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Anonymous Coward

Different devices have different characteristics

It all depends on the particular circuit design used in the player, and the layout. Anyone who plays in EMI knows it's a "black art" -- a minor shifting or changing of components can make a big difference as to the interference any given product emits.

It would actually be entirely feasible for a problem, if there is one, to be isolated to Apple.

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Why is it that so many assume this parody of a "study" is in any way valid?

Look. Just because someone somewhere started calling the brain fart of some kid a "study" doesn't mean you have to give it any credibility.

Sure, it's quite possible to interrupt the operation of a pacemaker briefly by, for instance, having your phone right next to it when someone calls you. It'll still work, it's just that it might not work in a mode that you would consider optimal, for a short while.

But the ouput from a shitty little iPod is nothing compared to a phone.

And EMI is not a "black art". Any electronics designer worth anything knows how to minimise it. It's only the people who haven't learned yet that will tell you so. And since pacemakers have a metal shell, it's highly unlikely that the frequencies that might be emitted from any little player will penetrate the shell (with an amplitude that actually matters). They can, by a far stretch of the imagination, disrupt measurements. But even that is pretty far-fetched.

Do you want to bet that the kid stuck the iPod between the pacemaker and the readout equipment?

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18 amps ?!?

Clay,

You need to tell your granny to stop using the industrial grade hot air gun and use a normal hair drier. My hot air gun, which strips paint and sets fire to dry wood, uses 5 amps (2400W); so your granny is messing with some really dangerous gear there.

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18 amp etc. correction

It's actually a 1200 W hot air gun (still 5 Amps).

Your granny is still in danger!

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