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The iPhone 12 Can Interfere With an ICD, New Research Suggests

Some doctors are worried that the magnet technology in the new iPhone 12 could endanger people who have implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) to help manage a severe heartbeat irregularity, new research published this month in the journal HeartRhythm suggests.

The iPhone 12 is made with a different type of magnet technology than previous iPhones, which generates a stronger magnetic field to help the phone connect to wireless chargers and charge faster, the study authors explain. But this strong magnetic field could also interfere with ICDs, small electronic chest implants that deliver shocks to help people manage a serious problem with the rate or rhythm of their heartbeat (called an arrhythmia), per the U.S. National Library of Medicine—especially when the phone is kept in a shirt pocket. 

The study authors, three doctors of cardiac electrophysiology from the Henry Ford Heart and Vascular Institute at Henry Ford Hospital, conducted a simple experiment to test for such an interaction: They placed an iPhone 12 in different spots on the chest of a patient wearing an ICD. The results were clear: “Once the iPhone was brought close to the ICD over the left chest area, immediate suspension of ICD therapies was noted which persisted for the duration of the test,” the doctors write. “This was reproduced multiple times with different positions of the phone over the [shirt] pocket.” 

ICDs work by monitoring the heartbeat and sending electrical shocks to the heart if they detect dangerous heart rhythms, including those that can cause sudden cardiac arrest. Most ICDs used today can function as both defibrillators and pacemakers, similarly small implants that send electrical pulses to regulate the heartbeat, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Sometimes the word pacemaker is used colloquially to refer to ICDs as well.)

All ICDs are battery powered and have a built-in switch that can be activated by a strong external magnetic field, the study authors explain. If activated, that could inadvertently suspend the device’s ability to deliver lifesaving shock therapy and fibrillation. 

The idea that a person’s ICD could stop working due to their smartphone is pretty scary (even if there have not been reports of such a thing happening outside of this experiment). And while the study doesn’t separately address pacemakers, the experiment does raise concern about whether or not those electronic chest implants could encounter a similar issue. 

Apple is aware of this potential issue with the iPhone 12. When reached for comment, an Apple representative directed SELF to an existing support page on the issue published in October 2020: “iPhone contains magnets as well as components and radios that emit electromagnetic field. These magnets and electromagnetic fields might interfere with medical devices, such as pacemakers and defibrillators.” However, Apple does not expect iPhone 12 models to pose a greater risk of magnetic interference with medical devices than previous iPhones—despite containing more magnets. (The text on this page is also included under important safety information for using iPhones.) 

The company advises people with medical devices to consult their doctor and medical device manufacturer about “whether you need to maintain a safe distance of separation between your medical device and iPhone.” Medical device manufacturers can also provide safety recommendations for preventing any potential interference, Apple says. And of course, if you think your iPhone might be causing an issue with your medical device, stop using the phone immediately and get in touch with your doctor about how to proceed.

Out of an abundance of caution, when it comes to magnets and wireless frequencies in smartphones, the American Heart Association already recommends people keep their cell phones at least six inches away from their ICD or pacemaker, and avoid storing the phone in their shirt pocket.

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