As a musician, runner and Type A organizer, I have to admit that I do love me some wireless technology. So you can imagine how many circles popped in my bubble wrap when I read the following headline from Yahoo's Rob Waugh: Wireless headphones like Apple Airpods 'could pose cancer risk', scientists warn.

Now, to be absolutely, painfully clear here, Waugh isn't singling out Apple--that little word "like" is incredibly important. Rather, the bigger idea is that the in-ear style of wireless headphone exposes tissues in your head to high levels of radio-frequency radiation. Apple is merely an example with perhaps the most brand name recognition. Scientists who support the assertion say that electromagnetic frequencies have been shown to have a negative influence on living things even when exposure is below current guidelines. And conversely, scientists who say the concept is hogwash point out that numerous studies proving a link between mobile devices and cancer have been tossed out as bunk.

So currently, does wireless gear like the Apple AirPods truly have the potential to increase cancer risk?

The reality is, we still don't really know.

And that's my point.

No one likes the idea that what businesses make could hurt us. But unfortunately, many of us seem to have reached a point where we also believe that our exposure to harmful agents is a mere fact of life. We accept it and aren't surprised. As one commenter on Waugh's article put it, "Does mankind know how to make anything that isn't cancer causing?" And because the list of potentially harmful substances and products is longer than Santa's toy list, we throw up our hands and give companies a pass. As long as we have the promise of convenience, we keep believing that the worst won't have any personal influence on us. It can't possibly happen to me. And anyway, it's probably just more fake news, right?

And so the earbud situation exposes a bigger problem: In the quest to deliver and pull ahead with innovation, companies don't always prioritize awareness and control of the long-term health ramifications. Instead of asking if they should, they often ask only if they can. And if that makes a mess, well, then just do some serious PR, tweak the design and BOOM, you're good again.

But we can do better. We can turn it around so that the pedestal for customer health is just as high as the one for innovation, so that we're willing to take the time to have an answer--a truly definitive one--first. We must incorporate customer health as a category through which all products have to pass muster, because the whole idea behind informed consent is information. If you don't know the full ramifications of what you're designing and selling, you can't possibly hope to market with real authority and give any sort of legitimate choice. And more importantly, you can't protect the people you want to be loyal to you, and you can't protect your business from legal trouble, either. And if those things are true for you, well, then I'll be the one to just come right out and say it--maybe you and your product just aren't really ready yet. 

We're clearly not perfect here. But we do have examples of companies already working for safety and incorporating this mindset into general product development and operations. EHS Today, for example, offers a list of America's safest companies every year. These companies all have their own approach to research and operational/product safety, but the commonality is that they all see safety--for both workers and customers--as a competitive advantage.

So raise your bar. Invest in the research phase. Think beyond technical specifications and functionality. Take the time to get it right. Because remember, a product that's ultimately pulled off the market isn't going to earn you even one more dime.

Published on: Mar 18, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.