Are Apple's AirPods a High-Tech Choking Hazard?

Trouble may ensue when toddlers meet the iPhone 7's new earbuds.

By David Isaac

Are Apple's AirPods too small to leave around kids? Many people are asking that question in the wake of the September 7 launch event. Negative publicity swirled in advance of the event, although initially anger was mostly directed at Apple's decision to remove the device's headphone jack. Now wrath has refocused on the company's replacement for tethered earbuds: AirPods. On social media, some critics ridiculed the AirPods as devices that are likely to get lost easily. But other people expressed a more serious concern: The tiny wireless earbuds pose a choking hazard for children.

"Kids are gonna choke on those airpods. Trial lawyers are gonna have big cases. CPSC [Consumer Product Safety Commission] may end up pulling them."
--Mike Cernovich (@Cernovich) Sept. 8, 2016

"RIP to all the toddlers that will accidentally choke on these brilliant new airpods  #AppleEvent"
--Baby Montana (@Ayoo_anghy) Sept. 7, 2016

"So hard to bring in a focus group where a participant had actually seen a toddler if not had one themselves? kids could #choke on #Airpods"
--Lamis Khalilova (@LamisK) Sept. 7, 2016

"I'm calling it now- animals, children, AND adults will choke on AirPods"
--Rebecca Lindholm (@rlindhomie) Sept. 7, 2016

The AirPods, which will become available in late October, are indeed small. Each measures 0.65 inch by 0.71 inch by 1.59 inches, which means they can fit into the Choke Test Cylinder, a measuring device that the Consumer Product Safety Commission came up with to identify potential choking hazards for small children. It should be noted that the cylinder was designed to test the safety of small parts in toys, not high-tech devices. Then again, the AirPods are bright and shiny, and might even resemble candy to some inexperienced eyes—which means that they might be the sort of thing that small children find tempting to put in their mouths.

What Can Parents Do?

Anyone who has brought an infant home from the hospital for the first time knows the feeling of looking around the house and spotting danger in every corner. And when it comes to choking, a terrifying number of everyday objects pose a risk, from balloons to broken crayons.

The AirPods contain a battery, making them doubly hazardous. Button batteries are a known choking hazard to children (3,200 cases were reported in 2014), but they are also a hazard for tissue burn. In contact with saliva, such batteries generate an electric current that produces hydroxide, which can severely damage tissue.

Common sense would dictate keeping the AirPods in their charging case when you're not using them. At 1.74 inches by 0.84 inch by 2.11 inches, the case is not a choking hazard by CPSC standards. But life happens, and users will surely sometimes forget to stow the AirPods properly.

The Mayo Clinic says that choking is a common cause of infant death. Though infants and toddlers most often choke on food, they also put small objects—like parts from small toys—into their mouths. The Mayo Clinic recommends that parents learn CPR and first aid against choking. And it urges vigilance: Keep dangerous objects out of reach. According to the site, "Common household items that might pose a choking hazard include coins, button batteries, dice and pen caps." You might want to add AirPods to the list.

If introducing another choking hazard into your home is something you'd rather not do, here's some good news: You don't have to. Apple's wired EarPods will be included with every iPhone 7. They'll connect to the Lightning power connector instead of the now defunct headphone jack. Apple will also include with every device a mini-phono-to-Lightning adapter for your current analog headphones. A third option, highlighted at Apple's launch event, is a pair of JBL headphones, the JBL Reflect Aware, which likewise pull audio directly from the Lightning connector. The fact that Apple mentioned them at the event shows that the company thinks highly of the device. There are, of course, many other audio options as well.