iPads & Pacemakers: The White Noise of Safety Warnings

This story is making the rounds today:

iPad2 Heart Patient Risk Found by 14-Year-Old
Gianna Chien is somewhat different from all the other researchers reporting on their work today to more than 8,000 doctors at the Heart Rhythm Society meeting.

Chien’s study found that Apple Inc.’s iPad2 can, in some cases, interfere with life-saving heart devices because of the magnets inside. Source: Gianna Chien

Chien is 14, and her study — which found that Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPad2 can, in some cases, interfere with life-saving heart devices because of the magnets inside — is based on a science-fair project that didn’t even win her first place.

Erm … okay. It’s a nice story, but not exactly news. From Apple’s user guide:

iPad contains radios that emit electromagnetic fields. These electromagnetic  fields may interfere with pacemakers or other medical devices. If you wear a pacemaker, maintain  at least 6 inches (approximately 15 cm) of separation between your pacemaker and iPad. If you suspect iPad is interfering with your pacemaker or any other medical device, stop using iPad and consult your physician for information specific to your medical device. iPad has magnets along the left edge of the device and on the right side of the front glass, which may interfere with pacemakers, defibrillators, or other medical devices. The iPad Smart Cover and iPad Smart Case also contain magnets. Maintain at least 6 inches (approximately 15 cm) of separation between your pacemaker or defibrillator and iPad, the iPad Smart Cover, or the iPad Smart Case.

Pacemakers + magnets are not friends. Pacemaker owners know this, but they may forget that an iPad with cover is dripping with magnety goodness. We didn’t need a study to find that out. And the poor girl didn’t even get any grant money for it.

The problem is, people don’t read EULAs, user guides, or safety warnings any more. They don’t read EULAs because it’s legal nonsense that people just click right through, unaware that paragraph 43, sub-clause a8-1 requires you to sacrifice an ocelot at every full moon as part of your agreement for using Microsoft Office. They don’t read manuals because they don’t need to. This is the whole point of touch control: that vital Poking Skill you mastered on all those long rides in the backseat with your siblings has prepared you for a brave new future full of touch-based products.

And, most importantly, no one–no one–reads safety warnings any more because they’ve become a litany of insane lawyer-mandated obviousness packed with such vital information as “Do not operate toaster while sitting in full bathtub” and “This bag is not a toy. Please dispose of it.”

These are warnings no sentient human needs.

What the lawyers and the consumer advocates and the safety Nazis have created with all their warnings is a world that’s less safe. They’ve turned actual, important safety warnings that matter (such as, “Don’t fall asleep with your iPad on your chest if you have a pacemaker.”) into white noise that people just ignore.

Included with Apple’s pacemaker warning are gems like this:

Repetitive motion When you perform repetitive activities such as typing or playing games on iPad, you may experience occasional discomfort in your hands, arms, wrists, shoulders, neck, or other parts of your body. If you experience discomfort, stop using iPad and consult a physician.

High-consequence activities This device is not intended for use where the failure of the device could lead to death, personal injury, or severe environmental damage.

Choking hazard Some iPad accessories may present a choking hazard to small children. Keep these accessories away from small children.


  • If your hands get tired, lay off the Angry Birds for a while.
  • Don’t use an iPad while performing heart surgery.
  • Your child puts tiny things in his mouth, and we don’t think you’ve ever noticed this fact, so we’re telling you again. Because you’re idiots.

The thing is, if users need to be told this, they probably are idiots, which means they didn’t read your useless warning anyway.

People do dumb things. Usually we get by. Sometimes we don’t. Common sense is a fair guide for life, but also in woefully short supply in the modern age.

By attempting to warn people about every single potential danger from any conceivable use by every half-wit on the planet in order to make a product Lawyer Proof, real dangers get ignored, and it makes us all less safe.  Product warnings have nothing to do with protecting the user, and everything to do with protecting the company from lawsuits.

So, while it’s nice that a sweet story about a 14-year-old girl presenting her science fair project at a medical conference is bringing attention to a risk many people missed, Apple’s more pressing question should be: why do people miss these warnings in the first place?

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Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.