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Apple's iPad 2 may interfere with heart devices, 14-year-old researcher finds

Apple iPads are everywhere these days, from schools with small children to bedside tables where adults enjoy a good read before they go to sleep.

But, can they be unsafe for some individuals?

An inquisitive young researcher is warning that people with implantable heart devices may want to keep an iPad 2 at arm's length. She found that magnets in the popular tablet that are used to keep a cover in place may interfere with some implanted, life-saving defibrillators.

"Since tablets are becoming more common, I hope these findings will encourage patients who have or may be a candidate for implantable defibrillators to talk to their doctor about precautions if they use a tablet like the iPad 2," 14-year-old Gianna Chien, a freshman at Lincoln High School in Stockton, Calif., said in a news release from the Heart Rhythm Society.

The young teen presented her findings Thursday at the Heart Rhythm Society's 2013 annual scientific sessions in Denver. She had previously presented the research at her local county's science fair, and came away with second place.

Her research is considered preliminary since it has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The findings may affect people with an arrhythmia, an irregular heart rate - which can be too fast, or too slow for example - that can be life-threatening. Some arrhythmias may be harmless, notes the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), while others may prevent the heart from pumping blood to the rest of the body. That can cause sudden cardiac arrest, or damage the brain, heart and other essential organs, causing death.

Patients with the condition may need an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). That's a type of cardiac rhythm device that is placed in the chest or abdomen, and uses an electrical shock to help get the heart's rhythm back on track or else sudden cardiac arrest and death may occur within minutes.

The devices can be affected by nearby magnets or so-called radiofrequency energy from cell phones or MRI machines, according to the Heart Rhythm Society. If the device gets near a magnet, it temporarily goes into "magnet mode" and may disrupt what could be a life-saving electrical pulse.

Chien said she got the idea for the new research when noticing people holding their tablets close to their chests. She then turned to her father Walter, a cardiologist, who helped her arrange tests on his patients.

For the study, 26 patients with ICDs held an iPad 2 at a typical reading distance, and then were asked to place the tablet on their chests. That was to mimic the common situation of falling asleep while reading an iPad, according to Chien.

When placed on their chests, 30 percent of the patients' devices went into magnet mode. Chien also gave the test to four patients with pacemakers and one with a heart device called a loop recorder, but they experienced no interference.

Dr. John Day, head of heart rhythm services at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah, who chairs the panel that reviews research to be presented at the conference, told Bloomberg the research is important for people with ICDs.

"Defibrillator patients can still buy Apple products," he said. "Just don't put them on your chest."

It's worth noting this study only looked at the iPad 2, and can't be generalized to other Apple devices or tablets made by other manufacturers.

Apple declined comment on the new presentation, but directed CBS News to page four of the iPad product information guide under "Radio Frequency Interference."

Boston Scientific, a manufacturer of implanted heart rhythm devices, writes on its website that people should keep magnets six inches away from their implantable devices. Boston Scientific could not be reached for comment at press time.

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