Diary of Unknown Symptoms

Mystery of the Internal Vibration

Entry for October 21, 2006

The dangers of owning a laptop…

Risky business

Threat to fertility? Poor ergonomics? Possibility of fire?
Laptop usage isn’t without its potential hazards.

Sep. 8, 2006. 06:12 AM

If your neck hurts, or pecs feel particularly flabby today or if your crotch feels warm, turn off your laptop and put it aside for a moment.

As hundreds of students head back to school and the ever-shrinking devices — now de rigueur for post-secondary and many secondary students — pop up in classroom and dorms, few people seem worried about the health hazards that intense use could bring.

With 7 million laptops in use throughout the country, according to IDC Canada, which tracks technology trends, many Canadians, especially travelling businesspeople or those who use laptops as their main computer, are potentially doing their bodies harm.

Most men might psychosomatically shudder to hear that a laptop, used in its most literal and seemingly innocuous way, balanced atop thighs in an airport lounge or bohemian coffeehouse, could affect their fertility.

If high-profile companies announcing recalls of laptop batteries — amid concerns of their potential to get too hot or even combust — doesn’t raise alarms about the possible health risks associated with portable computers, Dr. Yefim Sheynkin’s research might strike closer to home.

In 2004, the urology professor from State University of New York in Stony Brook set out to answer a burning question: Since high scrotal temperature has been identified as a risk to male fertility, does using a notebook computer while it sits on your lap cause that temperature to rise?

For 29 male volunteers, ages 21 to 35, “two cutaneous thermocouples were attached to the unshaved scrotal skin … using thin transparent tape to cover the sensor end of the thermocouple.”

(The doctor seems gentle: His practice specializes in no-scalpel vasectomies, a procedure, according to his website, that “is conveniently performed on Friday, which allows a smooth recovery over the weekend.”)

The results of the experiment might make Jerry Lee Lewis sit up and sing. But more on that later.

There are other health risks associated with laptops, however remote the possibility.

Earlier this year, a UPS cargo plane en route to Philadelphia International Airport caught fire and the three flight-crew members suffered minor injuries while the blaze caused major damage to the plane and cargo containers.

The fire invited the attention of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and its investigation into the “potential risks of transporting cargo such as (lithium-ion) batteries.”

The lithium-ion format is popular, powering millions of laptops and other devices around the world, and appears behind several recent and highly publicized recalls.

Last month, Dell Inc. recalled 4.1 million Sony-made, lithium-ion computer batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are commonly found in laptops, cellphones and MP3 players.

Ten days later, Apple Computer Inc. recalled 1.8 million Sony-built notebook batteries, citing nine reports of overheating lithium-ion packs, including two cases where users suffered minor burns.

Then, Virgin Blue Airlines banned the use of Dell laptops aboard its planes, a move that quickly followed Qantas Airways’ decision to allow passengers to use their Dell laptops with a battery only or plugged into the plane’s power system without battery, according to media reports.

The problem, some experts say, is that the batteries are often not being used under ideal circumstances, as the devices they power are becoming smaller, faster and, with more options, placing greater demand on the battery. And the smaller the device, the more difficult it could be to allow air in to cool the battery.

Nevertheless, as industry watchers point out, the number of incidents of laptops overheating or bursting into flames is a tiny fraction of the number of lithium-ion battery-powered devices in use without incident.

But the health risk likely to affect the most laptop users doesn’t involve hot crotches or smoking batteries.

The problem, according to one chiropractor and two ergonomics experts, is a laptop, due to its design, is either at eye level, forcing the user to strain his arms to type, or in the lap, causing the user to bend his neck down to see the screen.

“Laptops are very bad because when you lean forward you change the dynamic in the neck,” says Toronto chiropractor Dr. Blair Lewis.

“Your back is not against the back of your chair. The whole neck moves forward, which causes over time a lot of degenerative changes in the neck. (Frequent laptop use) rounds everything. Everything is shifted forward. That’s not the way the spine is designed.”

And, Lewis, adds, frequent use of the small laptop keyboard can cause “shortening of the pectoral muscles.”

Ergonomics expert Marnie Downey notes that the human head accounts for about 8 to 10 per cent of body weight. “Your neck muscles are having to hold up your head,” she says. “Our neck is not meant to be bent down.”

Connecting an external keyboard — perhaps on an adjustable keyboard tray if the laptop is on a desk — could allow an upright posture with eyes level with the top of the screen and elbows at 90 degrees, which is the ideal posture, the experts say.

The trend toward smaller devices won’t help, says certified kinesiologist Tania Lillak.

“The smaller it is, the worse it is, generally,” says Lillak, who runs Elemental Ergonomics in Toronto. “Everything’s just too small. The writing’s too small. The buttons are too small. You’re always hunched over a BlackBerry.”

Lewis figures laptops are here to stay, sees more and more kids using them and says it’s important to educate young users about how to avoid injury.

Meanwhile, combining a laptop’s internal operating temperatures — which can exceed 70 degrees Celsius, according to the 2004 study — with the body position required to balance the laptop, Sheynkin’s experiment found a median scrotal temperature increase of more than 2.5 degrees Celsius.

“Our study demonstrates statistically significant elevation of scrotal temperature in laptop computer users,” says Sheynkin’s article in the journal Human Reproduction, but he adds that further research is needed to clearly establish whether laptop heat can directly lead to infertility.


October 21, 2006 - Posted by | Health | , , ,

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