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Can personal computer use cause cancer, miscarriages, etc.?

Dear Cecil:

A decade ago I read all kinds of stories about the dreadful things my PC might be responsible for: brain tumors, breast cancer, miscarriages. Now I hear nothing. Were the stories nuts, or are we?

K., Chicago

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

The stories were probably exaggerated, but this is one area where you can’t make any definite pronouncements for fear some new scientific study will make you look like an idiot two weeks later. The last flurry of computer (actually video monitor) scare stories came in 1990, many inspired by an article entitled “The Magnetic-Field Menace” by muckraker Paul Brodeur in the computer magazine MacWorld. Brodeur made two points: (1) exposure to the extremely low frequency (ELF) magnetic fields generated by electric power lines had been linked to cancer, miscarriages, and other problems by several studies, and (2) ELF magnetic fields of similar strength (greater than 2-3 milligauss) were emitted by a surprisingly large number of commonly available computer monitors. A 1988 study of 1,600 California women found that clerical workers using VDTs more than 20 hours a week had 2.4 times greater risk of miscarriage than other women. Conclusion: computers kill, or at least put you or your unborn child at significant risk.

Brodeur was being a bit of an alarmist, but his point was that computer makers were entirely too casual about the possible health risks of their products, especially in view of the fact that those risks were easily minimized. His article had the desired effect. Many manufacturers, including IBM and NEC, announced the introduction of monitors meeting “Swedish [government] standards,” which set a 2.5 milligauss limit on ELF emissions. As a practical matter you can greatly reduce your exposure by making sure you sit at least an arm’s length away from the screen — emission strength drops off rapidly with distance. Also make sure there is at least a four foot distance between you and any computers nearby, since many monitors leak radiation out the top, sides, and back.

But these are all just precautions. Is there any real danger? The question is still controversial but the worst fears don’t seem to have been borne out. Only a few months after Brodeur’s article appeared a Danish study of 6,200 women found no increase in miscarriages or birth defects due to VDT use. Several subsequent studies have reported similar results, and I’d venture to say the scientific consensus today is that VDT use in itself does not present any special danger to pregnant women.

The link between computers and cancer has always been more speculative. I have not been able to find any study showing a relationship between VDT use and cancer but frankly there has been little specific research. Scientists remain concerned about the possible ill effects of exposure to electromagnetic radiation from whatever source, but the research picture overall is so confusing that no firm conclusions can be drawn. In any event you can reduce your exposure by following the simple precautions mentioned above.

Computer use does present some clear health risks, mostly due to eye and muscle strain. Reports of repetitive stress injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful wrist ailment, rose sharply during the 80s, no doubt in part due to people staring fixedly at computer screens while sitting in uncomfortable positions for hours on end. Luckily, the warning signs are usually pretty obvious. If you work at a computer a lot and your back, wrist, eyes, neck, head, etc., are starting to bother you, it’s time to address the situation firmly. Bug the boss to get you a decent chair (I recommend the Equa chair from Herman Miller — outstanding lower back support), a bigger monitor with a sharper display (trying to read Windows screen fonts on a fuzzy display will give anybody migraines), an anti-glare screen, and an adjustable or at least lower-than-standard-desk-height shelf for the keyboard. It’ll cost a couple bucks, but ask Mr. (or Ms.) Bigshot what he/she’d rather do, drop a grand now or unknown gajillions in worker’s comp later.

Cecil Adams

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