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As slick devices take over our home and homes away from home, whispers of techno-health hazards keep flying. We get to the bottom of what's real, what's not, and when to opt out.
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The situation: Just as we were chatting on our iPhones about our Memorial Day weekends, the news broke: The World Health Organization had just classified radio frequency waves — the radiation we know most from cell phones — as "possibly carcinogenic." No new studies were hatched, just a review of existing relevant research, which led to a conclusion of "limited evidence" for certain brain tumors from cell phones — meaning there "could be some risk" and we should "keep a close watch. "Oh, and, by the way, coffee and gas exhausts are also WHO-classified as "possibly carcinogenic." To many of us, this was infuriating and confusing in an orange-terrorist-alert kind of way. But alas, the ongoing wishy-washiness stems from the existing studies' being too small, too outdated, and too ill-designed to be definitive, explains Michael Wyde, Ph.D., of the National Toxicology Program — like the one based on human recall, reporting a 40 percent increased risk among those who used their mobiles 30 minutes a day over 10 years. In hopes of clearing up the confusion, Wyde's team has launched a comprehensive study intermittently exposing rodents to electromagnetic radiation levels mimicking human cell-phone use; final results are slated for 2015. The strategy: Minimize exposure. Smartphones often emit more radiation than simpler varieties, so if you're shopping for a new one, check out Environmental Working Group's cell phone radiation database, consider Pong's cell case, which reduces exposure to radiation by 60 percent, go hands-free by using a headset or speaker, and use landlines for long conversations.
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Now that smartphones have replaced iPods, they're also wreaking havoc on our ears. The average listening time on a digital device is about 15 hours a week, compared with seven hours with a Walkman, reports Harvard University researcher Brian Fligor, Sc.D. — and the ear can tolerate only a finite dose of noise over a lifetime. Overworked sensory cells die and leave behind scar tissue, resulting in an errant hum and dissipating hearing. To slow the decline, listen no longer than 90 minutes a day at 80 percent of maximum volume, and trade earbuds for noise-canceling headsets to avoid turning up the volume.
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The situation: Can the technology that powers our Internet connection — and our lives — be the reason behind our blahs? Now that parks and entire towns have gone wireless, the complaints — headache, itch, insomnia, fatigue, difficulty concentrating — once written off as hypochondria are now on the brains of health officials worrying about long-term cumulative effects. Indeed, Wi-Fi routers emit radio frequency waves, just as cell phones do. And while we don’t press them against our head, their emissions are constant and ubiquitous. Physiologists report that electromagnetic fields (EMFs) produce a biochemical stress response in cells, and some say this can, in the short term, cause those hodgepodge of symptoms known as EMF sensitivity, and, in the long term, make us vulnerable to inflammatory diseases and cancer. But a September Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health paper reports a "nocebo" effect: Subjects told of higher exposure levels reported worse symptoms, even when levels actually didn’t change. It could be that people's skin cells have different levels of resistance to conductivity; stress may exacerbate sensitivity, too. The strategy: Limit exposure, says Columbia University physiologist Martin Blank, Ph.D. Unplug your home router and avoid public places with Wi-Fi when you’re not using it.
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The situation: Not that we're complaining, but what happened to those incessant iPad commercials? Maybe the nimble fingers featured in the ads succumbed to carpal tunnel, among other health woes. Holding up the iPad forces wrist- and finger-extension, leading to repetitive strain injuries (RSIs), says Frances Pisano, CEO, Ergonomic Edge (ergonomicedge.wordpress.com). Laying the iPad flat forces you to lower your head, which strains the neck. Joints aside, the iPad and other backlit readers make it difficult for eyes to focus, says New York City optometrist Andrea Thau, O.D. — triggering, or exacerbating, nearsightedness. The strategy: Prop up the screen with a rack or books. Bend your neck forward no more than 15 degrees, and look down with your eyes, not head. When typing or scrolling, use an external Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, says Alan Hedge, Ph.D., director of Cornell University's Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory. Geeky, yes, but the RSI support bandage you'll risk having to wear isn't exactly chic, either. Take 20-second breaks every 20 minutes to look at an object 20 inches away.
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The situation: If you're seeing crazier driving these days, it may be because drivers' brains are shrinking. As research out of the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal suggests, road maps encourage us to pay attention to our surroundings, to learn street configurations, to figure out where we are in relation to our target destination (a.k.a "spatial strategy") and force us to exercise the part of our brain called the hippocampus. But when people navigate by simply doing as instructed ("stimulus-respons strategy") — as they might do with a GPS — the hippocampus was less active. The problem? With less use, the hippocampus shrinks in volume — a risk factor for a range of cognitive disorders, including Alzheimier's. The strategy: Use the GPS with unfamiliar routes only, but pay attention to landmarks. Put it on mute, or ditch it altogether on the way back and on subsequent trips.
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The situation: From Georgia to Kansas, headlines have breathlessly reported on laptops that "bursted into flames!" And sure, it gets hot under there, but tremendously more common are burn injuries and heat rash — or, as the October issue of the journal Pediatrics called it, "toasted skin syndrome," which feels like a sunburn. The strategy: A docking system is best from a dermatologic and ergonomic perspective.
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