How your life could be the death of you - Science - News - The Independent

How your life could be the death of you

The technology around us makes everything fast, convenient, and simple. But it comes pre-packaged with dangers to your health, says Lucy Sherriff

Technology has changed our lives in so many ways, most of which we hardly notice. Imagine a world without e-mail. Think about what a pain it would be if you suddenly had your mobile-phone privileges revoked. Try to picture life without the microchip; houses without central heating; a world without telephones. Where would we be without plumbing or freezers?

Technology has changed our lives in so many ways, most of which we hardly notice. Imagine a world without e-mail. Think about what a pain it would be if you suddenly had your mobile-phone privileges revoked. Try to picture life without the microchip; houses without central heating; a world without telephones. Where would we be without plumbing or freezers?

But for all the benefits, emerging technologies are often opposed by society. During the Industrial Revolution there was widespread fear about machines doing away with people's livelihoods - at one point in 1812, more British troops were deployed against the Luddite rebellion against the industrial loom than were opposing Napoleon's pan-European rampage.

Now we are in the middle of another technology explosion. This time, we're worried about how technology affects our bodies. We worry about radiation from mobile phones; about the kinds of content we might encounter online; and about the damage being done to our children by all of the above. Fifteen years ago it was radiation leaking from our nasty VDUs. But perhaps we aren't worried enough. Is today's ubiquitous technology bad for you? Can it, in fact, erase you from existence before you're even conceived...

Research published in December last year suggests that the heat from laptops can do permanent damage to a man's fertility. A pilot study of 29 men in the US found that heat from the processor can cause the temperature of the testes to rise almost three degrees: more than enough to fatally damage sperm. Compounding the heating effect of your snazzy new notebook, of course, is that you will tend to sit with your legs closer together when balancing it on your knees. This, the researchers say, traps the testes, causing them to heat even further.

Scientists at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where the research was carried out, think that, much like a hot bath, the effect is temporary. They point out that the population of Silicon Valley seems unaffected.

Don't think you can relax once you make it to the womb. Should you narrowly escape being eliminated by a laptop while the potential you is still separate sperm and egg cells, you could easily be fried by radio-frequency radiation while you are busily dividing your cells and growing at a quite alarming rate.

This kind of non-ionising radiation - that is, not the Sellafield kind - is emitted by mobile phones, phone masts, microwave ovens and televisions. Lower frequencies are generated by high-voltage power lines, or badly wired homes. The National Radiological Protection Board says that children and the elderly are more sensitive to these fields, and recommends limiting exposure. And more recently, research funded by the European Union showed that radiation from mobile phones can actually alter DNA.

While there was no evidence that the changes to DNA led to diseases, the researchers still recommend using landlines instead of mobile phones. So while you are a developing foetus, you had better hope your mum-to-be isn't chatting to her mum for too long on her mobile phone.

Assuming that by some miracle you survive this technological onslaught, you will be born. That's when your troubles with technology really begin.

Exposure to magnetic fields is anecdotally linked with childhood leukaemia in Canada, the US and Sweden. In early 2004 the UK's National Radioloigcal Protection Board said that increases in cancer rates had been found in areas where exposure was well within international guidelines. In areas with particularly strong magnetic fields, the risk of childhood leukaemia was doubled.

Surely schools will be safe? Perhaps not. In November, a judge ruled that there was no reason for the next-generation mobile-phone masts not to be erected near schools, despite government advice to limit childhood exposure.

School trips are not safe, either. Hi-tech public lavatories can trap people for hours at a time. A 10-year-old in Plymouth had to be freed from the loo by the fire brigade, last April, after the doors wouldn't open. He was too light to alert the weight-sensitive detectors to his presence.

As you mature, you will be allowed access to the internet, and will almost certainly be given a games console of some kind. The biggest danger this kind of technology poses is that you might use it too much. In 2001, the British Medical Journal reported that more than one in five of Britain's under-fours was classed as overweight, and one in 10 was clinically obese. Researchers from the University of Leeds found similar figures for 11-year-olds.

Obesity can lead to diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, hypertension and stroke. It is linked with a host of cancers, including breast cancer and cancer of the oesophagus. It is also reported to be a risk factor for hepatitis and other liver disease.

Although much of the blame for this can be attributed to changes in our eating patterns, a more sedentary lifestyle is another big factor, and technology is what has given us all the opportunity to spend more time sitting down.

American research attributes more than half the weight gain to "declining physical activity from technological changes", which means your kids are fat because they're e-mailing their friends pictures of footballers rather than playing football with their friends outside.

Of course the biggest single question about health and technology is whether mobile phones will give you cancer. The amount of research is this area is staggering: in June a Hungarian study found that men who keep a mobile phone in their pockets have reduced their sperm count by 30 per cent; and in October, research from Sweden found that mobile-phone users were twice as likely to develop a particular kind of benign tumour. But for every study that indicates damage, there is another that says the phones are perfectly safe.

The Stewart report, published in the UK a year ago, reviewed all the evidence and concluded that it couldn't draw any conclusions about the dangers of phone radiation. Instead it recommended that the public take a precautionary approach.

Even if you manage not to develop a tumour, mobile phones can still kill you in unexpected ways. Using a mobile phone is as dangerous as drink-driving. Driving while using a hands-free mobile increases your chance of crashing by four times - the same as drink-driving.

If you make it to the office without a mobile-related car accident, using a computer at work will cause you plenty of additional problems. Touch-typing can cause repetitive-strain injury, sitting hunched over your desk will give you backache, eating lunch at your desk makes your workplace more germ-riddled than a lavatory seat. Research from Japan suggests that staring at computer screens for hours on end can contribute to the onset of glaucoma, a progressive disease that gradually damages the optic nerve, eventually causing blindness. And so the list goes on.

Is it any wonder, then, that technology has been blamed for rising stress levels? Spend even the tiniest fraction of time on the internet and you will find yourself under siege. Spam, viruses and straightforward network crashes will all conspire to send your blood pressure spiralling. In Spain, people are paying for so-called "damage therapy", where, for a fee, they are allowed to take a hammer to technology and vent all their frustration.

If you survive all that, and you still want to use a computer, you still need to be careful. In 2002 a 50-year-old man suffered severe burns to his penis after using a laptop for an hour. A letter describing the incident was published in the medical journal The Lancet.

But despite all this, technology is far from a blight on modern life. E-mail allows us to keep in touch with loved ones, and conduct business on a global scale. It brings almost everyone within our reach and is a great leveller - even Bill Gates gets spam, after all.

So as you enter your autumn years, you will probably look back at this technology revolution and wonder what all the fuss was about. You will have far more pressing concerns: the new-fangled teleporters are, frankly, a bit suspicious, and someone at the club mentioned that those self-driving car-planes have been going wonky and crashing again.

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