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Is radiation from your PC hurting you?

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Is radiation from your PC hurting you?

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

Is your computer killing you?

The answer is almost certainly no. But the fact that such a question is being asked at all shows how worried many of us have become about the danger of radiation coming from our computer screens and VDT monitors. The radiation from monitors and video display terminals may cause cancer and other diseases—and then again it may not. Nobody knows for sure. But what is known is that everybody should avoid unnecessary risks from this sort of radiation, called VLF and ELF (very low frequency and extremely low frequency) emissions.

That's relatively easy to do, if you use some common sense. Some of the advice I am about to give is simple to follow if you are dealing with a PC in your home. However, you may have to get backing from your co-workers to get your company to make these changes at the office.

Most people who use PCs or video terminals know that sitting too close to the screen increases the danger of radiation. But many do not realize that the sides and rear of the monitor are more dangerous. That means that even if you stay a safe two feet away from your own screen, you could be sitting too close to the side or rear of a co-worker's terminal.

I found just such a situation in my own work group at the office, in which the H-pattern of terminals placed some of the editors just inches from the sides or rear of other monitors. We made a few quick changes in the seating pattern after pointing out the problem to our supervisor.

So the first and most important rule is to keep a safe distance from the front, sides and back of all computer and VDT monitors. You should always be at least 14 inches from the screen, although 24 inches is preferred. And you should be more than 24 inches from the sides and back of any nearby monitor. Next, you should make maximum use of computers that do not have regular, cathode-ray tubes (CRTs). The radiation that is sometimes measured from monitors comes only from parts inside the CRT.

This means that laptop computers, which generally use liquid-crystal diode (LCD) displays, are completely safe alternatives to desktop computers. If you do a lot of computing at home, a modern laptop equipped with a hard-disc drive can be a wise purchase.

At the office, you can make two suggestions. First, ask your supervisor to consider buying high-capacity laptops the next time PCs are purchased; second, ask that the PCs that are used the most be fitted with LCD screens. These are new to desktop PCs and are still fairly expensive, but are sure to become cheaper over the next year or so.

Many companies have installed radiation shields over the screens of the PCs and VDTs in their offices. This can reduce radiation coming from the front.

However, since such shields do not deal with the potentially greater radiation from the sides and back of the monitor, they may give users a false sense of security.

An unrelated danger is repetitive stress syndrome, which usually shows up as stiffness in shoulders, arms and wrists. It can include carpal tunnel syndrome, a potentially crippling wrist condition.

There are many ways of alleviating or avoiding such physical injuries. The simplest is to stay relaxed while typing—and to take a break as soon as you feel any stiffness. You may find that a wrist rest—available from computer stores and by mail from computer-supply dealers—will help support your hands.

As a carpal-tunnel sufferer, I usually am able to type without pain when I use a wrist rest, a pad that sits in front of the keyboard. Your employer should supply wrist rests without cost if you ask for one. (The company's health insurance probably requires such preventive measures when they are requested.) If you do any amount of company work on your home PC, ask for a second wrist rest for that computer, too.

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