How Your Life
Could Be The Death Of You
Journalist: Lucy Sherriff
January 13, 2005
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
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
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
Assuming that by some miracle you survive this technological
onslaught, you will be born. That’s when your troubles with technology
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
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
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.