Computing the risks to health

Computing the risks to health
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First Published: Wed, Apr 30 2008. 12 22 AM IST
Updated: Wed, Apr 30 2008. 12 22 AM IST
Today let's take a walk—a walk on the wild, scary side of computing.
We'll leave hackers, ordinary computer viruses and scammers for another time. Let's examine some real, but mostly hidden, dangers of computer use that can do real harm to your equipment, or even your body.
These threats don't just come from the Internet, but also from other gadgets that connect to your computer or allow you to use it. An example is the digital picture frame, one in a series of digital appliances that can come with an added and unwelcome feature at times—viruses, worms and password-stealing programs implanted at the manufacturing source.
So far, the list of infected gadgets includes iPods, other music players and GPS devices. But it could widen to any gadget that contains computerized circuitry.
Most of these devices seem to be infected by accident at the factory—for instance, a worker might use a music player for his own use, connecting it to an infected computer. But there's also evidence that some of these programs are added on purpose.
Not to pick on digital frames, but one giant US retailer yanked them off its shelves when it discovered they contained a virus programmed to steal passwords and disable antivirus software.
How does this sinister threat work? All these gadgets end up connected to your computer—either to transfer photos, music or navigation maps. When they are connected, the virus can migrate from the device to your machine. The safeguard? Keep your antivirus software updated so that if a virus tries to sneak in through the back door, the program catches it.
Another potential hidden danger is toner, the stuff used in a laser printer. Some researchers think the dust-like particles can be as dangerous as cigarette smoke. A study published in ‘Environmental Science and Technology’ magazine suggested that changing toner cartridges on a laser printer sometimes subjected people to the high-tech version of black lung disease. The only difference is that, instead of coal dust harming the lungs of miners, the tiny particles of toner dust attacked the lungs of office workers.
There isn't universal agreement on the harm. But it's another example of an unexpected risk that may be lurking. If you’d like to read more, here's a link to a 2007 article in ‘Time’ magazine: ‘http://tinyurl.com/3jb7qu’.
There are other risks to your body when you use a computer. One that is well-documented is carpal tunnel syndrome. Spending long hours at the keyboard can create serious and permanent problems in the median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the hand and can become squeezed at the wrist.
Other, lesser ailments can also be caused by long hours at the keyboard, too. So, take a break.
Another, equally frightening medical problem isn't as well known. New Zealand researchers say extended sessions at a computer can cause fatal blood clots. The risk seems similar to what can happen if you spend a lot of time in a confined position—on long drives, or long airline flights. That adds to the risk of deep vein thrombosis. The veins become compressed and can form blood clots.
Between carpal tunnel syndrome and fatal blood clots—well, that's reason enough for anyone to take frequent breaks from the computer. Just get up and walk around. In fact, I think I'll do that right now. I never knew writing a column could be such a risky occupation.
©2008/The New York Times
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First Published: Wed, Apr 30 2008. 12 22 AM IST