20 April 2007

Electronic Maladies

By Rusty Rockets

PCs, plasma screens, cell phones, laptops, wireless gadgets - we can't seem to get enough of them. And why not? They've reduced our workloads and dramatically increased our social networking capabilities. But could all this modern technology be adversely affecting our health? Workplace cancer clusters and continuing concerns over our ever-increasing exposure to electromagnetic radiation may mean we're trading off our health for a smidgen of electronic convenience.

The increasing number of cancer clusters that are being identified in suburbs, educational institutions and workplaces worldwide is largely still a mystery. While some clusters have been put down to radioactive, chemical or biological agents, a disconcertingly large number of them remain unexplained. This was the case at an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) radio station in Queensland, Australia, where a disproportionately high number of female staff were diagnosed with breast cancer.

One possible explanation for the rising number of clusters is the availability of better diagnostic tools. This hypothesis suggests that new technologies allow doctors to diagnose cancers with greater ease and speed, which has led to regular screening and improved detection of cancers. This provides a bigger window of opportunity for diagnosis, so that where employees may once have moved on to other jobs before being diagnosed with cancer, they are now being diagnosed in clusters.

But even taking into account the statistic that 1-in-3 people will develop some kind of cancer in their lifetime, the odds of 5 or more work colleagues developing the same cancer at the same time would seem fairly unlikely, unless there was a common factor linking them. The review team investigating the ABC case agreed, stating: "The occurrence of eight cases of proven breast cancer in a small workplace over this time period raises the likelihood that this is a statistical excess of cases." However, reaching this conclusion is relatively easy compared to actually identifying a cluster's root cause.

Extensive testing at the station for adversely high levels of radio frequency electromagnetic radiation revealed nothing untoward. Controversially, after the tests were completed, the Queensland health authority claimed that; "An excess [of breast cancer cases] would most likely be due to coincidence," or due to; "factors, which in the present state of scientific knowledge, are unknown or unrelated to the workplace." They also added that: "Given the current state of scientific knowledge and that the investigation focused on the workplace, workplace-related factors are considered an unlikely explanation." This outcome is fairly standard, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who claim that while follow-up studies can be conducted, "they can take years to complete and the results are generally inconclusive."

While the hunt is on for the culprits behind cancer clusters, the flip-side of the coin reveals new technologies in search of a malady.

Since the introduction of wireless computer networks (WiFi), a number of groups (perhaps inevitably, given the outcry over mobile phones) have claimed that these networks are behind a plethora of health troubles. It was reported in London's The Times that a group of irate parents and teachers pressured local schools to ban and remove newly installed wireless systems, over fears that the wireless networks may have adverse effects on health. The Times reported that this move, like the furor over cell phones before it, might spark off debate regarding the safety of electromagnetic emissions coming from WiFi devices.

Prior to removal, testing was carried out at the schools, and the all clear was given. But despite this, the teachers described a list of ailments that they attributed to the WiFi devices. "I felt a steadily widening range of unpleasant effects whenever I was in the classroom," one teacher told The Times. "First came a thick headache, then pains throughout the body, sudden flushes, pressure behind the eyes, sudden skin pains and burning sensations, along with bouts of nausea. Over the weekend, away from the classroom, I felt completely normal."

Other anti-WiFi campaigners have also presented with a wide array of ambiguous symptoms. But as gadget phobia continues to stalk hypochondriacs everywhere, there may now be real evidence available that shows how there are some technologies of which we should be wary.

Ironically, the studies raising such concerns relate to medical diagnostic equipment. Presenting his findings at the National Council on Radiation Protection & Measurements' annual meeting, Dr. Fred A. Mettler explained that the average US citizen today is exposed to six-times the amount of radiation from medical devices as they were in 1980. In numerical terms, the number of scans has increased from 18 million in 1993, to 62 million in 2006. Mettler attributes this significant rise in radiation exposure to the explosion of computerized tomography (CT) scans and nuclear medicine procedures, which all emit high levels of radiation.

Researchers such as Mahadevappa Mahesh, a medical physicist at Johns Hopkins University, says that people don't need to be exposed to so much radiation, and that physicians need to be aware that they should only recommend a scan when absolutely necessary. "These tests are now so fast and easy, we have to make sure they are only being used when definitely needed," says Dr. Mahesh. "The benefits from these tests are real," added Dr. Mahesh. "We just need to pay attention to the dose issue."

Observations like Mettler's are consistent with a society obsessed with health, and the medicalization of society by the medical profession. "While diagnoses used to be reserved for serious illness, we now diagnose illness in people who have no symptoms at all, those with so-called pre-disease or those at risk," said H. Gilbert Welch, in the New York Times. "We need to think hard about the benefits and risks of increased diagnosis." And when it comes down to it that is the fundamental question we should be asking of all new technologies: does the benefit outweigh the potential cost in well-being?

Technological compromises are not new, of course. We enjoy the convenience of cars while being fully aware that they can kill us. But the difference between cars and newly developed technologies is that we know most of the risks associated with the former. The bottom line is that we are willing to compromise and live with the inherent risks of a useful technology, but it might be good to know about its associated risks beforehand.

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