Your iPod and BlackBerry Can Hurt Your Health

Several recent reports shed light on health concerns tied to hand-held devices.

FE_PR_081015health_digital.jpg
By + More

The way you use your personal electronics may be hazardous to your health, as a couple of recent reports remind us. Here's how to avoid short- or long-term health problems.

• Turn down the volume. The European Union warned this week that users of MP3 players risk permanent hearing loss if they listen to these devices for too long at maximum volume levels. Between 2.5 million and 10 million Europeans, the EU estimated, are at risk for hearing loss if they listen to MP3 players at a volume of more than 89 decibels for more than five hours per week for at least five years. As Bernadine Healy wrote in a column last year, "the hairlike, specialized nerve endings that are lined up inside a coiled, fluid-filled compartment of the inner ear can be shaken to death by loudness they were not designed to handle."

"We've never really had the situation [before now] where people are listening to it all day long and also when it's straight into the ear," says Brenda Battat, executive director of the Maryland-based Hearing Loss Association of America. The solution? Keep the devices' volume at a level where others sitting nearby can't hear the sound. "I don't think we're going to convince people not to use them, but they should use them responsibly," Battat says.

• Don't multitask while you send text messages. It goes without saying—or should—that driving a car while texting your friends or boss (or scrolling through your iPod playlist) can be deadly. The recent train crash in California served as a reminder, if one was needed. National Transportation Safety Board investigators found that an engineer operating a Metrolink train on September 12 was sending and receiving text messages while on duty that day, including seconds before the crash. Six states—Alaska, California, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Washington—and Washington, D.C., ban text messaging for all drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Six states—California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Utah, and Washington—and Washington, D.C., have laws that prohibit driving while talking on hand-held phones—though using a hands-free device is usually permitted.)

The risks can be considerable off the road, too. Emergency room physicians report a spike in cases of people injured while texting and simultaneously walking, biking, and rollerblading. As a result, the American College of Emergency Physicians issued a statement this summer warning of the dangers of text messaging while engaged in other activities. One illustration cited by the group: A young woman who was walking and texting when she stepped off the curb was hit by a pickup truck and died in the emergency room Most people can walk and talk, says Linda Lawrence, president of the ACEP, but "when you text and walk, it's essentially like walking blind."

• Take a break from texting, and do exercises. One in 6 young people 16 to 24 years old surveyed by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy reported feeling discomfort in his or her hands while texting, according to a report released in July. A 2006 Virgin Mobile survey reported that cellphones cause about 3.8 million repetitive strain injuries per year. Some frequent cellphone users complain of sore thumbs and wrists associated with too much texting, Virgin Mobile reports.

Some refer to the soreness tied to cellphone texting as "BlackBerry thumb." Others have coined a similar term for MP3 player users—"iPod finger." The small keyboards are not designed for excessive texting, and overdoing it can result in swelling and pain in the tendons at the base of the wrist and thumb, according to the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, the professional trade organization for the United Kingdom's physiotherapists, students, and assistants. Virgin Mobile offers a list of five "textercises" for your thumb, hand, chest, and arm to ward off soreness from texting.