Personal computers -- or VDTs (video display terminals) -- have become so commonplace that it is estimated there are more than 30 million VDTs in use in the United States. The workplace has been transformed by this new technology, and much of the transformation involves women who work in front of terminals for hours each day.
Women need to know what this enormous increase in working hours spent in front of VDTs means for their health.
Q: Do computers (VDTs) pose a health risk for women?
A: According to researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health's Center for VDT and Health Research, health concerns and VDT use have focused on two issues -- the first is in part a reaction to scientific research into the possible effects of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) because video display terminals create low-frequency electromagnetic fields.
The second quite different issue focuses on the ergonomic effects of working with VDTs -- complaints like wrist and finger pain, the development of carpal tunnel syndrome, eye fatigue, neck and back strain and headaches. It is often difficult to separate which of these problems may be caused by office working conditions rather than by VDT use itself.
Q: Are electromagnetic fields a health problem for women working with VDTs?
A: Electromagnetic fields are caused by electron beams that rewrite the computer screen hundreds of times each minute. Electromagnetic fields are not unique to computer screens. They are also emitted by electrical appliances and electric wiring.
Research into the effects of EMFs has focused on women's reproductive health, in part because of miscarriages reported among VDT operators by several studies done in the 1980s.
According to Hopkins researchers at the Center for VDT and Health Research, VDTs in the United States generally do not emit the high levels of EMFs that could pose any health risk.
Dr. Ronald Gray, director of the center, adds that a 1992 United States study found no excess miscarriage rates among VDT users, and the evidence suggests that even pregnant women can safely continue to use computers.
For more information about women and VDT use, contact the Center for Office Technology at (703) 276-1174.
Dr. Matanoski is a physician and professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.