I love my laptop.
I do all my fiction writing and blog writing on it, and I take it with me everywhere. My desktop gets a great workout on my freelance projects and submissions, but for just about everything else, I’m on my laptop.
Imagine my dismay, then, when I read recently that it may not be entirely safe to be holding this thing on my lap for hours a day every day.
I had to get to the bottom of it, not only for myself, but for Writing and Wellness readers. We need to know if it’s okay to use these tools directly on our laps or not.
Laptops Emit Some Radiation
Like all electronic devices, laptops use radiofrequency energy, which is a form of electromagnetic radiation. In general, there are two types of electromagnetic radiation:
- Non-ionizing radiation: This type is not considered dangerous to humans, as long as it’s delivered in low doses and for short periods of time. It includes radiofrequency (RF) and extremely low frequency (ELF) radiation. In general, we can think of this as low energy radiation.
- Ionizing radiation: This type is the more dangerous form found in X-rays, gamma rays, and UV rays. We think of this as high-energy radiation.
Non-ionizing radiation comes from both the wireless connection and the device itself, and is the same type of radiation emitted from other modern-day gadgets, including desktop computers, televisions, cell phones, electric blankets, and microwave ovens.
The human body absorbs both types of radiation. Ionizing radiation has been found to increase risk of cancer. So far, however, according to the National Cancer Institute, there is “currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk.”
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), however, together with the World Health Organization (WHO), did state in 2011 that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields were possibly carcinogenic to humans, based on research on cell phones and a rare type of brain cancer.
In response, the American Cancer Society stated that there could be some cancer risk associated with radiofrequency energy, but that we need more studies to examine the question further.
Most of the major health organizations, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), continue to maintain that current evidence has failed to conclusively link radiofrequency energy from cell phones with any health problems.
Meanwhile, we have some other studies that suggest potential health risks associated with laptop computers.
Laptops Are Unique Because of Their Close Proximity
Among all the gadgets that use radiofrequency energy, laptops are unique because we hold them so close to our bodies.
With other gadgets like desktops and microwave ovens, they are usually at least a couple feet away from us, and we aren’t touching them. Even with our phones, we typically use wired or wireless earpieces to access them. That gives the radiation space to disperse, so it doesn’t hit us so directly. Laptops, on the other hand, often sit right on our laps.
Fortunately, the radiation from the device itself, particularly the newer models, is Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) electromagnetic radiation from computer processing and storage. If you’re wirelessly connected to the Internet or a network, however, the machine emits a higher frequency, Radio Frequency (RF) radiation.
That means if you’re using the Internet, it’s best to create some space between you and the machine. More on that below.
Laptops May Affect Male Fertility
Some studies have suggested that regularly using a laptop may affect a man’s fertility. In 2012, researchers took semen samples from 29 healthy men, and then placed the samples under a laptop connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi.
After four hours, results showed that 25 percent of the sperm was no longer active, compared to 14 percent from samples stored at the same temperature away from the computer. In addition, 9 percent of the sperm showed DNA damage, which was three times the damage shown in the comparison samples.
“We speculate that keeping a laptop connected wirelessly to the Internet on the lap near the testes may result in decreased male fertility,” the researchers wrote. “Further in vitro and in vivo studies are needed to prove this contention.”
This is just one small study, and it was conducted in the lab, not in real-world conditions. There have been other related studies conducted on cell phones, however, which emit the same kind of radiation.
In 2011, for example, researchers reported that cell phone use negatively affected sperm quality in men. Other studies have indicated that men who carry a cell phone on a belt or pants pocket are more likely to have lower sperm counts and less mobile sperm than men who don’t.
The Environmental Working Group reported in 2013 on 10 studies that linked cell phone radiation with negative affects on sperm.
Pregnant Women May Want to Be Cautious with Laptop Computers
The concern extends to pregnant women, as well. In 2012, researchers looked at the possibility that a laptop computer could potentially harm a fetus. They measured electromagnetic fields on five commonly used laptop computers. Values were within recommended safety parameters for non-ionizing radiation, but were higher than the values recommended for magnetic fields emissions.
What are magnetic fields?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are created when electric current flows. The stronger the current, the stronger the magnetic field. In this study, the electromagnetic field emissions were higher than those considered safe (to avoid the risk of tumor development).
The researchers concluded that the laptop was an “improper site” for the use of a computer, and they suggested renaming the device “to not induce customers towards an improper use.”
Heat from Laptops Can Cause Skin Discoloration
In addition to the radiation and EMFs, laptops also give off heat, which can be dangerous all by itself. If you leave the laptop directly on your skin, you can actually burn yourself, or cause uncomfortable skin rashes.
One type of heating effect specifically connected to laptop use is called “toasted skin syndrome,” and can actually result in permanent discoloration of the skin. The Daily Mail reported on the story of a 12-year-old boy who developed a bad case of it after playing video games on his laptop for hours every day.
The same case was one of 10 reported in a 2010 study in Pediatrics. Researchers explained that the skin condition was the result of prolonged exposure to heat from the laptop, emanating from the optical drive, the battery, or the ventilation fan of the computer.
According to a 2010 report in Reuters, this same heat could affect male fertility as well. They noted a study in which men balanced their laptops on their knees. Even with a lap pad under the computer, the men’s scrotums heated to temperatures above those considered safe for sperm within 10-15 minutes.
5 Minutes to Make Your Laptop Safer
So far, there is no reason to be unduly alarmed. We have only a few studies on these issues, and we need more.
We still don’t know, for example, what effect using a laptop computer for decades may have on the human body, if any. For now, we have to go on what science has shown us, and then decide if we feel we need to take precautions to protect ourselves.
Fortunately, it’s easy to significantly reduce your risk. If you’d rather be safe than sorry, try the following tips to make your laptop even safer to use.
- Get the laptop off your lap. Put it on a desk or other surface when you can. Or use a lap desk if you want to use the machine while reclining.
- Create space. Raising the machine even an inch off your lap allows the EMFs to dissipate. There are a number of pads, lap desks, and other products you can use to do this.
- Use a cooling pad. These help to reduce the heat that you’re exposed to. There are a lot of them available online and at places like BestBuy.
- Use an external keyboard. This can help you create some space between you and the machine.
- Set it aside. Creating just one foot of space between you and the laptop can drastically reduce your exposure to radiation and EMFs. I sometimes balance mine on the arm of my easy chair, for example. Get creative.
- Disconnect from the Internet. When you’re offline, your machine emits much lower levels of radiation than when it’s connected. Streaming video results in some of the highest radiation emissions, so be sure the machine is off your lap when watching movies.
- Don’t put it directly on your skin. If you’re somewhere you need to use the laptop on your lap, don’t place it directly on your skin. Always have another layer in between.
- Unplug it. When you’re running on battery power alone, the EMFs are reduced.
- Consider EMF protection products: If you use your laptop a lot, you may want to invest in quality EMF protection products. Look for those that block EMFs and that help cool the laptop. The DefenderPad and the HARApad are two examples. I haven’t used them, so I’m not endorsing them. If you have tried them or have used other similar products, please share your experiences in the comments.
Do you regularly use your laptop on your lap?
“IARC Classifies Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields as Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans,” International Agency for Research on Cancer and World Health Organization, May 31, 2011, [Press Release No 208], http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2011/pdfs/pr208_E.pdf.
Conrado Avendano, et al., “Use of laptop computers connected to internet through Wi-Fi decreases human sperm motility and increases sperm DNA fragmentation,” Fertility and Sterility, January 2012; 97(1):39-45.e2, http://www.fertstert.org/article/S0015-0282(11)02678-1/fulltext.
Gutschi, et al., “Impact of cell phone use on men’s semen parameters,” Andrologia, October 2011; 43(5):312-316, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1439-0272.2011.01075.x/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false.
EWG Science Review, “EWG’s Guide to Safer Cell Phone Use: Cell Phone Radiation Damages Sperm, Studies Find,” EWG, August 17, 2013, http://www.ewg.org/cell-phone-radiation-damages-sperm-studies-find.
Bellieni CV, et al., “Exposure to electromagnetic fields from laptop use of ‘laptop’ computers,” Arch Environ Occup Health, 2012; 67(1):31-6, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22315933.
Fiona Macrae, “How the heat from a laptop can ‘toast’ the skin on your thighs,” Daily Mail, October 7, 2010, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1317532/Laptop-heat-toast-skin-thighs.html.
Andreas W. Arnold, et al., “Laptop Computer-Induced Erythema ab Igne in a Child and Review of the Literature,” Pediatrics, September 2010, doi: 10.1542/peds.2010-1390.
“Laptop use on laps might reduce sperm quality: report,” Reuters, November 7, 2010, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-laptops-fertility-idUSTRE6A70G720101108.