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While standing in the kitchen, chatting with my friend, I mindlessly slipped my mug of coffee into the microwave to heat it up. My friend immediately jumped several steps back and said, “You actually use your microwave?!” As far as I knew, microwaves were totally safe -- but her reaction got me thinking. How many of our daily appliances are rumored to be harmful to our health? Which have actual research confirming their dangers, and which are just allegedly unsafe?

The Rumor: Using certain modern devices will lead you to an early grave 

We've all heard about cancer risk and cellphones. Microwaves are apparently nuking more than our food, and it's said that medical scans may give you conditions no doctor can fix. And let's not forget the reputed hazards of sitting in front of the TV or computer. Are any of these rumors true?

The Verdict: The risk depends on the device and how (much) you use it

Cellphones: They've been on our radar for years as potential risks for the development of brain tumors. Wireless cellphones emit radiofrequency fields (RFs), aka radio waves. That's the same radiation emitted by microwave ovens, x-rays and other wireless media devices. It's been shown that large doses of these RFs can break down tissue in the body, wreaking havoc on our DNA. Whether or not cellphones emit enough radiation to cause potentially carcinogenic damage to our bodies is not yet known.

In May 2011, scientists from the International Agency for Research on Cancer gathered to evaluate the possibility of radiofrequency electromagnetic field exposure leading to increased risk of gliomas, a malignant type of brain cancer. All current literature was evaluated and appraised as limited and inadequate. It was acknowledged, however, that one study of past cellphone use showed a 40 percent increase in risk for gliomas in heavy cellphone users (30 minutes a day over 10 years). Because cellphones haven't been around long enough to provide scientists with long-term evidence, the risk of developing gliomas via cellphone usage was given a 2B classification, meaning, “We need to keep a close watch for a link between cellphones and cancer risk."

Just in case: Use hands-free (wired) headphones to keep your phone as far from your head (and brain) as possible. Never sleep with your phone near your pillow; cellphones emit RFs even when you're not making calls. Look into phone-case options (such as pong) that redirect some of the potentially dangerous radiation away from your head and body.

Microwaves: They're considered controversial not just because of their questionable ability to heat foods without altering the nutrient content, but because of their potential radiation risk, too. My friend isn’t the only one who takes 10 steps back at the sound of the start button. However, according to the FDA, radiation levels within two inches of a properly functioning standard microwave are well below harmful standards -- and within two feet, radiation is barely detectable.

Just in case: Don't stand thisclose to watch your food cook. Keep your micro clean, and make sure the doors function properly so there's no leakage.

Medical Scans: CT scans are a highly effective way of taking quick cross-sectional images of the insides of our bodies. However, they can emit tremendous amounts of radiation -- more than the typical x-ray. There is some concern that this may lead to certain cancers later in life.

Extensive research has been done on the harmful effects of radiation from medical x-rays and CT scans, and studies have shown that CT scans do result in a "very small but increased" risk of leukemia and brain tumors in children within the first decade after exposure.

Just in case: While CT scans are considered essential to diagnostic radiology, medical experts now recommend using them only in cases when they're the best test for a certain indication. To reduce unnecessary exposure, keep detailed and organized medical records -- that way, you'll prevent overlapping (read: unnecessary) medical tests. And always ask your doctor about all your diagnostic options.

Computers And Televisions: There's been a lot of buzz recently about the indirect health implications of sitting in front of a television or computer for prolonged periods of time. While both gadgets pose no direct harm via radiation, evidence suggests that the more time you spend sitting in front the screen, the more you risk developing health problems -- or possibly even dying at an earlier age.

The Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that for every additional two hours of television people watched on a typical day, they have a 20 percent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The risk of heart disease is increased by 15 percent. According to Stephen Kopecky, MD, president of the American Society for Preventative Cardiology, the increased risks of disease associated with excess television watching is similar to what you might see with high cholesterol, blood pressure or smoking.

Just in case: Sit on an exercise ball or try to keep moving while in front of a computer screen or TV. Get up and walk around during commercial breaks. Climb a flight of stairs during each break, and soon you may even see beneficial side effects! 


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