Is Digital Imaging Hazardous To Your Health
It Can Be, But Using A Computer Does Not Have To Be A Pain

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While working in a digital darkroom is less hazardous to your health than dealing with the chemicals in a traditional wet darkroom, it's not without a few risks of its own. Sometimes, we digital imagers find ourselves so mesmerized by a monitor filled with high-resolution images that we lose track of time. It's far too easy to get lost in a project and keep on working with programs like Adobe Photoshop while trying to create "the ultimate image." But too much of anything--even your digital imaging computer--can be hazardous to your health. I'm not just talking about Repetitive Motion Syndrome (RMS) and other problems related to using a mouse and a keyboard all day long. There are other potential computer-related problems lurking that I would like to make you aware of. I'm not a doctor and don't even play one on TV, but would like to pass along a few tips about how to make using your computer a more healthful experience.

Eyes Wide Open
Vision is one of the biggest health issues facing many digital imagers and others who spend all day looking at computer screens. If you wear glasses, when was the last time you had an eye exam? When working at your computer, an outdated eyeglass or contact lens prescription that even slightly blurs your vision can cause difficulty. If you have a previously undiagnosed vision problem, it will only become worse with increased computer use. Due to the natural aging process, you may have presbyopia, which causes your eyes to lose their ability to focus on near objects, such as a monitor. If you are farsighted, computer use forces your eyes to work harder than normal in order to perform any focusing effort. All of this additional work can cause eyestrain and fatigue. Even with a current prescription, contact lens users can experience dry eye problems with extended computer use and should consider using products such as artificial tears to keep eyes moist and healthy.

Flat panel monitors, like this CTX 710MDV, are inherently less glare-prone than their glass-tube cousins, take up less space, while producing less radiation. Digital models, like this CTX, are also pretty good for digital imaging.

Here are a few tips about the ergonomics of vision and computer use that have been suggested by the American Optometric Association (AOA) and other medical and scientific groups.

Light Levels
When viewing screens with dark backgrounds, it's a good idea to use low-level lighting in your workspace. Try to match the brightness of your monitor with that of the surrounding area. The AOA suggests 20-70 foot-candles or about one-half normal the level found in a typical office lighting situation.

Glare Strain
Sometimes the simplest, least expensive computer accessory can make a big difference in your working conditions. One of the biggest environmental problems facing graphic designers is monitor glare. Eyestrain, headaches, and fatigue caused by the glare off monitors can create symptoms know as Computer Vision Syndrome. The best solution is to place your monitor where glare is not a problem. If that's not possible consider using glare filters such as the Polaroid AG400 anti-glare filter that includes a conductive coating that eliminates static and gets rid of dust problems, too. It also provides a 98 percent reduction in VLF (Very Low Frequency) and ELF (Extremely Low Frequency) radiation. The filter is available in two sizes to fit screens from 13-18" and includes a universal mounting system. Prices are $32.95 for the smaller size and $54.95 for the larger AG400.

3M makes a family of approved monitor glare and radiation filters that are designed to fit many different kinds of monitors, including Apple's iMac which has a built-in monitor.

If you want more aggressive glare protection, consider a Circular Polarizer filter that eliminates 99 percent of the glare while enhancing contrast 18 times. Polaroid's CP-90 Contour filter will also protect against radiation and has a built-in grounding strap to eliminate static electricity. 3M also makes a family of approved monitor glare (and radiation) filters for many different kinds of monitors, including the Apple iMac. 3M also offers Privacy filters for notebook computers to keep prying eyes from peering at your laptop's screen while you're working in public areas. No matter what brand of monitor glare shield you choose, make sure to purchase one that has the AOA Seal of Acceptance.

Monitor Choices
The kind of monitor you use can make a difference, too. Flat panel LCD monitors have a soft plastic surface that virtually eliminates glare. I work with two computers in a V-shaped configuration; on the left is my Windows computer and on the right is my Power Macintosh G3 that has a 21" CTX Ultra Screen monitor. It's placed in such a way as to virtually eliminate all glare--its flat screen helps--but the Trinitron tube is coated with a multi-layer ARAG (Anti-Reflection, Anti-Glare) treatment that refracts unwanted light away from the surface while maintaining high on-screen image quality. Glare and eyestrain was a big problem with my Windows computer until I started using a CTX 710MDV 17" LCD monitor. Then my troubles disappeared. Flat panel screens have other advantages as well, including less power consummation and radiation and a smaller desktop footprint.

Sit Distance
Where you sit in relation to your computer screen is important, too. The front of your screen should be between 18 and 31" from your eyes. An ideal viewing angle is 10-20 below eye level. When looking at the center of a screen, your head should be angled slightly downward. If you need to refer to another document as a reference, place that document at the same height and angle as the screen. Computer stores are filled with document holders that you may have thought were useless accessories. When you try one, however, you'll wonder how you ever got along without it. If your monitor is too high or low, use a support to place it at a comfortable height.

Monitor Quality
Finally, choosing a high quality monitor is a must. The "easiest on the eyes" monitors have the most stable images. You should look for screens that offer 75+ hertz refresh rates, high pixel count, and low dot-pitch (.28mm or less).

Be Cool!
Room temperature is an important issue, and not just for your computer. In the bad old days of computing, the first air conditioners many employees, myself included, encountered were those the company installed to keep the computer cool--not the employees. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers recommends that office climate should be kept between 73 and 79 during the summer and 68 and 74 during the winter. A relative humidity between 30 and 60 percent is also recommended. Because of Colorado's dry climate, I installed a humidifier in my home's furnace to add humidity. Those of you in more humid areas won't need one of these devices.

Keep your hands and arms warm, too. Before pounding on those keys and grabbing that mouse, take a few minutes to gently stretch your hands to warm them. During the winter, my former home office was so cold (How cold was it?) that in order to keep my hands warm I had to wear the same fingerless wool gloves I use for photography outdoors during chilly weather. That's too cold. The only way I solved that problem was to sell the house and buy a new one.

Take A Break, Really!
Be sure to take alternative task breaks throughout the day. This is a good idea, not just for your eyes but for the rest of your body as well. To maintain low stress levels, muscle recovery needs to go on throughout the workday. San Francisco's Occupational Medicine Clinic recommends a 10-minute break at least once an hour and a computing day of four to six hours. The British Association of Scientific, Technical, and Managerial Staffs recommends a 30-minute break with a maximum of two hours at the keyboard. Taking breaks not only helps make you healthier but also makes you more productive. If you work until your muscles start to ache, you've waited too long.

Exercise is not just a good idea; it's something you should do each day. Put down the M&Ms and Mountain Dews for a few minutes and go outside and take a walk. If you find that you're in pain, see a doctor. While you're there, seek a few recommendations about an exercise program or health regime. Just because you don't eat junk food doesn't mean you have a healthy diet.

And Remember To Loosen Up
Finally a personal suggestion from Doctor Farace. Treat yourself to a therapeutic massage once every three to four weeks. Even a half hour upper body massage will loosen tight muscles and have you eager to go back to digital imaging afterward. Thera-peutic massage will also help you sleep better at night because there won't be any muscle aches and pains to distract you. Best of all, massage therapy is inexpensive. In my area, a half hour upper body massage costs $20. It will be the best money you've ever spent.

American Optometric Association (AOA)
(314) 991-4100
fax: (314) 991-4101

CTX International, Inc.
(800) 266-1491
(626) 709-1000

Peachpit Press
(800) 283-9444
(510) 524-2178
fax: (510) 524-2221

Polaroid Corp.
(800) 225-1618
(781) 386-2000
fax: (781) 386-6243

Shelter Publications
(800) 307-0131

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