When I worked in a factory some 30 years back, it was a dangerous place filled with heavy machinery, slick floors, sharp edges, overhangs and chemical fumes. Many of us envied the office workers who never got dirty and never seemed to face anything more dangerous than a bad-hair day. Now that I work in offices, I've discovered a whole new realm of dangers, such as carpal-tunnel syndrome and headache from squinting at computer monitors. But little did I guess how I was shortening my very life by answering e-mail or eating popcorn.
This month in the Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com), blogger Linda Stone claims to have discovered a disorder she's named "e-mail apnea." She said that, when we open and read e-mail, our breathing patterns change. Breathing grows shallow and a little erratic, as it does during the better-known disorder of sleep apnea. We essentially stop breathing for a few moments.
That could lead to a whole cascade of effects, including anxiety, short temper and fatigue. She said that once she noticed the effect in e-mail, she found it in other humantechnology interaction she observed. Cell phone users mouth-breathed and hyperventilated as they talked and paced.
Note that although Stone may be entirely correct, she can't cite any studies that back up her contention because, as far as I know, no one has researched it directly. I'm a little surprised at this, because the market for researchers is fairly well-saturated, and all sorts of odd little things in the workplace have been extensively studied, including the influence of magnetic fields and natural versus fluorescent lighting. But I have to say that her observations are interesting. She also presents a plausible explanation for email apnea.
The body has two modes, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The parasympathetic is restful. Digestion is smooth, breathing is regular, and we feel safe. The moment we feel unsafe, the sympathetic system kicks in, and the body prepares for fight or flight. We think of our ancestors with African savanna ZIP codes as having perilous lives, but that's not entirely true. They doubtless felt safe more often than we do, because they didn't fret 24-7 about meetings, bosses, soccer practices, terrorist attacks and gas prices.
Modern life is often just one stressor after another, all day long. Open e-mails and there they all are, the stressors we've grown to tolerate. Answer a cell call, and there they are again. We have voluntarily tethered ourselves to our stressors and can never escape them. When something stressful looms in front of us, we respond by holding our breath momentarily, and the sympathetic system surges into action, making us constantly edgy and tired. It's partly why yoga teachers constantly emphasize breathing, because deep breathing suppresses those tense impulses.
The problem with modern life is that we don't even recognize these as stressors anymore. We've learned to ignore the signs because they happen so often. Stone's advice is predictable: breathe, breathe, breathe. Get away from the techno-gadgets and take deep breaths.
Unfortunately, breathing more deeply doesn't solve every problem. In some cases, it makes things worse. Just look at popcorn lung. Although the name is peculiar, it's no joke. Popcorn lung happens to workers in popcorn factories when their lungs get too much diacetyl, a butter flavoring once widely used in microwave popcorn (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bronchiolitis_obliterans). Workers are now supposed to be wearing respirators when they contact diacetyl.
It was only a matter of time before the first consumer lawsuit surfaced. In January, Wayne Watson of Denver sued Kroger for not telling consumers that inhaling fumes from microwave popcorn could lead to the disease. Watson had eaten two bags of butter-flavored popcorn every night for 10 years, happily inhaling the diacetyl-laced fumes. His doctor has since put him on a diet and had him cut his popcorn consumption, which he says is restoring his lung capacity (www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/09/06/health/main3239379.shtml).
Naturally, as a result of the news media talking about the Watson case, less-dedicated popcorn users are starting to sniff suspiciously at the air as their bags are inflating. To date, Watson is the only reported case, but it's unlikely he's the only victim. There must be workers all over the country who have sat next to the office microwave day after day, getting regular hits of diacetyl from co-workers' snacks. Most popular brands no longer use diacetyl, but the effects of popcorn lung can linger for years.
Although working in an office isn't as safe as I once thought it was, I'll happily stay here. I know of machine operators losing their fingers and steelworkers losing their lives. Believe me, I wouldn't trade my workstation for my old steel-toed boots on my worst day.
Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.