A Lap(top) is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Burned DellThe lap is a most important place.

Traditionally it is a location of comfort and security, a familiar spot to get a cuddle or a more convenient perch from which to reach dinner. It’s the spot you might ask for a new toy at Christmas from. It’s a good tool for pat-a-cake.

Ever since Roman times it’s the spot we hold our favourite pets. A bowl of popcorn tastes better from here.

So why do so many of us daily expose this important and tender anatomical location to one of the most dangerous and volatile pieces of technology around?

The laptop computer, along with its nefarious sidekick, the lithium-ion battery, is responsible for having destroyed planes, trucks, and desks with impressive and unexpected bursts of flame and explosions.

It’s a dangerous tool. Yet there it sits, on our laps, like an important child or a loved pet.

Last week Dell Computer recalled over 4 million laptop computer batteries for safety reasons, the largest product recall in the history of consumer electronics.

There are apparently hundreds of reported cases of these heavy bundles of volatile chemicals suddenly exploding and burning. The internet is littered with photos and movies of charred desks and the burnt husks of Dell computers.

Earlier this year in Chicago on a passenger flight just before take off, a battery started to emit smoke. An alert flight attendant, rather than risk a blaze, simply opened the cabin door and tossed the digital campfire to the tarmac where it burst into flame.

In February a cargo plane was forced to land after a shipment of laptop-destined lithium-ion batteries it was carrying burst into flame. The crew escaped unhurt, but the plane burned to the ground.

My favourite tale is of a surly old Nevada backwoodsman who left his Dell in the cab of his truck while he went fishing one day in June. The battery ignited and caused a chain reaction involving some old ammunition he’d left in his glove compartment and the gas tank he’d just topped up. The man returned with his day’s catch to find the burned out husk of his former pickup. It was a long walk back to town.

Even when not on fire, laptop computers themselves are dangerous things. They can reduce fertility in men and often cause serious burns that may lead to cancer.

As most of us are aware, the longer a laptop is used, the hotter it gets. An engineer recently recorded the surface temperature of the bottom of a laptop reaching 50ºC after just 2 hours of use on a table.

As a result of these high temperatures, using a laptop on one’s lap can lead to a dermatological condition called Erythema Ab Igne, or EAI. In essence, this is a burn that results from prolonged exposure to a steady source of strong heat. It’s often seen on the cheeks of people who cook over a campfire, or in people that depend on a heating pad for warmth. Nowadays it’s fairly common in laptop users.

As a rather severe example of EAI, there’s a report of a British researcher who cuddled up with his laptop one Saturday to get some work done. A day or so later he discovered the blisters and rash of a second degree burn on his penis and scrotum (the poor sod claims that he was fully clothed during his work session).

While EAI is pretty yucky to look at, what’s worse is that it can lead to skin cancer in the affected area.
Even if one manages to avoid a thigh burn, it is documented that men can suffer from temporary infertility after prolonged laptop use. This is not related to the technology itself, but to the intense heat that the units emit. The same effect is caused by a stay in a hot tub or by wearing a tight pair of jeans.

Long ago companies like Apple, Dell and HP stopped referring to laptops as “laptops”. In a sort of perverse self-denial of engineered purpose, they’re now formally called “notebooks” and most carry warnings about their proper use; from Apple’s MacBook Pro manual: “Do not leave the bottom of your MacBook Pro in contact with your lap or any surface of your body for extended periods. Prolonged contact with your body could cause discomfort and potentially a burn.”

As a result, laptop victims get no love from their devices’ manufacturers.

Recently a Florida woman suffered severe burns on her thighs after watching a DVD on her MacBook which was perched on her lap. Apple simply referred her to the warning in her manual and told her to take a hike (once her legs had healed, of course).

Power and heat go hand-in-hand it seems, and as we demand more from our mobile technology, it promises to get ever hotter to handle.

It’d be a shame to have to reinvent the cuddle or ask our beloved pets to find a new place to snuggle just so technology can continue to evolve. And I doubt the computers engineers of this world are working hard to help protect our vital regions if they are satisfied that a one-line cop-out in a product manual is a sufficient solution.

We need to work together to prevent lap injuries by using common sense. Consider using your laptop on a table; and always keep a fire extinguisher close by.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, August 18, 2006.

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