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Allergic reactions to computer and cell phone use.

Prolonged skin contact with cell phones made with metal allergens such as nickel sulfate and hexavalent chromium has produced several cases of contact dermatitis on the face and ear, according to a June 2010 case report and review by Anand Rajpara, MD, and Steven R. Feldman, MD, PhD. Avoiding the metal allergen - by holding the phone away from the skin, covering the metal parts with plastic film, using an earpiece to listen, or simply getting a different kind of phone - resolves the dry, itchy skin problem. Once identified, contact allergies are easily resolved; but they are not the only factor associated with cell phones that can produce or worsen an allergic response.

Electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell phones is another factor that contributes to eczema and allergic dermatitis. H. Kimata at Unitika Central Hospital (Kyoto, Japan) recruited 52 volunteers with eczema and allergies to house dust mite and Japanese cedar pollen for a 2002 study. Half of the volunteers were exposed to 60 continuous minutes of cell phone use, and the other half were not. (I couldn't find out what the control group was doing, if anything, for 60 minutes. The study would be stronger if the controls were using a landline and listening to the same message.) Kimata reported an "enhanced skin wheal responses" to house dust mite and pollen skin scratch tests that lasted over two hours (but not more than four) in the cell phone group. In addition, the cell phone users, unlike the control group, exhibited elevated levels of substance P and vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP), both of which are linked to the production of allergy symptoms.

Of course, cell phones are not the only producers of electromagnetic radiation. The medical literature contains references to "screen dermatitis." The idea that electromagnetic radiation from computers and television can actually cause allergic reactions is very controversial. However, Olle Johansson and Peng-Yue Liu found that mast cells in the skin of screen dermatitis patients "differed both in quantity, quality, and distribution pattern ... as compared to normal healthy volunteers." Mast cells, found in connective tissue (including skin), release pro-inflammatory mediators, such as histamine, in response to allergens and toxins.

In 2001, Johansson and colleagues found that exposure to electromagnetic radiation from television/computer screens for just two hours altered mast cell distribution and expression in the skin of healthy - not electrosensitive-volunteers. The 13 volunteers sat with their backs facing the screens, which were 40 centimeters (about 16 inches) away. Exposure lasted two or four hours. Skin biopsies were taken right before and immediately after the exposure period as well as 2, 4, and 24 hours later. "To our great surprise," the authors exclaim, "we found the number of mast cells in the papillary and reticular dermis to increase, to varying degrees, in 5 out the 13 subjects after such an exposure." By definition, healthy subjects were not expected to react to EMF in the same way that electrosensitive people have. Yet EMF exposure from the screens caused mast cells in these healthy subjects to move toward the epidermis. Mast cells usually do not reside in this upper layer of the dermis. The researchers found no difference between 2-hour and 4-hour exposure times. Mast cell numbers and locations were normal 24 hours after EMF exposure.

Johansson explains in a 2009 article for Pathophysiology: "The release of inflammatory substances, such as histamine, from mast cells in the skin results in a local erythema [redness], edema, and sensation of itch and pain, and the release of somatostatin from the dendritic cells may give rise to subjective sensations of ongoing inflammation and sensitivity to ordinary light. These are common symptoms reported from persons suffering from EHS/screen dermatitis."

This study brings up all kinds of questions. What is the maximum distance from the screen that produces this effect? What happens if healthy subjects undergo several sequences of exposure and nonexposure? Would more subjects show a change in mast cell location and prevalence with long-term repeated exposure? Would they return to normal as quickly? Or would these healthy subjects develop "screen dermatitis"? We may never get a definitive answer because, as Johansson explains, obtaining funding for EMFs' effect on health is difficult.

Ingels D. Allergic reactions enhanced by cell phone use [online article]. Healthnotes. 2003. Available at, Accessed January 16, 2012.

Johansson O. Disturbance of the immune system by electromagnetic fields - a potentially underlying cause for cellular damage and tissue repair reduction which could lead to disease and impairment. Pathophysiology. 2009. Available at Accessed lanuary 16, 2012.

Johansson O, Gangi S, Yong L, Yoshimura K, Chen J, Peng-Yue L. Cutaneous mast cells are altered in normal healthy volunteers sitting in front of ordinary TVs/PCs - results from open-field provocation experiments. / Cutan Pathol. 2001:28:513-519. Available at Accessed January 6, 2012.

Kimata H. Enhancement of allergic skin wheal responses by microwave radiation from mobile phones in patients with atopic eczema/dermatitis syndrome [abstract], lot Arch Allergy Immunol. December 2002;129(4):348-350. Available at Accessed January 30, 2012.

Rajpara A, Feldman SR. Cell phone allergic contact dermatitis: Case report and review. DermMol Online J. June 20l0;16(6):9. Available at Accessed January 16, 2012.
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Title Annotation:Shorts
Author:Klotter, Jule
Publication:Townsend Letter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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