American in Spain

Will a cactus absorb radiation from your computer?

July 23, 2009
Radioactive Cactus

Yesterday I was watching La Ruleta de la Suerte, Spain's version of Wheel of Fortune. Sometimes they have puzzles in a category called "Did you know that...?" where the answer is some interesting factoid. Unfortunately, their research into these factoids is pretty lax. In this category yesterday the clue was "Anti-radiation" and the answer was "Place a cactus next to your computer". The host later went on to explain that scientists have shown that placing a cactus next to your computer will absorb, and protect you from, the harmful radiation that your computer gives off. Intuitively this sounded to me to be what the ever-eloquent British call "a load of bollocks."

The Computer Radiation Myth

The idea that a consumer electronic device is producing enough harmful radiation to damage your health is ridiculous. These products are tested. Thanks to Chernobyl, the Cold War, and the microwave oven, the general public is terrified of "radiation", but almost no one differentiates between regular old radiation, the emission and absorption of electromagnetic waves/photons, and ionizing radiation, where the photons have enough energy to damage atoms. The kind of radiation your computer is giving off is not ionizing radiation:

Multiple studies have been completed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Center for Radiological Health and Devices, Bell Laboratories, and The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. The data from their work indicates that computer VDTs "emit little or no harmful ionizing (e.g., x-rays) or non-ionizing (e.g., infrared) radiation under normal operating conditions."

As long as you're not working for twelve hours a day with your head sandwiched inches between the backs of two CRT monitors, you're gonna be just fine.

The Cactus Myth

I've done a little internet searching, and the only evidence I can find is the same plagiarized paragraph on hundreds of "living green" websites, which I will paste here onto yet another web page:

In the mid-1980s, researchers at the Institute of Geobiology in Chardonne, Switzerland, announced that tests showed employees who used to suffer from headaches and tiredness felt better after working for two years with a cactus next to their monitors. A hypothesis has been suggested that cacti evolved to counter the effects of harsh solar radiation. The science is unproven, but why not play it safe and enjoy a little nature while you work?

That's it. Everywhere that mentions this "phenomenon" specifically says that the science is unproven. Not only that, but the study involved no measurement of radiation whatsoever, only tiredness. But that's how myths form, isn't it? It sounds clever and reasonable, assuming you don't understand anything about radiation.

To The Next Level

Let's take this myth to the next level and assume the worst case scenario: your computer monitor is built of Cobalt-60, a gram of which would kill you after a one month exposure, and the cactus on your desk has the radiation absorption properties of a block of lead. Unless you placed the cactus completely between you and the computer you would get no benefit whatsoever! There's no way to "attract" the radiation towards the cactus. Radiation goes out in all directions until it is absorbed or reflected by something. You can't even bend light with a strong magnetic field. Your best bet is to bend space-time. So here's a health tip for you that really works!

Place a black hole on your desk next to your computer to absorb radiation. Why not play it safe and enjoy a little nature while you work?