When Televisions Were Radioactive

Anxieties about the effects of screens on human health are hardly new, but the way the public addresses the problems has changed. An Object Lesson.

A family watches the launch of NASA's Apollo 10 mission
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On a recent morning, I indulged one of my worst habits—checking Twitter on my phone immediately upon waking up. When I turned the screen off, I was alarmed to discover that I could no longer see out of my right eye. I picked up my phone again, this time in a panic, to Google my symptoms, and quickly learned that I had experienced what medical researchers have called “transient smartphone blindness.” It can occur when you look at a bright screen while lying down with only one eye open. It’s one of many effects that constant engagement with screens could be having on our eyes, which together produce anxiety about the negative physical effects of contemporary technologies.

Before smartphones and handheld devices, that anxiety was directed at televisions. From the time of their commercialization, people worried about the potential harms of the device: the harms of placing their face close to the screen, of watching for many hours at a time, of the appliance’s position at the center of domestic life. People still worry about spending too much time in front of a television (much of the recent focus has been on the effects on children and weight gain). Samsung even warned of possible health risks from watching its 3-D TVs—pregnant women and the elderly were advised not to watch 3-D sets at all.

But in the history of television, the gravest and most all-encompassing danger from the proximity of human bodies to a screen came in the 1950s and ’60s. In retrospect, that period might also serve as the explanation for why those of us of a certain age can recall the urgency with which our parents forbade us from sitting too close to the TV. Color sets, the new technology of the time, were found to be radioactive.

Since the 1940s, there had been long-standing concerns about radiation leaks from black-and-white picture tubes. But it wasn’t until 1967, when routine testing revealed that specific large-screen models of GE color sets were emitting “X-radiation in excess of desirable levels,” that there seemed to be any real evidence of such a risk. Scientists speculated that the high voltage required by color sets was partly to blame.

Initially, the radiation concern was limited to a single model, but by late in the year it became clear that televisions from almost every manufacturer were potentially affected—as many as 112,000 sets.

The response to the concern was swift. By late July of 1967, television-industry representatives were brought before a congressional committee, which eventually proposed a federal radiation-regulation bill (which became the 1968 Radiation Control for Health and Safety Act). Further testing was conducted by the National Center for Radiological Health (NCRH) and the Public Health Service into early 1968. The surgeon general eventually issued a statement, saying that testing showed that this low level of radiation posed only a small risk to any one set-owner’s health as long as he or she was watching a set in “normal viewing” conditions. That was understood to be maintaining “at least a six-foot viewing distance from the front of the screen and [avoiding] prolonged exposure at the sides, rear, or underneath a set.”

According to the NCRH, the leakage beam in most of the problematic sets was directed downward “in a thin crescent pattern.” It therefore didn’t pose a direct line of contact with a viewer’s body as long as the set was placed on the floor instead of on a high shelf. Color-set owners were also instructed to keep their distance from the set at all times and were warned against tinkering with its internals to avoid being in direct contact with the radiation beam.

The public was well aware of the potentially devastating health effects of intense radiation exposure from atomic bombs or nuclear catastrophes. But the slower impacts of lower levels of radiation were less well known. Much of the discussion in the press and in congressional hearings addressed what could happen from exposure to low-level radiation leaks over time, like the ones from color televisions. Concerns about damage to reproductive organs and about the genetic mutation of future generations were particularly common.

The anxiety and dread around radioactive materials, along with the role that nuclear weapons played in the Cold War, would certainly have given weight to the image of a slow and possibly deadly leak coming out of the home appliance your family gathered around most regularly. Color television, in this instance, was not just bringing images of the contemporary world into the home; it was also physically manifesting one of that world’s most pressing and feared perils.

“Radioactive” color television sets continued to make headlines through the end of the 1960s, but there was also acknowledgement that the threat of harm had likely been exaggerated. In 1969, Newsday reported that W. Roger Ney, the executive director of the National Council on Radiation Protection, had called the amounts of radiation coming from the sets “too little to have a measurable effect on human beings.” He dismissed a proposal by two New York congressmen to have manufacturers “go into homes to test all of the nation’s 15 million color sets and to install radiation devices in them,” adding, “I’d sure like to see that amount of effort put into things that are more clearly dangerous.”

The crisis was eventually quieted by new policies and procedures the FDA put in place to regulate radiation emissions for all forms of electronic products. New glass plates also promised to suppress most radiation from the color-television tubes. However, the experience brought to the surface more general concerns over the possibility of radiation leaks from everyday technological objects, a growing mistrust that emanated from the underlying fear of nuclear war. It also made general worries about television’s other health effects much more real and pressing, lending credence to the idea that the distance between a human body and an electronic screen needs to be managed and regulated.

The FDA is still responsible for regulating “radiation-emitting electronic products” such as microwaves, X-rays, and televisions. Manufacturers submit annual testing reports and certify radiation levels in their products. Modern cathode-ray tube sets emit such low X-ray emissions that they are said to pose virtually no risk to consumers. Cellphones are the focus of greater concern today, and even though the FCC and FDA state that no scientific evidence links the phones with any health issues, they suggest ways to help limit exposure to the radio-frequency energy phones emit (including distancing the device from the body by using a headset or speaker).

Today’s consumers are still learning how to live with the ever-present smartphone. They share a niggling sense that something about the way people use them is amiss. Designers are responding, too, trying to anticipate and avoid potential harm. Features appear based on circulating concerns, like “night mode” functions to reduce blue light from displays, or the Screen Time feature meant to help reduce smartphone usage. Together, these forces are producing an existential dread about our attachment to screens. It’s hard not to feel that we are doomed to be destroyed by them eventually.

Transient smartphone blindness is not nearly as terrifying a prospect as color-TV-induced radiation sickness. Scientific research has always helped dampen cultural anxiety about the health effects of new technologies. The radioactive television offers a reminder that some caution can be justified—provided it is grounded in research and enforced through regulation. But today, these types of governmental protections and oversights are being reduced or eliminated, and research that might identify potential industrial harms is being cut. When it comes to screens, it’s become harder to keep two eyes open.

Portions of this article are adapted from Susan Murray’s book, Bright Signals: A History of Color Television (Duke University Press).