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.
How smartphones hurt sleep
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.