Who's afraid of displays?


by Leonard R. Harris

Leonard R. Harris is director of corporate relations and public affairs for the New York Times Company.

The important matter of computer display safety has been blurred by headline-happy reporters in the lay press, by unions and politicians seeking a sensational issue and by management's haste in using a new technology without considering all its physical and emotional implications. Uneasiness has resulted, a feeling that perhaps there's smoke and perhaps there's fire and perhaps we should be nervous.
    One good thing has emerged from this restless anxiety: the attention paid by the scientific community to the health and safety of the person who spends all or most of the business day working at a VDT. While use of a terminal can be a pain in the neck (or shoulder, wrist, elbow or back), that's the sum of the negative findings in brief.
    But let's not be that brief.
    Four broad categories of health hazards have been alleged and should be reviewed. Radiation has supposedly caused cataracts and birth defects. Ocular effects allegedly have resulted: eye irritation, pain, fatigue, reduced acuity. Musculoskeletal effects have been found. Psychosocial effects need investigation.
    To begin: Cataracts are opacities of the lens of the eye. They occur throughout the general population. Since they do, it is statistically certain that some VDT workers will develop cataracts. This was the conclusion quoted in Video Displays, Work and Vision, a report by the National Research Council: "Both laboratory studies of animals and surveys of humans indicate, however, that the levels of radiation required to produce cataracts are thousands to millions of times higher than the levels emitted by VDTs."
    The National Research Council, whose members are drawn from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, stated that "ten anecdotal reported cases of cataracts among VDT workers do not suggest an unusual pattern attributable to VDT work: six of the cases appear to be common, minor opacities not interfering with vision, and each of the remaining four cases had known, preexisting pathology or exposure to cataractogenic agents." Incidentally, about one in four of us has a congenital or developmental eye opacity not affecting our vision.
    Moreover, in May 1982 the American Academy of Ophthalmology issued a report that said: "Experimental and epidemiological evidence has demonstrated that exposure to VDTs does not result in cataracts or any other organic damage to the eye."
    Yet writers like Thomas Hartmann perpetuate our fear of cataracts by citing a 1977 incident without mentioning its resolution: three prominent ophthalmologists and a prestigious engineering firm, each selected and approved by all parties concerned, contributed data to a ruling that declared there was no evidence to support the development of cataracts from work with VDTs.
    If cataracts are a fearful subject, how much more threatening-if it were not unjustified-would be the threat of birth defects! The Birth Defects Foundation of the March of Dimes studied the question after four pregnant workers in the classified ads department at the Toronto Star delivered infants with birth defects and after eight pregnant workers at a Sears VDT Computer Center in Dallas suffered miscarriages.
    "Clusters of miscarriage and birth defects and other health problems, such as cancers, can and do occur purely by chance," said Dr. Arthur J. Salisbury, March of Dimes vice-president for medical services.

"There are so many women of childbearing age who work at or near VDTs today that some coincidental VDT-linked clusters of problem pregnancies are to be expected. A cluster of birth defects is more likely to reflect a specific cause if the birth defects are alike, but this has not been true of reported VDT-linked cases. Equally important, the alleged VDT-linked birth defects have not resembled the kinds of fetal damage that any type of radiation is known to cause.

    Then, in January 1984, the Journal of the American Medical Association flatly declared that "no reports of harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation on reproductive function in humans have been found." The report (prepared by the AMA's Council on Scientific Affairs) next made a still broader statement: "Several careful and thorough studies by both private and governmental experts have concluded that there is inadequate electromagnetic radiation at any frequency (x-rays, visible, infrared, microwave, and radiofrequency) to cause biologic effects."
    Disregarding the findings of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Bureau of Radiological Health of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Radiation Protection Bureau of the Canadian Department of National Health and Welfare, the Toronto Ministry of Health and the Abortion Surveillance Branch of the Centers for Disease Control, some legislators have proposed that pregnant women working at VDTs wear protective lead aprons. Absurd! The fact is that a stroll in the sun in the streets of a big city exposes one to more and higher frequencies of radiation than does a day at a VDT. For one's own peace and sanity, it is worth repeating the strong words of the AMA: "No reports of harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation on reproductive function in humans have been found."
    If VDTs and computers have been cleared of involvement in cataracts, birth defects and miscarriages, what about lesser effects? What about ocular discomfort? Or blurring or flickering of vision? Logic alone tells us that staring at a screen unceasingly will tire us at least as much as staring unceasingly at the pages of a book. Logic says that we ought to change focus occasionally, just as we should when driving a car on a monotonous highway. Logic says that glare is unpleasant, whether from a VDT screen or from the sun brightly reflected on hot sand.
    The medical evidence is that more serious threats to our eyes are simply not presented by VDTs or computer screens. In May 1982 the Board of the American Academy of Ophthalmology said:

Based on available scientific evidence, the Academy considers VDTs to be safe for normal use and to present no hazard to vision. Experimental and epidemiological evidence has demonstrated that exposure to VDTs does not result in cataracts or any other organic damage to the eye. Ocular fatigue experienced by some workers required to scan VDTs for extended periods of time is not indicative of pathologic change. Such fatigue may be lessened by the use of tints or colored filters in occupational eyeglasses.

There is, I think, abundant evidence that in the home, office or factory one cannot just plop a VDT on a desk or a counter and-without changing lighting., chairs, desk or table heights, etc.-expect the operator to be comfortable. One cannot do that even with a typewriter. The environment has to fit the technology. Because of a relatively new science known as ergonomics, which wisely seeks to adapt work and working conditions to suit the worker rather than trying to mold us like Play-Doh to fit the work, we now have chairs that support our backs, shelves that move to make keyboards accessible, lights that do not produce glare.
    Listen, it's a good life. If we don't smoke, if we drink only in moderation, if we exercise at least an hour a day, if we eat mostly vegetables and eschew fats, sugar and salt, and if we reap the psychic rewards of creativity with our computers, VDTs or word processors, what else is there? I fervently hope that reports of the health hazards of computers have been greatly exaggerated, since I spend more time at VDTs than I do in bed.

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