You are on page 1of 4

Though the controversy continues, the facts remain the same:

VDT radiation levels are well below occupational exposure

standards and biological injury thresholds.

Video Display Terminals:

Radiation Issues
William E. Murray
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

In the last decade, the use of video display terminals

(VDTs) has grown exponentially in information processing and related applications. In fact, recent estimates
place the number of terminals currently in the workplace
somewhere between 5 and 10 million units.'
Unfortunately, a concommitant increase in concern
about the radiation emissions from VDTs has accompanied their rapid expansion into the marketplace.

Radiation emissions
What does a VDT produce? The first and most obvious question is "Does the VDT emit radiation and, if
so, what types are emitted?" To the first half of the question the answer is of course, yes. The video display terminal is expressly designed to produce one type of electromagnetic radiation-light. However, certain components of the terminal can produce several other types
of radiation. These include


near-ultraviolet (UV),
near-infrared (IR),
radio frequency (RF),
extremely low frequency (ELF), and
ultrasonic radiation.

The visible image on a VDT is produced when the electron beam interacts with the phosphor coating on the
inside-front surface of the CRT. In addition to producing visible wavelengths, these phosphors can also emit
near-ultraviolet and near-infrared radiation.
Radio frequency radiation is generated by the flyback
transformer. This device is used in television sets to produce the high voltage for the cathode ray tube and
operates at frequencies between 15 and 20 kHz. There
are other circuits present in VDTs that can produce RF
radiation, but the flyback transformer is the major
source. Extremely low frequency radiation (60 Hz) is also
present around the terminals.
Many people today are concerned about the possibility
of microwaves being emitted by the terminals, but the
highest measurable frequencies produced from these
video terminals are only about 30 MHz; the microwave
region starts at 300 MHz-far above the frequencies
emitted by VDTs.
Lastly, ultrasonic radiation (15-20 kHz) is also
generated by the flyback transformer. Some people can
hear this frequency from their television set as a highpitched noise.

A VDT's cathode ray tube, for example, operates at

high voltage, usually between 11 and 18 kV for a blackand-white or monochromatic unit. Much higher voltages
(over 25 kV), though, are present in color units.
Most of the video terminals now on the market are
monochromatic, not color. But even at these somewhat
lower voltages, the potential is still there for X-ray emission.

Health concerns. The second issue confronting VDT

users and manufacturers concerns the potential adverse
health effects that may be related to VDT use. Some
VDT operators have alleged that their health has been affected by the radiation emitted from video terminals.
Specifically, two types of effects are generally attributed to VDT users' radiation exposure. The first concerns the visual system, and here there is some real concern about the occurrence of cataracts. In fact, our initial survey was prompted by our hearing about the occurrence of cataracts in two newspaper reporters-both
males under the age of 35-who used VDTs at a large
eastern newspaper.

April 1984

protected by US copyright

US Government work not


There are also potential reproductive implications to

VDT use. The specific issues raised have centered on the
occurrence of clusters of birth defects, miscarriages, and
spontaneous abortions in certain female VDT operator
populations in the US and Canada.2
These are the two health problems that VDT operators
are concerned about with regard to radiation. From both
human and animal studies, we know that these effects
can result from high-level radiation exposure. Ionizing,
ultraviolet, and RF/microwave radiation are all wellknown causative agents for cataracts. Further, both
ionizing and RF/microwave radiation can cause birth
defects and miscarriages. However, these same health
problems also occur in the general population not exposed to VDTs and with no occupational exposure to
Now, the key question arises. Knowing that the types
of radiation that can be emitted by the terminals are
associated with the effects claimed by the operators, are
these claims realistic? In short, is there any scientific basis
for the VDT operators' claims of adverse health effects?
Does the radiation emitted by the terminal cause the
observed effect?
To answer these questions, the radiation emitted by
these terminals must be measured. After determining the
radiation levels operators are exposed to, the measured
levels must be compared to existing occupational exposure standards (see Table 1) and the thresholds for
biological effects available in the literature.

Radiation surveys
We have performed radiation surveys in a dozen locations, measuring the output of several hundred video terminals. The results of our field surveys, summarized in
Table 2, will be discussed in more detail below.
Additionally, measurements similar to ours have been
made by Bell Laboratories, the Duke University School
of Medicine, and the US Food and Drug Administration.4-6 Still other surveys have been conducted in
Canada and Western Europe.7 '0

The results. In all of our field surveys (Figure 1 shows a

typical worksite being tested for VDT-emitted radiation),
the X-radiation levels that we found were below background levels.
The FDA, too, tested 125 terminals under laboratory
conditions and found 10 units that did leak measurable
amounts of X rays. But eight of these 10 units were still
above the X-ray emission performance standard for
television receivers.6 These terminals were never
marketed, however. Even if they had been sold, any
X rays they emitted would have been very soft, low-

energy X rays.
There are problems in making RF radiation measurements with field survey instrumentation. The National
Institute for Occupational Safety and Health asked the
FDA for a spectrum analysis of two typical terminals-an analysis in which the intensity of RF radiation was measured as a function of frequency.

The flyback transformer, which operates at about 15

kHz, is the major source of RF radiation in VDTs, and
the FDA study for NIOSH found that 95 percent of the
RF energy emitted by the tested terminals was in the 15to 250-kHz frequency range.6
There is no federal occupational standard for this
region because the OSHA standard only covers frequencies down to 10 MHz. However, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH)
has established a standard down to 10 kHz." The levels
emitted from the tested terminals were less than onetenth of this standard.

For ionizing radiation, much information is

available. This is not the case in some of the
other spectral regions.
Other recent studies have examined the electric and
magnetic field component in the ELF spectral region
(0-500 Hz).9"0 The measured electric and magnetic field
strengths surrounding VDTs are similar in magnitude to
the ELF levels present around common household appliances-well below the thresholds for any known biological hazards. In fact, there is no US occupational exposure standard for ELF radiation.
The ultraviolet radiation emitted by VDTs is between
300 and 400 nanometers. Since the VDT phosphor is
designed to produce visible radiation, not much ultraviolet is emitted. Our studies showed UV levels to
generally be a factor of 1000 or more below the current
ACGIH standard. "3''
We have performed very few infrared measurements
because the levels were below the detection limits of our
instruments in our first survey.' Moreover, few
phosphors emit photons in this region (760-800 nm), and
the emissions would therefore be at a very low level.
The only ultrasound measurements were reported by
the FDA.6 In the FDA report, the levels were well below
the occupational standard.
Table 1.
Occupational exposure standards for
electromagnetic radiation.
X ray
2.5 mR/hr
Ultraviolet (near)


(10-100,000 MHz)
Magnetic field
(10-100,000 MHz)
Electric field
(10-3000 kHz)
Magnetic field
(10-3000 kHz)


2920 fL


40,000 V2/m2*


0.25 A2/m2*


400,000 V2/m2**


2.5 A2/m2**


Radio frequency
Electric field


*Far-field equivalent ot 10 mW/cm2

**Far-field equivalent ot 100 mW/cm2


Table 2.
Comparison of maximum measured radiation levels and occupational
standards for all video display terminals.








0.3 mR/hr

0.65 MW/cm2

250 fL


5000 V2/m2

0 09 A2/m2

Long-term risks
What about long-term health risks? What happens if a
person uses a VDT day in and day out for 20 or 30 years?
Basically this question, in turn, asks another: "Are the
present standards adequate to protect workers who are
exposed to VDT radiation over a number of decades?"
For answers, we can look to the current literature,
critically examining reported, radiation effects and the
thresholds. In setting up standards, one should pay particular attention to existing human epidemiologic data
and chronic, long-term animal studies. In fact, where
available, this information has been used for setting standards.
For ionizing radiation, for example, much information
is available, and standards here are probably quite adequate. In some of the other spectral regions (nonionizing), however, not as much information is available. On
the basis of what is known, the current standards seem
adequate. Let me emphasize, though, that we are constantly striving to learn more about the effects of radiation exposure, especially long-term exposure. The more
we learn the better, as far as setting occupational standards goes.

creased by 25 percent, the terminal would not be usable.

The VDT is a sensitive electronic device with stringent
design requirements and engineering specifications for
operation. Although hard data are not available, we
think that a severe malfunction would render the VDT
inoperable, and it would be taken out of service.
As to the other questions, our surveys have not shown
large differences in the radiation emissions between individual terminals or different brands or models. The
employees' exposure does not seem to increase as the terminals become older or with multiple terminals present.

Radiation levels emitted by a video display terminal

are very low compared with current occupational exposure standards. In many cases, the levels are below the
detection capability of the survey instrumentation used.
Considering these radiation measurements, biological injury thresholds, and occupational exposure standards,
the VDT does not present a radiation hazard to the VDT

Other concerns
Let's take a brief look at some of the other concerns
often expressed by VDT operators:

"What if the VDT malfunctions?"

"Well, they haven't measured my terminal."
"What happens as these terminals get older?"
"Does it make a difference if. I work in a room
where there are many terminals?"

These are legitimate concerns because the operators

believe that there is some potential for an increased
radiation emission under these circumstances.
True, a malfunction can increase the radiation emission from a VDT. The FDA performs malfunction testing and has demonstrated that X-ray emission can increase.6 However, with a serious malfunction, the terminal may operate for a short time, but eventually the
image will become unusable and the VDT will be removed for repair.
With regard to raising the CRT voltage, we were told
by a design engineer that if the CRT voltage were inApril 1984

Figure 1. Field measurement of the radio frequency radiation emitted by

a typical video display terminal.


There is no scientific evidence that the occurrence of

cataracts, birth defects, or miscarriages is related to
radiation exposure from VDTs. Thus, there is no
justification to provide additional (radiation) shielding
of the VDT or lead aprons for the operators, or to
transfer pregnant women to other jobs to reduce their
radiation exposure.
The instrumentation required to measure the radiation
emissions from a VDT, either in the field or in a

4. N. M. Weiss and R. C. Peterson, "Electromagnetic Radiation Emitted from Computer Terminals," J. American Industrial Hygiene Association, Vol. 40, 1979, pp. 300-309.
5. M. L. Wolbarsht et al., "Electromagnetic Emission from
Visual Display Units: A Non-Hazard," in "Ocular Effects
of Non-Ionizing Radiation," M. L. Wolbarsht and D. H.
Sliney, eds., Proc. SPIE, Vol. 229, Apr. 1980, pp. 187-193.
6. "An Evaluation of Radiation Emissions from Video
Display Terminals," (DHHS publication no. (FDA)
81-8153), Food and Drug Administration, US Dept. of
Health and Human Services, Rockville, Md., 1981.

Special training and experience are required to use the instruments correctly and interpret the results of radiation
testing. In light of the low-level radiation emissions from
VDTs, routine surveys are not warranted. E

7. E. A. Cox, "Radiation Emissions from Visual Display

Units," Health Hazards of VDUs, Vol. 1, HUSAT
Research Group Department of Human Sciences, Loughborough University of Technology, England, 1980, pp.
8. T. Terrana, F. Merluzzi, and E. Guidici, "Electromagnetic
Radiation Emitted by Visual Display Units," Ergonomic
Aspects of Visual Display Terminals, E. Grandjean and
F. Vigliani, eds., Taylor and Francis Ltd., London, 1980.
9. M. A. Stuchly, D. W. Lecuyer, and R. D. Mann, "Extremely Low Frequency Electromagnetic Emissions from
Video Display Terminals and Other Devices," Health
Physics, Vol. 45, No. 3, Sept. 1983, pp. 713-722.
10. S. M. Harvey, "Characteristics of Low Frequency Electrostatic and Electromagnetic Fields Produced by Video
Display Terminals," (82-528-K), Ontario Hydro, Toronto,
Canada, 1982.
11. "Threshold Limit for Chemical Substances and Physical
Agents in the Work Environment," American Conference
for Governmental Industrial Hygienists, Cincinnati, Ohio,
12. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 29, Chapter XVII, Part
1910.96, Ionizing Radiation, Occupational Safety and
Health Administration, Washington, DC, 1980.
13. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 29, Chapter XVII, Part
1910.97, Nonionizing Radiation, Occupational Safety and
Health Administration, Washington, DC, 1980.

laboratory setting, is both sophisticated and expensive.

I. C. E. Moss, W. E. Murray, W. H. Parr, J. Messite, and
G. J. Karches, "A Report on Electromagnetic Radiation
Surveys of Video Display Terminals," (DHEW publication
no. (NIOSH) 78-129), National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1977.
2. L. Slesin and M. Zybko, Video Display Terminals: Health
and Safety, Microwave News, New York, 1983.
3. W. E. Murray, C. E. Moss, W. H. Parr, and C. Cox, "A
Radiation and Industrial Hygiene Survey of Video Display
Terminal Operations," Human Factors, Vol. 23, No. 4,
Aug. 1981, pp. 413-420.

coo.:Z-- 'P-,t



This workshop looked at computer applications designed to
provide vocational education and employment for the handicapped. Session papers presented findings about training for the
visually impaired, rehabilitation projects in data processing, the
social psychological dynamics within a training program and
job placement programs. 113 pp.

Order #505

PROCEEDINGS-Workshop on Computers in the

Education and Employment of the Handicapped
November 3-4, 1983

Members-Si 2.00
Order from IEEE Computer Society Order Dept., P.O. Box 80452,
Worldway Postal Center, Los Angeles, CA 90080, U.S.A. (714)

William E. Murray is chief of the

Radiation Section at NIOSH in Cincinnati, Ohio, where his present responsibilities focus on nonionizing radiation
protection, including the evaluation and
1, control of hazardous sources and the
development of occupational exposure
standards for worker protection. He was
commissioned in the US Public Health
Service in 1968 and was a training
instructor in radiological health until 1974 with the Bureau of
Radiological Health and NIOSH. Murray received the BS
degree in general science and the MS degree in radiation biology
from the University of Rochester. He is a member of the
American Industrial Hygiene Association, the Health Physics
Society, and the American Conference of Governmental
Industrial Hygienists.
Murray's address is National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health, Division of Biomedical and Behavioral
Science, 4676 Columbia Parkway, Cincinnati, OH 45226.