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We used to spend a lot of time as a culture in front of the television. It was our main source of information and entertainment for decades.
We now spend just as much time in front of laptop computers, smartphones, and tablets. However, most living rooms have a flat-screen television, and children actually spend the most time in front of these devices.
Considering those facts, many people express concern about radiation effects produced by these high-definition modern marvels. They are large and consume considerable amounts of electricity.
With all that current flowing through them, certainly, flat-screen televisions produce harmful radiation that should worry us. Yet, that is not the case.
Here we will discuss flat-screen televisions only. In the recent past, these devices were exotic and basically considered toys.
Any neighbor who had one was splurging on unnecessary electronics simply because they insisted on having a flat-screen and also had the money for one.
Now, you would be hard-pressed to find a tube television of any make and would require you to undertake a lengthy treasure hunt through mom-and-pop appliance repair shops to even locate one, let alone one that still works. All televisions sold now are flat-screen models.
So, are there radiation risks from modern television?
Back in the day…
Before we jump into answering that question, let us consider where the very idea of television radiation came from. Its origins are actually from the early age of television, but the issue of radiation from televisions was not recognized until the 1960s.
Starting in the 1940s, there were concerns about radiation leaks from black and white television tubes, however, at that time there were no regulatory restrictions on electronic devices apart from fire safety. The same follows for medications where there were no laws stating that medication had to do what was it was marketed to do or whether it would cause death if used.
Needless to say, it was an era of unrestricted production without any governmental oversight. In 1967, the US government began to perform routine testing of television devices and found that several large-screen models, primarily produced by General Electric, produced x-ray emissions beyond what would be considered acceptable.
X-ray sources are very technology-dependent and are produced any time accelerated electrons, driven through a high-voltage system, are emitted and strike an object like a phosphor screen while traveling in a vacuum. This is an effect known as Bremsstrahlung, which occurs when high-speed electromagnetic particles rapidly decelerate after striking another atom and release x-rays.
Although not at the emission levels of x-ray tubes for medical use, concerns were raised regarding long term exposure and lack of appropriate shielding. These sources of x-ray radiation were found mainly in color television sets due to the increased current required to operate the picture tubes.
When testing was extended to all models, the conclusion was that all television models of the era produced unacceptable levels of x-ray radiation. It is estimated that over 100,000 television sets on the market at that time were deemed unsafe for home use.
Shortly after this discovery in July 1967, a congressional inquiry committee submitted and had passed the Federal Radiation Regulation bill, which was later modified to become the Radiation Control for Health and Safety Act of 1968.
Additional testing was conducted by the National Center for Radiological Health, as well as the Public Health Service, and further safety concerns were put forth which prompted the Surgeon General to issue a general statement of safe use.
That statement related to the use of a safe viewing distance (following the inverse square law of electromagnetic emissions) and is the origin of the idea that you do not sit directly in front of the television viewscreen while watching your shows. Basically, the negative effects of the X-ray radiation emitted could be mitigated by distance and the standard recommendation was a viewing distance of at least six feet.
Regulation of television safety was gradually migrated to oversight by the Food and Drug Administration. To this very day, all cathode ray tube (CRT) television set manufacturers, as well as manufacturers of any radiation-emitting product including microwave ovens and medical x-ray equipment, are required to submit annual product testing reports certifying that their devices meet federal safety guidelines.
Modern CRTs, due to improvements in materials and design, emit very little x-ray emissions which is why the older CRT computer monitors were safe enough for users to stick their faces up close to the screen while working long hours at the keyboard.
What About Flat-Screen Televisions?
Harmful EMF emissions are mainly a matter of the technology used to produce the images and the amount of current required to power the devices. Modern flat-screen televisions and computer monitors, compared with CRT tube technology, are horses of an entirely different color.
Flat-screen displays based on plasma, light-emitting diode, or liquid crystal technologies are not capable of producing x-ray emissions. As such, they are not considered radiation-emitting devices and are not subject to FDA regulation for X-ray emissions.
What Types of Radiation Do Flat-screen Televisions Emit?
The short answer to this question is that flat-screen displays do not produce appreciable amounts of electromagnetic frequency (EMF) radiation. There is a caveat, however, in that many flat screens are Smart Televisions and can use wireless router technology to connect to commercial television signals or internet sources of data.
Televisions used in this modality produce the same amount of EMF radiation produced by home internet routers. If flat-screen televisions are connected to data sources strictly by wired connections, EMF emissions become a non-issue.
Despite being potential sources of EMF emissions, due to the size of modern flat-screen televisions, viewing distances of less than two feet are quite frankly uncomfortable for use. This is the main reason that flat-screen televisions are not considered substantial indoor EMF sources.
As stated above, electromagnetic radiation diminishes dramatically in its energy density over distance, so normal viewing distances for these devices render them harmless for routine use.