A Warning on Computers--and 'Ninja' Thinking

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On a flight across the country this summer, I read four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle adventure books. The books, which I bought in the Twin Cities airport bookshop, are written on a 4th-grade level and can be read by a competent 9-year-old or a 15-year-old with minimal reading skills. I knew the stories would be violent but wondered what their particular twist on the good-guys-vs.-the-bad-guys theme would be.

When I took the books out of my briefcase on the plane, a 6-year-old boy who was seated next to me took out his collection of plastic Ninja adventure toys and told me how much fun Ninjas were. When I turned to the books, I was shocked by the origin myth of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, printed as the frontispiece of three of the four volumes. Here it is:

Fourteen years ago a group of four ordinary turtles that had dropped into the storm drains beneath New York were found by Splinter, a master of the skill of ninjutsu, the ancient Japanese art of stealth and espionage.

Then ... a leakage of radioactive goo exposed Splinter and his pets to mutating chemicals. Splinter turned into a Giant talking rat, while the turtles became the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles--his wacky, wisecracking, crime-fighting ninja pupils. (Red Herrings, Dell Yearling Books 1990.)

Four wacky, wisecracking, pizza-eating, teen-talking turtles named Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael (chosen, no doubt, directly from E.D. Hirsch, Jr.'s list of "what literate Americans know")--all exposed to toxins and living happily if violently forever afterwards fighting Japanese gangs, gunslingers in the Old West, and people trying to disrupt the U.S. defense and space programs. There is not one mention in all of the books of any negative effect of the exposure to toxins, nor even a hint that producing, transporting, and disposing of them were likely to be criminal acts. Might it be that the 6-year-old next to me, who said he knew about the origin of the teenage mutants and thought it was great, has fantasized that he, too, would like to be exposed to power-enhancing toxins?

Ever since that flight, I have been haunted by the possibility that the mass miseducation caused by the packaging of ignorance about environmental dangers represented by mutant Ninja turtles and many other made-for-children fantasies might lead millions of young people to smile and believe they are acquiring power as they are poisoned and radiated to death.

The Ninja turtles were still on my mind when I read the special report, "The Magnetic

Field Menace," by Paul Brodeur in the July issue of Macworld, a computer magazine. Mr. Brodeur is a noted muckracker of the asbestos industry and his book, Asbestos and Enzymes, has played a major role in mobilizing people to clean up asbestos contamination. In his report in Macworld (and in a new book, Currents of Death: Power Lines, Computer Terminals, and the Attempt to Cover Up Their Threat to Your Health), he reviews "what is known about the harmful biological effects of low-level electromagnetic emissions from display monitors, power lines, and other sources--particularly magnetic-field emissions, which have been linked for more than 10 years to the development of cancer."

In addition to reviewing the literature, Mr. Brodeur and the editors of Macworld decided to test the strength of radiation coming from Apple's Macintosh computer monitors and relate that to what is known about electromagnetism's potential for harm. This was a courageous thing for the editor's of Macworld to do, given that all of their advertising comes from Apple-related products, and we all owe them thanks.

Without going into all of the details, I'll summarize Mr. Brodeur's argument. He states that, by 1986, a link between exposure to low-level electromagnetic waves from very high voltage power lines and the development of cancer in children was established in a number of Swedish studies as well as a major study by the New York State Department of Health.

The strength of the 2- to 3-milligauss current (a gauss is a unit of strength of a magnetic field) emitted by the power lines was similar to the strength of the same kind of emission measured at a distance of 12 inches from video display terminals, according to the 1982 studies by Dr. Karel Marha of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

Dr. Marha suggested at that time that workers not be allowed to sit close to their display monitors or to neighboring monitors. These findings apply to all but a few specially manufactured video display screens, and not just to Macintosh monitors.

Mr. Brodeur also cites more recent studies of people and laboratory animals that support the finding that the doses measured by Dr. Marha may cause cancer (especially brain cancer and leukemia) and harm pregnant women, resulting in miscarriage and fetal damage.

With the assistance of the editors of Macworld, Mr. Brodeur tested all the common monitors used with Macintosh computers, with unsettling results. At 12 inches, electromagnetic radiation ranges from a low of 1.1 milligauss (but was generally higher than 2) at the front of the screen to a high of 15.86 milligauss at the side of a color, high-resolution monitor. (The sides and the backs of monitors emit the highest levels of radiation.) They found that only at a distance of 28 inches--''arm's length"--was it "sensible" to sit at the front of a screen. Four feet was their recommended distance from the sides and back.

This does not imply, by the way, that Macintosh monitors are more dangerous, say, than IBM monitors. All it implies is that Macworld, which only writes about Macintosh products, was brave enough to test the machines covered in its pages. It is likely that similar results would be found if IBM's or any other video display terminals were tested.

Until the Brodeur article appeared, Apple did not acknowledge the potential seriousness of the problem. After it appeared, the company did announce it supported industrywide safety standards for electromagnetic emissions, but it did not call for any protective guidelines in the meantime, and it continues to contend that there is no scientific proof of how electromagnetic radiation affects the body. Rather than take precautions that could prevent health problems, it would wait for scientists to develop a cure. In short, it's business as usual.

Mr. Brodeur quoted a computer-industry spokesman who said that asking that pregnant operators be transferred away from VDT's "is like asking to be transferred away from a light bulb." I call this the Mutant Ninja Turtle response; make light of a matter of life and death, turn it into entertainment.

Paul Brodeur concludes his argument by suggesting that the reader take prudent measures when using a display terminal. These measures consist of sitting at least an arms length (or about 28 inches) away from the display screen and placing monitors at least four feet away from each other on all sides, both of which I immediately did with my Macs and recommend you do!

In addition, I called three friends in the computer industry and asked them for their evaluation of the Brodeur article. Their response was that what Mr. Brodeur claimed has been common knowledge within the industry for several years. None of them denied that there were health problems with VDT's, and each of them knew of people that they suspected had contracted cancer from spending too many hours too close to the screen. None of them, however, knew of any transformations so felicitous as the one that created the Teenage Mutant Ninjas.

They did inform me (and another article in the same issue of Macworld confirmed) that Sweden and Canada have set standards for some types of electromagnetic radiation from VDT's (VLF or very-low-frequency radiation) and that terminals are manufactured that comply with those standards. Some are available in the United States; however, according to Mr. Brodeur, it is not clear whether these terminals mitigate the hazards of ELF (extra-low-frequency) radiation emissions.

What does this have to do with computers, education, and children? Everything. Children like to get close to computer screens, even touch them. That's true whether they are playing adventure or arcade games, doing simulations, using sophisticated education software, or being assigned drill and practice. It's true whether the computers are being used creatively or just replacing workbooks. Pressed for space, schools jam as many computers as possible into computer labs. I've seen computers with no more than a few inches between their keyboards lined up in two rows, back-to-back. It's very rare to find computers in such labs as much as two or three feet apart, much less the recommended four feet.

I believe, on the basis of reading Paul Brodeur's article and speaking to people in the computer industry, that it is absolutely essential, beginning immediately, that a policy be established stating that children must stay at least 28 inches from computer screens until we have more definite information about the cause and nature of the potential hazards of electromagnetic radiation. Better to take caution now than wait until damage is done. I also believe that all monitors should be placed at least four feet apart in computer labs and classrooms, even if that means having fewer of them in a classroom or computer center.

In addition, children and parents must be told of the potential health hazards of computer usage. Pregnant school workers and students should not use computers. This may cause inconvenience, but I believe we have as much choice about dealing directly with these problems as we did with asbestos removal in the schools.

As computer users, we must demand of manufacturers that information about electromagnetic radiation be made public. We must also demand that the government create standards of healthy and safe computer use and make them legally binding in public schools.

School officials can obtain a copy of Paul Brodeur's article by sending $6.00 to Macworld Back Issue Fulfillment, 144 Townsend St., San Francisco, Calif. 94107.

Finally, I suggest that, as educators, we mount a vocal boycott of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and let the entertainment business know we will not tolerate the life-threatening stupidity they sell to children.

Vol. 10, Issue 2, Page 36

Published in Print: September 12, 1990, as A Warning on Computers--and 'Ninja' Thinking
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