Two years ago, as I waited for an appointment in Beijing, I watched a secretary place an apron over her enlarged belly. I asked if she was cold and she replied, “No, I’m pregnant.” She then explained that the apron concealed a metal mesh that protected her unborn child from the electromagnetic radiation coming from her computer.
That sounded bonkers to me. But when I mentioned this curious encounter to Chinese friends, I learned that an entire industry of “protective” maternity clothing has thrived in China for almost 20 years. Anti-electromagnetic radiation jumpers are just as necessary for a modern Chinese pregnancy as folic acid supplements. This is despite any scientific evidence proving that electromagnetic radiation harms fetuses -- some Chinese families simply believe that it does.
On Dec. 17, “Truth,” a popular news program on the state-owned CCTV network, aired an investigation into the anti-radiation clothing industry’s claims that its best products block 99.9999 percent of radiation coming from computers, televisions, mobile phones, microwaves or any other modern electronic device. Scientist Chen Feng, allegedly recommended by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, led the investigation and reported that a “silver ion” maternity suit (the brand wasn't revealed) blocked 90 percent of incoming radiation. That’s not quite the 99.9999 percent claimed by some manufacturers, but he essentially conceded that the clothes are effective.
This wouldn't have made much of a ripple on China's microblogs and editorial pages. But then came Chen’s second conclusion: "Experimental results show that under real life circumstances...the anti-radiation clothing intensifies the radiation." He stated that even if a woman is wearing an anti-radiation jumper, radiation can still enter her body through parts not protected by the clothing, such as the arms. When that happens, the anti-radiation shielding serves to trap the radiation and increase it to dangerously high levels.
That’s a preposterous claim, no matter how badly Chen Feng and the Truth producers want it to be true.
Nonetheless, Chinese microbloggers were electrified by the claim that the clothing could do more harm than good. In the two weeks following the broadcast, more than 1.8 million comments were posted to Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog, about the anti-electromagnetic radiation maternity wear industry. Most were angry at it, and the Chinese government, for providing little information on the safety and necessity of the garments.
Zhang Guang, managing editor of the private Foreign Management Magazine tweeted on Weibo:
The problem is the Health Ministry's neglect of duty. They have been inactive for a long time on such an important problem which influences the safety of a whole race. They let common people who have no professional knowledge and are unable to make judgments face this problem by themselves, blankly. Aren't they ashamed when officials and experts expose the so-called lie?
The Shanghai Electromagnetic Radiation Prevention Association (SERPA) -- the year-old, 60-member trade association representing the anti-radiation wear industry -- waited almost a week to issue a statement regarding Truth’s report. Predictably, it defended the garments, calling them “valid for electromagnetic shielding.” It continued, “anti-electromagnetic radiation clothes cannot be a collector of electromagnetic waves; consumers who wear anti-electromagnetic radiation clothes have no reason for panic or fear.” The so-called science behind the report on Truth, it concluded, was “reckless and irresponsible.”
According to Zhang Quanling, a popular CCTV host, people sympathetic to the industry seem to be now threatening those involved in the Truth segment. She wrote on Weibo:
These last few days, my colleague who did the investigative story on anti-radiation maternity clothing is consoling the truth-telling expert [presumably, scientist Chen Feng], because there is someone who wants to kill him. My colleague pointed at his own shaking legs and said: “Don't worry. They will kill me first!”
This tweet, unsurprisingly, has been forwarded almost 2,000 times, and received more than 900 follow-up comments.
As of the evening of Dec. 28, Chen Feng and the staff of Truth were still alive.
But the same cannot be said for the anti-electromagnetic radiation maternity-wear industry. In the wake of the report and the tweets, sales of the clothing have plummeted, the Beijing News reported. And on Weibo, it’s almost impossible to find anybody willing to attest to his or her attachment to the garments.
We have been forced to work as "food chemists" and "chemistry experts," and this time the anti-radiation clothing problem will make many people study to become "physicists" … [B]oth the CCTV who discovered the problem and the association who replied to the problem claim to be in the right. Who should we believe in? Apparently, the relevant government department should give guidance as soon as possible.
He Lan, a columnist for the highly influential and independent Southern Metropolis Daily took a more skeptical view of government regulation. It might be better, he suggested, to improve the frightful environmental conditions that have made the Chinese people “feel constant panic.” Then he asked this cheeky question:
Why don't we have an anti-radiation underpants industry for men? Obviously, profit is directly proportional to scale. Pregnant women will wear anti-radiation clothing for ten months. When will men wear it and for how long?
In the end, it may not be science that destroys China’s anti-electromagnetic radiation maternity-wear industry, but rather the public's realization that expectant mothers in the West don’t wear the stuff. China often measures itself against the West to judge its own progress, which is why the Dec. 28 Beijing Evening News segment titled, “Foreign Women Have Never Heard of Anti-Radiation Clothing,” had a strong impact on other leading newspapers and websites.
Featured in the segment was a Chinese mother who lives in Switzerland -- a country idealized in China as a place of precision, good sense and cleanliness. She told reporters that when she asked her Swiss gynecologist where she could purchase an anti-radiation suit in Switzerland, “...the doctor was at a loss to answer because he had never heard of such a thing." He told her, "The amount of radiation thrown off by a computer is less than what is thrown off by the sun’s rays."
It’s a simple and true point that a television news magazine, or a government agency, shouldn't have to make.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.
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