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Video Display Terminals: A Shocking Report
Terminal Shock, by Bob DeMatteo,
NC Press Limited, Toronto, 224 pages, $11.95

Reviewed by Noelle Boughton


It is no secret that people who work on video display terminals can suffer from eye strain, pregnancy problems, sore necks and tight back muscles. But Bob DeMatteo's new book Terminal Shock: The Health Hazards of Video Display Terminals, shows these are only some of the problems VDT users may face.

In his thorough examination of VDT hazards and their health effects, DeMatteo presents an alarming list of potential health dangers to people working with or near VDTs. Radiation from VDTs can cause cataracts, defects in both male and female users' offspring and deteriorated vision. Muscular aches and pains caused by prolonged VDT use can develop into chronic fatigue, and fingers and wrists can suffer from such repetitive strain injuries as tendonitis, tenosynovitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

DeMatteo, who has co-ordinated Occupational Health and Safety for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union in Toronto for seven years, adds that lighting, chair and desk height and keyboard slant can increase the hazards to a VDT user's health. He even challenges the use of lead aprons to protect the fetus of a pregnant woman employee. He argues that their benefits are negligible while their added weight can affect a person's posture.

Terminal Shock presents VDT hazards in a well-documented manner. DeMatteo looks at each type of radiation and hazard which a VDT can present and spells out how each can affect health. In each instance, he draws on studies and cases from Canada, the U.S., Europe, Britain, Japan and the Scandinavian countries. The result is an eye-opening account which will make any VDT user think twice about going back to his or her machine.

DeMatteo is thorough. He examines each type of ionizing and non-ionizing radiation which VDTs can generate — such as x-ray, ultraviolet, microwave and radio frequency — and examines other factors, such as pulsed electromagnetic fields. He explains what each is, how it is generated by a VDT and its effect on human health. And then he goes on to look at how these may combine in their effects.

But therein lies one of Terminal Shock's major problems. Many of the explanations in this first half of the book are so technical it's hard for the average communicator to wade through them. Whole paragraphs are often rendered meaningless by such technical words and phrases as Hz to kHz, flyback transformers and horizontal deflection coils, upper and lower harmonics.

DeMatteo moves from this highly technical section to others on monitoring VDT emissions, do-it-yourself ways to shield a VDT and reduce the amount of radiation reaching a user, and legislation and workers' compensation settlements regarding VDTs and workers. For the most part, the second half of the book is much easier to follow and very practical.

Most of DeMatteo's solutions are useful, but are geared to government, manufacturer and employer. These include changing a VDT's design, tightening up emission standards or improving the workplace environment. Very few suggestions are for workers who want to decrease the impact of potential hazards. One that is, however, is to take a 10-minute break after each hour of VDT use so fatigue cannot accumulate as quickly.

DeMatteo may be right that responsibility for a worker's health should rest with employer rather than employee. That is obviously part of the pro-labor, anti-company and anti-government bias he shows throughout his book and it is small comfort to workers who want to improve their situations.

Terminal Shock leaves some unanswered questions — such as how dangerous are VDTs being sold in Canada and what is the impact of prolonged VDT exposure on women who are not pregnant but who may later want a child. But despite these flaws and the technical jargon, the book is a good primer for educated Canadian VDT users. It is thorough, provides Canadian data and can certainly increase your understanding of VDT-related health hazards.

Noelle Boughton is a freelance writer living in Mississauga, Ont.



Published in Sources, Summer 1986

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