It might surprise you to learn about the popularity of anti-radiation maternity dresses in China: I had seen a few of these rather unusual-looking dresses on the streets of Shanghai, but never thought for a second that they might have hidden properties, or even that they were linked to pregnancy.
I finally plucked up the courage to ask about the dresses while waiting for an elevator one day. After explaining that it was intended to shield her unborn child from the effects of radiation, the woman wearing the dress in question was delighted at the chance to give me a demonstration, and in order to prove its effectiveness, she stuck her mobile phone inside the clothing, and with some difficulty managed to show me that it was no longer receiving a signal.
Once in the elevator, I found myself wondering why had I never heard of anti-radiation maternity clothes before. On one hand I was sceptical, imagining some businessman keen to exploit the belief that electromagnetic radiation could be harmful to unborn children - a popular position in China, as I would later learn. But the conversation had also led me to wonder if perhaps Westerners were too complacent about such things: perhaps the Chinese were right, and we should be taking steps to protect our pregnant women from the dangers of the modern world.
Later that day, when I reported my encounter to a group of female Chinese and expats friends over dinner, I had no idea I was starting a debate among the five of us that would involve six different opinions.
At first, I was comforted to discover that the other foreigner at the table had never heard of anti-radiation clothing either. My Chinese friends, however, explained to us how the anti-electromagnetic radiation maternity wear industry had thrived in China since the mid-nineties: apparently, protective jumpers, dresses and blankets were now a must-have for a pregnant woman. The real debate started when we got to talking about the scientific evidence of their effectiveness, or rather the lack of it.
For a long time, no one in China had ever really questioned the effectiveness of anti-radiation maternity clothes; it was simply taken for granted and anchored in public opinion. Controversy arose two years ago when a popular news programme on the state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) network presented the results of its investigation into the anti-radiation clothing industry.
The news programme had reported that silver-ion maternity clothing proved effective at blocking 90 percent of electromagnetic waves coming from in front of the wearer. These findings were in contrast to the claims of manufacturers, who regularly stated that their best products blocked 99.99 percent of everyday radiation coming from computers, televisions, mobile phones, microwaves, and many other modern electronic devices.
More controversially, the news programme also claimed that while such clothes were able to block most frontal electromagnetic waves, they actually served to magnify the intensity of the waves hitting parts of the body not covered by the clothing. Experiments conducted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, led by scientist Chen Feng, found that the clothing actually increased exposure by trapping radiation inside, much like a greenhouse.
“Experimental results show that under real life circumstances ... the anti-radiation clothing intensifies the radiation. … When the electromagnetic waves get inside the garment from other directions, there are no outlets for them to be dispersed. You are actually exposed to a higher level of radiation influence.”
According to my friends, this news caused panic among consumers, who felt cheated and worried for their safety and health of their babies. Some people saw the scandal as simply adding to China’s poor record for health problems; another scandal to add on top of many others. However, it is easy to see why people were angry: this particular case dealt with the safety of both pregnant mothers and unborn children.
Following the programme and its revelations, much public anger was directed at the Chinese government for providing so little information on anti-radiation clothing and its benefits or dangers. In the meantime, the Shanghai Electromagnetic Radiation Prevention Association (the trade association representing the anti-radiation wear industry, obviously), issued a statement regarding the CCTV investigation. Predictably, it challenged the report and defended the garments, calling them “valid for electromagnetic shielding”, and emphasizing that “consumers who wear anti-electromagnetic radiation clothes have no reason for panic or fear.”
Sitting at the dinner table, a number of thoughts struck me as I learned the full story behind these dresses. Generally, when CCTV presents stories such as these, people pay attention: the station carries a lot of weight in China. But I had seen many women continuing to wear these garments over the last few months, despite the report.
As my Chinese friends pointed out, both the CCTV programme and the manufacturers claimed to be in the right. Who should people believe? Opinions differed. Where there was consensus was over the fact that the government should give guidance to the public on the matter: my friends blamed the whole problem on the Health Ministry for neglecting its duty to its citizens. I realized how widely questioned the value of official information on health issues was. One of the key points that led the debate to become so controversial is the industry's out-of-date standards on electromagnetic radiation prevention, which date back to 1998, when the electrical appliances landscape was quite different from today.
Let’s have a look back at the chronology of events. In 2010, the China Consumers’ Association published a warning about daily appliances’ emissions. Then in the first half of 2011, radiation fears peaked following the tragic events in Fukushima reactor in Japan. At the end of 2011, soon after the CCTV investigation aired, sales of the maternity aprons were affected and plummeted. They froze for a couple of months, and although for a while it seemed that the days of anti-radiation aprons were numbered, the trend still continues today and it has grown into a lucrative fashion business - with prices for the dresses ranging from approximately $60 to $300. The industry was once based almost solely on one product – the apron dress. Nowadays, a variety of other options are available, including pants, shirts, and underwear.
Since that night, I have looked for other opinions on the matter. He Lan, a columnist at the Southern Metropolis Daily, had a more skeptical view on government regulation: his view was that it might be better to improve the alarming environmental conditions that made the Chinese people feel constant panic about radiation in the first place, than to complain about the clothing that claims to protect people from it. He then asked why men aren’t already wearing anti-radiation underpants. His answer to his own question was that profit is directly proportional to scale. Pregnant women will wear anti-radiation clothing for nine months. When will men wear some and for how long?”
I don’t know for you, but his question got me thinking for a while.
Dinner was long finished when I asked my Chinese friends if they would wear such clothes themselves when pregnant. Without delay, one replied “of course!”, and when the four of us looked at her for a more detailed explanation, she simply added “just in case”. She refused to believe that the garment could be harmful, and only reckoned it might be less effective than claimed. Despite the warnings, she would not take the risk of not wearing it. I drew a mental parallel with the common Western superstition that walking under a ladder brings bad luck: I don’t consider myself superstitious, but if I had the choice, I would rather walk around the ladder than walk under it, “just in case”.
Another friend also answered my question in the positive, but her reasons were different. Chinese families believe that radiation emitted from electronic appliances cause birth defects and have negative effects on pregnant women. She said she couldn’t really discard the aprons, despite being herself aware of their potential ineffectiveness and harmfulness, as a result of pressure from family and peers, and especially in a working environment.
My third Chinese friend at first agreed with this position, but then became hesitant, and finally said she would not wear the anti-radiation clothing. She would definitely encounter social and family pressure as well, she said, but she believed that thanks to the CCTV programme, choosing to not wear the clothing was becoming increasingly accepted. She admitted that the turning point for her was the realization that pregnant women in the West don’t wear the clothing. China often measures itself against the West to judge its own progress, and the fact that foreign women have never heard of anti-radiation clothing definitely changed opinions in this small sample group.
Now let’s be honest: concern about the ever-increasing number of wi-fi and cellular signals is not limited to China; some people in the West are blaming ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’ for nausea, migraine or depression, among others. However, according to the World Health Organization: “to date, scientific evidence does not support a link between these symptoms and exposure to electromagnetic fields.”
Each year, around fifteen million babies are born in China, and the occurrence of birth defects is growing at an alarming rate. According to the China Maternal and Infant Health Development Report, 149 of every 10,000 births were affected in 2010, compared to 88 in 1996. The increase coincides with the growing availability and affordability of electrical appliances, and this is how radiation fears are nourished. But it also coincides with booming industrial output, car ownership, and changes in dietary habits. It is impossible to look at such results and imply causation, rather than mere correlation.
There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Teachers open the door, you enter by yourself”. Back at home that night, I thought about the earlier conversation and wondered what I would do. Pushing the logic to the extreme, I came to the conclusion that one effective solution would be to wear a suit that completely covers the body. Not sure I would go for it. I glimpsed at the glowing numbers on my microwave, and thought that if I were to become pregnant in Shanghai, I would surely not wear the belly armour. Rather, I would be much more worried about air pollution, solar radiation, and food safety. Still, before going to bed, I switched off my Internet router for the night, just in case.
Mathilde Paquet is a silent observer with a loud laugh. She lives in Shanghai, China, where she waltzes with a new culture, and finds herself passionate about Tai Chi, while completely failing at using chopsticks.
Photos courtesy of Amazon.com.