Mothers-to-be wary of electromagnetic glow

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 July, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 July, 2001, 12:00am

SHANGHAI IS USED to glowing tributes. It has won a reputation as a city with flair - from sleek office towers to fancy shopping centres and trendy night clubs. But some residents are wary of basking in the glow too long.

Expectant mothers are buying clothes that protect their unborn children from an unusual threat - the supposedly harmful effects of computers, mobile phones and other household appliances. These products are feared to be the source of potentially dangerous electromagnetic fields.

This craze is perhaps a sign of how affluence brings new worries. Perhaps it is a sign of some canny businessmen with a bright idea.

According to one manufacturer's claims, these clothes ward off low-level radiation and damaging electromagnetic waves that could be harmful to the unborn. One advertisement says that garments with their special anti-radiation ability woven into the fabric 'reduce electromagnetic radiation by a factor of 10,000' and this can help the customer limit the risk of leukaemia, birth defects and miscarriages.

'A research organisation has pointed out that for expecting mothers who use computers for more than 20 hours, they have an 80 per cent higher risk of having a miscarriage and the chance of birth defects is also greater.' It becomes more ominous.

The same manufacturer claims that these fields could 'disturb the central nervous system and disrupt normal nervous system functions, leading to dizziness, headaches, memory loss, the inability to sleep, frequent nightmares, brain cancer and other unexplained brain-related afflictions'. The scare tactics apparently have their effect, however.

'We get lots of women buying these products,' said a shop attendant at a major department store. 'They are very popular.' That appears to be an accurate assessment.

'We sold four million yuan [about HK$3.74 million] worth of these garments last year and we expect to double our sales this year,' said Ru Baoliang, sales manager at Shanghai Lion High Science & Technology.

Shanghai Lion, which also makes protective computer screens and eye-wear, says it is the biggest maker of anti-radiation fabrics in the city.

Mr Ru did not elaborate on why his products were so popular but an office worker and a mother-to-be gave an explanation: 'I sit next to two computers all day long at work. I have been wearing them because I don't want to take any chances with my child.

'I have a number of friends who wore them and they all had normal child births.'

The manufacturer unfortunately did not see any business from her as she borrowed her outfit, perhaps with good reason - these are costly items. In one shop almost all such dresses were selling for about 895 yuan, somewhat more than an ordinary maternit outfit. Other shops displayed electromagnetically correct dresses fetching 1,300 yuan.

In one of these shops, this reporter tried to test the product. I placed a mobile phone in the pocket of a maternity dress that was said to be resistant to nearby electromagnetic fields. Inside the pocket, my hapless phone showed no signs of life, failing to respond to repeated attempts to make a connection.

The sales girl beamed triumphantly, though I might have pointed out that in Shanghai a missed call could easily have been the result of a passing truck or sunspots. I turned to the Shanghai Radiation Supervisory Office for a final word.

'Electromagnetic waves are not good for you but whether they create sufficient damage - that is another story,' said an official. 'I do not believe the problem is that serious and the claims of the merchandisers are exaggerated. It is also understandable why . . . [they] are making these claims.'

Shanghai's fearful mothers are not alone. The same products are popular in South Korea and Japan. But in Shanghai - a city of nearly 17 million people - this appears to be a business with lots of potential - limited only by China's one-child policy.