A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Were those old shoe store fluoroscopes a health hazard?

November 27, 1987

Dear Cecil:

Remember those fluoroscopes we used to wiggle our toes under in shoe stores? We treated them as toys! Overnight they were snatched out of circulation as health hazards. Are my feet a walking time bomb? Am I doomed?

Dear Solly:

If your feet are a walking time bomb, Sol, it's probably because of your devil-may-care attitude toward changing your socks. At this late date (shoe store fluoroscopes were outlawed in most states in the late 50s), whatever bad is going to happen to you due to youthful X rays probably already has. Studies suggest that cases of radiation-induced leukemia tend to peak 7-15 years after exposure. So if you've made it through this far, you're probably OK.

Count yourself lucky. The nation's 10,000 shoe store fluoroscopes were notoriously poorly regulated during their heyday in the 40s and 50s. The U.S. Public Health Service said the average device emitted between 7 and 14 roentgens per dose, but one study found that some machines emitted as much as 116 roentgens. (For comparison, a person standing within 1500 meters of ground zero at Hiroshima got hit with more than 300 roentgens--admittedly throughout their entire bodies, not just their feet.) There is a predictable relationship between X ray exposure and excess cancer deaths. So we can safely say that some people died ahead of their time due to what was basically a sales gimmick.

Shoe store fluoroscopes were typical of the careless and in some cases frivolous attitude toward X rays that prevailed for decades. X rays were once used to treat benign enlargements of the thymus, tonsils and adenoids, for instance, triggering many cases of thyroid cancer. Pregnant mothers and babies were routinely fluoroscoped by pediatricians, causing leukemia.

In shoe stores, the people really at risk weren't the customers but the salespeople, who were exposed to radiation on a daily basis. (Both customer and salesperson, you may recall, had to lean over the cabinet of the fluoroscope to look in through viewports.) A cursory check has failed to turn up any studies on this score. But when they talk about an old shoe flogger having a certain glow, they probably aren't talking about his tan.

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A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams

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