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Medicine: Are Americans Being Zapped?

4 minute read

The microwave controversy generates demands for action

Raymond V. Krabbenhoft, 54, of Sabin, Minn., has suffered three heart attacks and two strokes. Although his parents are alive at 89 and 82, he has had severe cataracts removed, is sterile, and must take two dozen pills a day. His problems, he insists, stem from his two years as an Army radar repairman on Iwo Jima during World War II when he was so severely exposed to microwaves that his brown hair turned red. Says he: “I was cooked.”

Krabbenhoft realizes he cannot reverse his own serious ailments, but he wants others to be spared. At a conference sponsored by the Radar Victims Network in San Francisco last week, he and his fellow “victims,” including Organization President Joseph Towne, met with doctors and lawyers to plot strategy for a national campaign. They want the Government to take action against what they consider the growing danger from microwave radiation. The U.S., said Los Angeles Radiation Specialist Dr. John McLaughlin, is one “giant microwave oven.”

Such hyperbole aside, microwaves are indeed ubiquitous. Part of what physicists call the electromagnetic spectrum, they lie somewhere between conventional radio waves and infrared (heat) radiation in frequency and wave length. First widely used in radar during World War II, they are now generated by everything from telephone relay systems and television stations to garage door openers, burglar alarms, emergency highway call boxes, diathermy machines and, of course, the kitchen “radar” range.

One of the earliest researchers to express concern over microwaves was a New York ophthalmologist, Dr. Milton Zaret, who warned more than a decade ago that even low-level exposure could produce a peculiar type of cataract, or clouding, on the rear surface of the lens. (The lens is especially vulnerable to microwave “cooking” because it has no blood vessels to carry off heat.) In 1968 the Department of Health, Education and Welfare said that another organ was vulnerable as well: the testes, because only slight temperature changes can affect the sperm-producing process.

But it was not until 1972 that microwaves became a public issue or concern. That year it was revealed that the Russians had long been bombarding the American embassy in Moscow with microwaves, presumably as part of elaborate jamming and bugging schemes. Investigators claim to have found an unusually high incidence of cancer and blood disorders among embassy personnel, as well as a number of birth defects in their offspring. A former Marine guard has filed for $1.75 million in damages from the State and Navy departments for his severely retarded child. Increasingly, people exposed to large amounts of microwave radiation, notably air traffic controllers and radar operators, are seeking damages or disability payments from both the Government and private manufacturers.

At present federal authorities recommend a microwave exposure limit of ten milliwatts per sq. cm. But, says Dr. Moris Shore, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Division for Biological Effects, even this level may be too high. He notes that researchers are now finding birth malformations, impaired learning and locomotive ability, and altered body chemistry in lab animals exposed within the Government’s “safe” limits.

Whether humans are similarly affected is debatable. In his popular and alarming book, The Zapping of America, Paul Brodeur said that Soviet scientists found during studies in the 1950s that workers exposed to microwave radiation were complaining of headaches, eye pain, weariness, memory loss, and a host of other ailments. As a result, while bombarding the U.S. embassy with higher levels, the Soviets set a microwave limit for their own people of no more than ten microwatts per sq. cm, a thousand times less than the U.S. standard.

Yet many American researchers remain unconvinced that there is any real danger. Only recently a study by the National Academy of Sciences found that naval radar operators died no younger than their peers in other jobs. The Environmental Protection Agency points out that 98% of the U.S. population is exposed to less than one microwatt of microwave radiation at any one time. Says State Department Biologist Herbert Pollack: “The ‘zapping of America’ is just a sensationalist charge.” Perhaps so, but in an era of microwaves, their use obviously requires continued research and education.

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