Zapping The Movement

Women who once broke into the cruise missile base and danced on this silo, now often feel ill at their camp. Why?

By David Kattenburg | 1987-06-01 12:00:00

The U.S (and reportedly the Russian) military want to use microwaves as weapons. "This is becoming a hot topic," says Dr. Lewis Slessin, editor of the New York publication, Microwave News. Superpower. scientists could zap each other with radio frequency (RF) signals and microwave "chip guns." Armored tanks, communication installations, aircraft, satellites, missiles, or any other sensitive electronics could be fried.

The most sensitive electronic device -- the human brain -- may also be a prime target. Indeed, cruise missile protesters camped around the U.S. Air Force base at Greenham Common in Southern England already appear to be suffering from low-level microwaves emanating from the base. They complain of head and ear aches, lethargy, contusion and menstrual irregularity.

Perhaps the women are being inadvertently zapped. The base uses a wide variety of communication systems which emit RF radiation that expose everyone, including soldiers. However, a U.S. Army report issued in 1980 unveiled a "concept" to "create the perception of noise in the heads of personnel by exposing them to low power, pulsed microwaves," useful for "camouflage, decoy and deception operations." Could it be used for crowd control and the discouragement of dissidents? U.S. Congressman James Scheur believes so. "We are developing devices and products capable of controlling violent individuals, and entire mobs without injury," he says. "We can tranquilize, impede, immobilize, harass, shock, upset, chill, temporarily blind, deafen, or just plain scare the wits out of anyone the police have a proper need to control and restrain."

Civilized society bathes itself in RF and microwave radiation every day. Our ablutions are conducted in silence, which a radio can reveal to be illusory. Standard radio and TV transmissions begin at about 500 kilohertz-500 thousand hertz, or cycles per second. AM radio extends from there up to 1600 kilohertz, which is equivalent to 1.6 million, or megahertz. Higher still, at about 88 megahertz, the FM band begins. Sophisticated radiophiles can listen to international shortwave broadcasts between the AM and FM regions. Above FM, police, marine, weather and citizens band signals abound.

Satellite transmissions occur in the "ultrahigh frequency" range. CF-18 fighter pilots communicate at UHF too. "Microwave" is a generic term for everything between 300 megahertz and 300 billion, or gigahertz. Radar signals in the high megas and low gigas pack a lot of punch. Consequently, they can be used to transmit over great distances, under secure conditions, without fear of being jammed.

Microwaves can be very powerful, but they do not break up the electronic structure of individual atoms or molecules. In other words, they are "non-ionizing." For that reason, they have widely been presumed not to injure human beings. The same was said of radar during the Second World War, in spite of the fact that it could heat tissue. Technicians became flushed or experienced headaches. Similar symptoms had been observed with patients undergoing diathermy treatment. Studies on rabbits, however, showed radar's dangers: They developed eye cataracts.

Warnings about RF effects were often ignored. Radar, which had been essential to the war effort, was considered a miracle, not a biohazard. By the early 1950s, however, the power of radar had increased enormously and the risks of overexposure began to be documented. Internal bleeding, cataract formation, leukemia, jaundice, and brain tumors were reported among workers. Warning bells went off. The U.S. government conducted secret bioeffects research in late 1950s and early l960s, much of which focused on the tissue heating effects of powerful RF radiation.

Officially, the military claimed that low-level exposure posed no danger. A Pentagon program examined the effects of microwave radiation between 1956 and 1960. Low-level effects were so disregarded that the program's contractors used microwave radiation above 100 milliwatts / square centimeter -- just enough to cook meat.

U.S. military views of low-level bioeffects changed radically, however, when the U.S. embassy in Moscow was found to be under weak microwave exposure. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, classified research was carried out on the potential genetic threat posed to embassy personnel. To keep these activities secret, Pentagon scientists dubbed this the "Moscow Viral Study."

"Project Pandora" meanwhile examined the behavioral effects of weak microwaves on chimpanzees. Results from the Viral and Pandora studies remain largely classified. Information published by Paul Brodeur in The Zapping of America and by Nicholas Steneck in The Microwave Debate suggests that these studies were managed in a confused fashion, in frequent disregard for the norms of academic research. The U.S government was accused of covering up findings, or pursuing weapons applications. Some researchers had indeed discovered potentially significant health effects among embassy personnel and chimps, but the military apparently lost interest when dramatic weapons applications failed to materialize. Throughout the 1970s, positive, albeit controversial, evidence accumulated on the damaging effects of weak microwave radiation on the central nervous system, eyes, and reproductive organs. Canada cooperated with the U.S. in research on RF biohazards. In military cooperation with the US., U.K., and Australia, the Canadian Department of National Defence set up a lab at the National Research Council, coordinated by George Grant, a specialist in the biomedical effects of nuclear weapons. Assisted by a lab at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, a human exposure chamber was constructed, supervised by Dr. Douglas Hill.

Defence Departments have a lot of high power short-wave radio equipment, Hill explains, "so the question was, what's the safe exposure limit in that frequency range?" His researchers studied the absorption by human volunteers of from 3.5 to 42 megahertz radiation. These are short-wave, as opposed to microwave signals. "We found that the body absorbs more when the length of the body is aligned parallel to the electric field-which means that the body is acting like a receiving antenna," says Hill.

Hill found that humans absorb from 0.054 to 0.102 watts of shortwave energy for each milliwatt-square centimeter to which they are exposed, for every kilogram of body weight. From this, safety limits were set. "Most soldiers are exposed to less than the safe limit," Hill says. "If you keep exposures within the Canadian safe limits, we don't think there are any effects on people."

George Grant claims there is no immediate way of confirming Hill's assertion. On the basis of some "peculiar absorption" patterns found in Hill's study, Grant says, "we changed our position slightly" on safety standards.

Other Canadian studies supported the view that RF bio-hazards were minimal. Among the most controversial of these was one on the blood-brain barrier of rats. Ed Preston, a member of Grant's group, was unable to replicate U.S. findings showing weak microwaves opening the natural protective barrier between blood and the inside of brain cells. Any such barrier effect would have suggested a mechanism for altered behavior. According to Alan Frey, an outspoken researcher, Preston's analysis was incorrect. So too, he alleged, were the statistics of an Air Force researcher with whom the Canadians had collaborated and whose work had been used by the U.S. military to downplay concerns over microwave barrier effects. "When you do the statistical analysis on [Preston's] data," Frey says, "it turns out that he does show an effect. He didn't know how to do the appropriate statistical analysis on his day"

This is a very common accusation among competing scientists. The microwave debate has been filled with such invective. "It's a field that's very confusing," says George Grant, "and you've got a lot of guys who just want to push and push and push, and they've got nothing to push with." Lewis Slesin disagrees. "Anybody with their head screwed on right would agree that low-level radiation can have these effects," he says, "but still, there are people out there who scream that you don't know what you're talking about if you allege such things."

In any case, says Alan Frey, the Air Force medical labs with whom the Canadians collaborated are well known for their negative health findings. "The laboratory of 'no effects.' That's what everybody calls it. They're kind of comical." According to Frey, the U.S. Air Force suffers from a "clear-cut conflict of interest. The same people who are responsible for defending the Air Force and telling the public there's no problem for the Air Force to put radar in your backyard -- these same people are the ones charged with the responsibility and have most of the funds to support research. And you know what they support!"

Perhaps Frey is overblowing his case. Taken in isolation, studies by Preston at the National Research Council, by George Grant's group, and by their counterparts in the much larger U.S. military-academic establishment appear to have been motivated by a concern for occupational health and safety standards. In Canada, low-level microwave effects on the eyes have been dramatically demonstrated by researchers such as John Trevithick at the University of Western Ontario. Trevithick has apparently not lost the support of his U.S. Army Medical sponsors. Recently, he received a three-year, $194,000 grant from the U.S. Army to continue his studies on the formation of cataracts.

Scientists in the pay of the Pentagon, however, may have a hidden agenda where university academics do not. Kenneth Oscar for instance, co-author of one of the earliest studies in which blood-brain barrier effects were reported, revised his position in 1980. On the basis of this and reports like Preston's, low-level microwave effects on the brain came to be discredited by the military. At the same time, however, military minds like Oscar's had lost none of their faith in weapons applications. "When people are illuminated with properly modulated, low-powered microwaves," Oscar wrote in a 1980 report for the Army, "the sensation is reported as a buzzing, clicking, or hissing which seems to originate... within or just behind the head... Before this technique may be extended and used for military applications, an understanding of the basic principles must be developed."

Regardless of its public position on RF and microwave health effects, the U.S. military has never lost its private exuberance for the zap gun idea. In 1965, "biological entrainment of the human brain by low frequency radiation" was brought to the attention of the Pandora project's coordinator. In 1972, the U.S. Army examined the use of microwaves as "barrier" weapons to immobilize personnel. This last winter, 600 researchers gathered at New Mexico's Kirtland Air Force Base to discuss "high power microwave technology for defence applications." This was the third such conference. Over 70 papers by the U.S. military were presented-a show-and-tell for scientists.

Harold Gerslaanoff, publisher of the Journal of Electronic Defence, says that labs are examining what radiation can do to the electronics in tanks. According to Microwave News, General Dynamics, Physics International, and the TRW Corporation already have high-powered microwave test facilities. So does the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, specializing in directed energy weapons for Star Wars.

The Pentagon may wish to develop the means for zapping enemy satellites as well as tanks. The Kirtland Air Force Base meeting was attended by biological specialists from the Pentagon too. The U.S. military has much to learn about the anti-personnel use of these devices. "The military -- Lord knows how far back -- has always been interested in radiation weapons," says Alan Frey. "You know: ray guns. Someone from the military comes floating by saying, 'What about using it as a ray gun thing?"'

Weapons that impair the nervous system, wrote Chuck de Caro in the Atlantic Monthly, "may have uses in commando operations, anti-terrorist actions, and what the Pentagon calls low-level conflicts." U.S. government sources, Microwave News reports, admit that crowd-control zap weapons could be available soon. Have such weapons already been used on the Greenham Common women? Government sources believe not, the same magazine says.

The Pentagon may very well wish to turn these pestiferous women into so many notches on its gun. Since 1982, the Greenham Common Women have laid siege to the base there, and are now reportedly suffering from intermittent microwave exposure. British and Canadian medical representatives have testified that low-level microwaves can be detected at specific sites around the base's perimeter. Radiation levels rise in specific areas where the women camp. "Strong signals recorded on one occasion near the green gate were found to cover the women's encampment but stop abruptly at the edge of the road leading up to the gate," wrote officials of Britain's "Electronics for Peace". "Signals at scarcely more than normal background level have been found to increase rapidly when the women start a demonstration."

The U.S. Air Force has not revealed whether it is zapping these women, who suffer from maladies corresponding to symptoms previously linked to low-level microwave exposure. If the Air Force is exposing them intentionally -- which is uncertain, since the base contains equipment which naturally emits radiation -- it is not a new idea. The British Defence Equipment Catalogue once carried references to the "Valkyrie System" and "frequency weapons." These were eliminated from the catalogue by request of the British Ministry of Defence in 1983.

Clearly the United States is working on developing weaponry of this kind, and not just the Reagan Administration is behind it. Not many of the presidential candidates who are competing to succeed Reagan are in a hurry to disarm. Les Aspin, for example, accuses Caspar Weinberger of laxity, and wants develop a vast arsenal of more "conventional" weapons, in which category zap guns may conceivably fall. The disarmament movement may soon have more to worry about than nuclear weapons.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1987

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1987, page 9. Some rights reserved.

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