Study links cancer to Vatican Radio

Vatican Radio operates a forest of 31 communications and broadcast antennas just outside Rome. Like the Vatican itself, this complex is largely immune to local Italian regulation. Measurements indicate, in fact, that the facility’s electromagnetic field (EMF) emissions exceed standards for Italian transmitters. Neighboring communities are concerned about possible health risks of long-term exposure to these EMFs. Their concerns may be well-founded.

Using medical databases, Paola Michelozzi of the Local Health Authority RME in Rome and her colleagues tracked down leukemia cases over a 13-year period within a 10-kilometer radius of the transmitters–an area that’s home to 60,000 people.

Typical Italian leukemia figures would have predicted 37 adult deaths, but the databases revealed 40, the scientists report in the June 15 American Journal of Epidemiology. That tiny increase would sound no alarm, except that a disproportionate share of the 21 cases in men occurred within a 6-km radius of the antennas, Michelozzi told Science News. Also, all eight cases of leukemia in children, slightly more than expected, occurred within that radius. Only leukemia in women followed a random pattern.

Leukemia deaths occurred at almost triple the expected rate for men within 2 km of the 31 antennas and double within the 4-km zone. For children, leukemia incidence was almost double the expected rate within the 2-km radius and 50 percent above the expected incidence within 4 km.

Absent from the study are direct measurements of EMFs at the homes of people with leukemia, notes Tony Swerdlow of the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton, England. Still, he says “it’s a paper that I’m sure people interested in the field will want to read.”

Vatican Radio refuses to make public the power and direction of the transmissions from rotating antennas, making it impossible to extrapolate radiation doses from one area to an adjacent one.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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