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Effects of long-term radar use examined

Jan 1, 2003

No one knows exactly what happens to a person when subjected to radar microwaves over long periods of time. When a sailor from Scarsdale, N.Y., was diagnosed with an unusual type of cataract, it was suggested by her ophthalmologist that the radar set on her boat might be to blame.

The woman's posterior subcapsular cataracts, the clouding of the back of the lens, were possibly caused by prolonged use of radar aboard her powerboat, which she had operated regularly on Long Island Sound for more than 15 years. This type of cataract is a clouding of the back of the lens.

"Over a period of 30 years I experimented with both gibbons [the monkeys that are capable of swinging tree-to-tree like Tarzan] and humans to determine whether there was such a connection," said Dr. Milton M. Zaret, a retired ophthalmologist in Scarsdale. "When I started studying medicine shortly after World War II these types of cataracts were rarely seen. Then over the next 30 years they became increasingly common to the point where it was not so unusual for someone to have this problem. I concluded that posterior capsular cataracts were caused by prolonged exposure to microwaves."

The woman's boat, an Albin 29, has a radar antenna mounted on an arch about nine feet above deck level and four feet abaft the heads of the people sitting at the controls. "I told my doctor that we use the radar all the time," she said, adding that her doctor explained that there were many variables to consider, but that some researchers believe these cataracts could be caused by contact with radar signals.

People are routinely exposed to large amounts of microwave energy from sources such as computers, microwave ovens, and other electronic devices. Since prolonged exposure is the suspected cause and exposure is so varied, researchers have been unable to statistically conclude the nature of the problem, according to Dr. Bruce Gordon, another ophthalmologist who is familiar with the woman's case.

"There have been plenty of anecdotal incidents but not anything statistical that can prove there's a connection," Gordon said.

Whatever the cause of these cataracts, all agree that purposeful exposure to radar waves, like climbing into the rig while the radar is transmitting, is not a good idea.

In fact, the radar observer course, required by the Coast Guard for any watch officer in the merchant marine, dictates that a person heading aloft should pull the fuse on the radar set so that someone does not inadvertently flip the "on" switch while the person is in the rig.