Vatican Radio: Still Making Waves

A new report on the health effects of the Vatican's shortwave transmitters says the church is causing cancer in children

3 min read

20 July 2010--A new study ordered by a court in Rome has revived the decadelong battle between the inhabitants of Cesano, Italy, who live close to a huge complex of shortwave antennas, and the operator of this complex, Vatican Radio [see "Sins of Transmission?" IEEE Spectrum , October 2005].  Environmentalists and the residents of Cesano and neighboring communities have been claiming for years that radiation from the antenna complex, located on a large plot 25 kilometers north of Rome, has increased the number of leukemia and lymphoma cases in children. It is an accusation the Vatican continues to deny.

The new 300-page research report, by a team at Milan's National Tumor Institute led by Andrea Micheli, supports the claim of Cesano residents: Nineteen children living at a distance of 12 km or less from the antennas died from leukemia or lymphoma between 1980 and 2003, a figure higher than in control groups in other parts of the country.

A researcher at the National Tumor Institute says that the court prevented him and his colleagues from making the report available. They also could not discuss its content, although the Italian newspaper La Repubblicasays the report has been leaked. According to magistrates, the report justifies the current investigation of six officials of Vatican Radio for manslaughter. In response, the Vatican has enlisted the help of two counterexperts--the internationally renowned oncologist and former Italian health minister Umberto Veronese and Susanna Lagorio, an epidemiologist at the Italian National Institute of Health.

The first epidemiological study into the possible effects of the Vatican's radio waves, led by Paola Michelozzi of the Local Health Authority in Rome, reported an increase in childhood leukemia in the local population of 60 000 within a radius of 10 km of the antenna complex: 8 cases instead of the expected 3.7.  However, the study was not viewed as conclusive because of the small number of cases involved.

"It is really hard to know what to make of this kind of data; the numbers are too small," says Kenneth Foster, a University of Pennsylvania researcher specializing in the health effects of nonionizing electromagnetic fields, who published a study of the Italian regulations of RF fields and the controversy surrounding the Vatican transmitters in 2003. "Doing an epidemiology study in a small area, dealing with a rare disease, is a mission impossible," he says.

Michelozzi, who had not yet seen the recent Micheli report when IEEE Spectrum contacted her last week, sees a reason why the data might be distorted: "If you consider an area with a radius of more than 5 km, you include the suburbs of Rome, and then you include many other sources of exposure, such as low[-frequency] electromagnetic fields," she says. 

Although scientists have performed many epidemiological studies of the effects of radio transmission antennas on the surrounding population over the past two decades, they've gained very little insight. "This issue has been constantly debated, and not much has come out of it," says Foster. "There is no basic science that has convinced the health agencies that there really is a problem." Foster expects that the Micheli study will be fraught with the same problems. "The basic problem is that this is a very tiny study in a very localized area, and the work is done for the purpose of litigation. The advocates can pick and choose and find enough data and convince themselves that the world is coming to an end," says Foster

About the Author

Alexander Hellemans is a science writer based in London. In the April 2010 issue he reported on the plans of telecom-equipment makers to lower the power consumption of data networks.

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