Danger From Microwave Towers? -- Lowell Neighborhood Is Seeking Answers Before Building Begins

EVERETT - The view from Loren and Shirley Watson's picture windows sweeps downhill, over the rooftops of the historic Lowell neighborhood, across the looping Snohomish River and the flat fields of Ebey Island to the jagged wall of the Cascades.

The panorama is part of the reason the Watsons moved back to Lowell, Shirley's childhood home, when Loren retired seven years ago.

Now, they say, it's threatened by an 80-foot microwave relay tower Burlington Northern Railroad plans to build next to the tracks just two blocks down the hill.

"They'd look us just about in the eye," Shirley Watson says as she gazes east.

But the aesthetics of the tower isn't the Watsons' chief concern. It's what they won't see that has them and some of their neighbors in Lowell scared to death.

The invisible threat they fear? Electromagnetic radiation.

Experts won't say that fear is justified. But they also won't say the people of Lowell are wrong.

The tower Burlington Northern hopes to build in Lowell would be the last of a network of microwave installations to improve communication with trains and maintenance crews between Everett and Stevens Pass.

Across Interstate 5 from Lowell, US West NewVector wants to build a 126-foot microwave tower in a corner of Evergreen Cemetery. A company representative has said it will improve cellular-telephone service from downtown to southwest Everett.

The Lowell Civic Association is battling both. Everett planning officials have decreed that the towers don't warrant environmental-impact statements. The neighborhood group has appealed those decisions to the City Council.

"I have a 4-year-old daughter - I don't want to take any chances," said Alana Campbell, the association's secretary.

What's happening in Lowell isn't isolated. The electronic installations that fuel 20th-century industrial society - power lines, broadcast towers and satellite earth stations - are under attack all over the country.

Although it's far from universally accepted, there is some evidence linking the electromagnetic fields of such commonplace conveniences as video display terminals, electric cables and radio transmissions with cancer, birth defects and behavioral changes.

Loren and Shirley Watson said they have learned more about those dangers in the past few months than they ever wanted to know. A cardboard box, perched on a TV tray in their living room, is stuffed with studies, reports and books on the subject.

There's little in the box on microwaves, even less on the kinds of installations US West NewVector and Burlington Northern propose. But the Watsons said they've learned enough about the risks of other, supposedly safe electromagnetic fields to justify alarm.

"Our contention is that, rather than working on the assumption it's safe until it's proven unsafe, we should assume it's unsafe until it's proven safe," says Shirley Watson.

In their permit applications, Burlington Northern and US West NewVector dismiss health concerns.

Ron Smith, regional real-estate manager for US West, said cellular antennas operate at such low power and are considered so safe that they have been placed atop hospitals, including Everett General and University Hospital in Seattle.

Burlington Northern calculates that if its one-watt microwave antenna were beamed directly at the tower's base, an unlikely occurrence, a person standing nearby would be exposed to only a fraction of the electromagnetic radiation limit federal guidelines suggest.

An Environmental Protection Agency expert has written Everett officials that Burlington Northern's tower "does not pose an undue or unusual hazard . . . by all relevant comparisons, the exposures will be very small to the population."

But that expert, Jerry Leitch, stopped short of saying the tower is safe. "At this point it is not possible to make any categorical statements concerning the potential for health effects of human exposure to low levels of radio frequency energy," he wrote.

That uncertainty is what bothers residents of Lowell and activists who have raised concerns about electromagnetic radiation nationwide.

Louis Slesin is editor and publisher of Microwave News, a newsletter that has publicized health concerns about lower-frequency electromagnetic fields. He said Burlington Northern's tower probably won't be powerful enough to do any damage.

But cellular towers like US West's are proliferating, Slesin says, "and no one has any idea what the long-term effects are."

"I'm not saying there's any risk. I'm just saying a lot of people are asking questions, and no one's doing the work to answer them."

Dr. Robert Becker, a retired professor of orthopedic surgery in New York who has written books on the dangers of electromagnetic fields, said the people of Lowell probably are too far from US West's proposed tower to experience ill effects.

"But there's been no experimentation in that part of the electromagnetic spectrum," Becker said. "We have no idea what the safe level of exposure really is."

Likewise, he said, there's no evidence Burlington Northern's tower will do damage. "But I can't give it a clean bill of health," he added.

A clean bill of health is just what the Watsons and some of their neighbors want - not just for Lowell, but for the whole country.

"We're not just saying `Not in my backyard,' " said Shirley Watson. "We want a moratorium on all of them."