Something in the Air

Marcus sure loved spending time outside that house of his on Lookout Mountain. He was a software engineer, a profession known for attracting pasty-faced dudes who prefer dark rooms to sunlit skies. But Marcus didn't fit the mold. Like his wife Robin, he was a fitness freak -- a nonsmoker and vegetarian who spent most of his spare moments in athletic pursuits. He skied, he snowshoed, he swam, he cycled, he hiked.

"That's one of the main reasons we moved to Lookout," Robin says of the community situated in the foothills west of Denver. "There are some great trails up there."

There is also a sprawling nest of broadcasting towers and antennas, responsible for transmitting dozens of radio and television signals to the metropolitan area below. But even though these skeletal structures were just a mile or so from where the young couple had moved back in April 1992, and could be seen plainly from their yard, they were easy to ignore. According to Robin, "We never gave them a second thought."

At least not for a while. The next year, Marcus, who had no family history of cancer, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The survival rate for people with this malady is frightful -- most perish within six to twelve months -- and during surgery, Marcus's doctor discovered that the growth had already attached itself to his brain's speech and decision-making centers, making its removal impossible and his prospects even worse. He subsequently underwent extensive radiation and chemotherapy treatments, and because he was in such great shape, he held up under this assault far better than anyone had a right to expect.

But he couldn't maintain the struggle forever. He began exhibiting signs of progressive dementia similar to Alzheimer's patients, and by October 1997, he no longer recognized anyone -- not even Robin. He died two months later, at the age of 34.

During Marcus's illness, Robin became aware of a neighborhood association, Canyon Area Residents for the Environment (CARE), and a CARE subcommittee, Tower Hazards and Radiation Exposure Above Tolerance (THREAT), that were raising questions about the Lookout Mountain antenna farm and proposed additions to it.

The organizations had plenty of objections to the towers, aesthetic ones among them; in the view of many of the 3,000 or so residents clustered nearby (out of about 10,000 on the five mountains bordering Mount Vernon Canyon), the assemblages were eyesores that drove their property values down. But these complaints were minor compared to health concerns about broadcast radiation.

Such emissions, known generally as nonionizing radiation, are far different from the stuff associated with nuclear plants: "It's nothing at all like plutonium," says Dr. Richard Hoffman, chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Worries about it remain, though. Practically every expert agrees that nonionizing radiation can be harmful at intensities that actually heat the body; this so-called thermal effect is why the Federal Communications Commission maintains standards for radio frequencies (known as RF) put out by radio and TV antennas, among other things. Yet there's no across-the-board consensus about RF at lower levels. Many studies appear to show that nonionizing radiation isn't harmful to people and other living things as long as it doesn't warm them up (see sidebar, page 32). But more controversial reports suggest a whole range of deleterious effects, including, possibly, a potpourri of cancers, caused by RF at the nonthermal levels in which many Lookout Mountain residents live, work and play on a daily basis.

Plenty of locals brought the latter to Robin's attention, but initially at least, she didn't think that such matters had anything to do with what had happened to Marcus. Most of the doctors to whom she spoke said that tumors like his take ten years or more to make their presence known, and she and Marcus had only been on the mountain for around eighteen months when the abnormality was discovered. But she changed her mind after both of her golden retrievers, which she and Marcus had brought to Lookout Mountain as puppies, were diagnosed with lymphoma. She spent over $8,000 on veterinary bills to treat them, but to no avail.

"They both died," she notes, adding, "They were from the same litter, and I checked with the lady we got them from, and she said the other six dogs in the litter are fine."

Robin, who's studying to be a physician's assistant, knows full well that the dogs' deaths fall far short of proof. But she's unwilling to simply assume that everything is fine -- and while the Lookout Mountain broadcasters have offered repeated reassurances about safety, she questions their objectivity.

A case in point: When a February 1999 study administered by Dr. Hoffman for the Colorado Department of Health revealed that the number of cancers in two "block groups" near the towers was higher than would normally be anticipated, most of the media underplayed this telling detail, focusing instead on the statement that no link between health problems and RF had been found. But in the document itself, Hoffman wrote that "epidemiologic studies with this type of design do not allow definitive conclusions to be made about a cause and effect relationship with any particular potential exposure, such as electromagnetic radiation from broadcast antennas."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts