On Sept. 14, 1983, six workers climbed up into an 84-foot tracking radar dish at Clear Air Force Base in Alaska to begin routine repairs on part of the nation's Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. By the time they climbed down a few hours later, they had become unwitting participants in the debate about the health effects of nonionizing radiation.
A flashlight gave the first warning. Although it was turned off, it "neoned" -- emitted a flash of light -- according to the accident report submitted by FELEC Services, a subsidiary of ITT, which is contracted to service the facility. A second pocket flashlight did the same thing. The six men suddenly realized that the radar dish was on and acting like a giant microwave oven. They were literally being cooked.
Exactly how long the radar operated and at what power is still under debate. The men (two civilian Air Force workers and four employes of FELEC) say that they were exposed for about 17 minutes. The Air Force and FELEC think the exposure lasted for eight minutes. Whatever the length of time, two men were hospitalized immediately after the accident for nausea, dizziness, headaches, extreme fatigue and memory loss. Several men involved in the accident have since traveled to New York, Boston and San Antonio seeking further medical treatment for continuing headaches and other symptoms. They've also requested help from Dr. Ross Adey, an expert on nonionizing radiation at the Loma Linda Veteran's Administration Hospital in California.
The Air Force disputes the men's health complaints, and the debate will probably be decided in court. Several of the workers have engaged Oklahoma City attorney John Running to represent them. Running declined to comment on the case.
The accident illlustrates two things, says Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska): The importance of proper safety procedures at microwave radar facilities and the need for obtaining prompt medical treatment for victims of overexposure to microwaves. "These workers wanted appropriate medical treatment," Young said, "but the system was not in place, they were not properly treated on time."