Microwave Sickness

Copyright © 1996 by Lucinda Grant

All Rights Reserved

Part 1

On August 6, 1996, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted U.S. radiation standards for transmitters operating in the 300 kHz to 100 GHz frequency range as required by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.1 This transmission range includes both radio and microwave frequencies for wireless phone and satellite communications systems. Table 1 from the Federal Register summarizes the exposure limits for each frequency. This table does not apply to portable devices, i.e. phones.

For the general public, the exposure limit for the 1500 MHz - 100,000 MHz (microwave) range is 1mW/cm2; for the 300 MHz - 1500 MHz range, the exposure limit is calculated as a function of the frequency, not to exceed 1mW/cm2. These exposure limits become important as we explore health effects research of Soviet and East European scientists.

Soviet Studies

In 1960 the Academy of Medical Sciences USSR published an overview of human and animal research called The Biological Action of Ultrahigh Frequencies identifying effects of UHF (historically, frequencies above 300 MHz).2 While the thermal (heating) biological effect of high intensity radio/microwave frequencies is accepted as convention by both Eastern and Western scientists, non-thermal biological effects of various EMF frequencies at lower intensities have not found the acceptance and attention here that Soviet and East European scientists dedicated to these health problems. This oversight has cost us proper acknowledgement of electrical sensitivity (ES) in this country and faces us with the new radiation standards of the FCC.

In the preface of the Soviet overview, one of the editors noted "...special attention has been paid to the problem of the non-thermal action of ultrahigh frequencies." The intensity of UHF at which they found a detectable thermal effect in animals was 10 mW/cm2. Their studies in this book are primarily concerned with effects below 10mW/cm2.

The human studies of workers exposed to UHF are most revealing. In one study (Sadchikova), 525 workers (men and women) exposed to UHF on the job were divided into three categories depending upon their level of exposure. The majority of them had been employed in that capacity at least four years. A medical evaluation of each worker found a higher incidence of similar symptoms among each group correlating with that group's exposure level. Among workers overall, the most common symptoms they mentioned were headache, fatigue, extreme irritability, and sleepiness at work. The medical evaluation by worker group found these most common symptoms:

Group 1 - 184 workers (most exposed) history of periodic exposure to UHF up to several mW/cm2
73% Bradycardia (heart slowing)
27% Arterial hypotension
20% Fatigue

Group 2 - 263 workers
history of periodic exposure to UHF up to 1mW/cm2 (Note: 1mW/cm2 is the continuous maximum exposure limit under the new FCC radiation standards for the U.S. general public.)
39% Headache
37% Thyroid gland enlargement
35% Fatigue

Group 3 - 78 workers
history of continuous exposure to UHF up to tenths of a mW/cm2
52% Thyroid gland enlargement
38% Bradycardia (heart slowing)
36% Headache

Control group - 100 unexposed workers (teachers)
14% Arterial hypotension
14% Thyroid gland enlargement
10% Fatigue

In another study, Sokolov and Arievich examined blood changes of UHF-exposed workers. Workers were divided into the same three types of categories as used prior, based upon their level of exposure.

Elevated levels of leukocytes were found among all groups, with the most exposed having a higher incidence:
Leukocytes Above 7400 Cells Per Cubic Millimeter
Group 1 - 197 workers (most exposed): 31.6%
Group 2 - 132 workers: 18.2%
Group 3 - 69 workers: 28.9%
Control group - 100 unexposed workers: 16.0%

The most exposed group had 29 workers (14.7%) with a leukocyte count above 8000. (An excess number of leukocytes in the blood is one characteristic of leukemia.)

Gel'fon and Sadchikova examined the blood of 57 UHF workers, 47 with a history of constant exposure and 10 with periodic exposure. In 33 of those examined, a high histamine content was found in the blood. The researchers summarized their findings by reporting that constant exposure to UHF fields could cause both an increase in blood histamine level and in total blood protein level.

Soviet researchers also investigated UHF workers' sensitivity to odors as an indicator of central nervous system disruption from UHF exposure (Lobanova and Gordon). Olfactory sensitivity to tar, camphor, thymol and rosemary were assessed using a control group for comparison. This study found the most UHF-exposed workers had less sensitivity to odors, which they attributed to a decrease in central nervous system excitability due to their history of UHF exposure.

In this book's summary section outlining recommendations for medical assessment of UHF workers, they state "...illness after the influence of UHF is characterized primarily by functional disorders of the nervous and cardiovascular systems, manifested in the developmentof an asthenic symptom complex, symptoms of vascular hypotension, bradycardia, and dystrophy of the myocardium, and changes in the crystalline lens (cataract) in the case of a considerable intensity of the influence."

The final article within the book, called "Temporary Sanitary Regulations in Work with Generators of Centimeter Waves" (Centimeter waves range between 3-30 GHz; these standards were also recommended for decimeter waves (300-3000 MHz).), outlines these regulations as approved by the Chief State Sanitary Inspector of the USSR, V. Zhdanov, on November 26, 1958:
"Hygienic StandardsThe intensity of irradiation at places where workers with generators of centimeter waves are found should not exceed the following maximum permissible values:
a) in the case of irradiation during the entire working day-no more than 0.01m watts/cm2 (10 microwatts/cm2);
b) in the case of irradiation for no more than two hours per working day-no more than 0.1m watts/cm2 (100 microwatts/cm2);
c) in the case of irradiation for no more than 15-20 min. per working day-no more than 1 m watts/cm2 (1000 microwatts/cm2), under conditions of an obligatory use of protective goggles." (Please note that the exposure level under item c is the new FCC radiation limit for public exposure 24-hours daily for their lifetime.)


1. Federal Register. Vol. 61, No. 153. Wednesday, August 7, 1996, pp. 41006-41019.

2. Letavet, A.A. and Z.V. Gordon, eds. The Biological Action of Ultrahigh Frequencies. USSR: Academy of Medical Sciences, 1960. (English edition by the U.S. Joint Publications Research Service.)

Part 2

The 1958 Soviet occupational radiation standard of .01 mW/cm2 (milliwatt per square centimeter) for the frequency range 300 MHz - 30GHz was based on a safety factor of ten; their standard was one-tenth of the radiation intensity at which symptoms were known to occur at that time (1 mW/cm2 exposure for one hour divided by a
ten-hour workday equals .1 mW/cm2 exposure level, divided by a safety factor of 10).1,2 Clinical medical evaluations of microwave workers began at the Moscow Institute of Labor Hygiene and Occupational Diseases in 1948.2 The results of this clinical experience in part assisted in development of the 1958 Soviet occupational radiation standards.2

Pre-employment medical evaluations of prospective radiation workers were required by law under a 1957 Order of the Minister of Health - USSR "...in order to prevent occupational diseases."1

According to this Order and added suggestions from the Moscow Institute, applicants who had blood diseases, epilepsy, cataracts, central nervous system diseases, endocrine diseases, ulcers, glaucoma, cardiovascular injuries, etc. were considered unfit for work with ultrahigh frequency (300 MHz - 3000 GHz) generators as the radiation exposure could exacerbate these conditions.1 However, by 1973 one researcher (Gordon) at the Moscow Institute of Labor Hygiene and Occupational Diseases reported that the group of microwave-exposed workers who began employment after 1960 were not clinically healthy-after the pre- employment medical evaluation law and the 1958 radiation standards were in force.3 Proposed reasons why the workers were unhealthy focused on the possibility that the 1958 radiation standards, which were still in force, were inadequate or that the health problems were due to intermittent radiation exposure typical of the work.3 Soviet studies had previously determined that intermittent radiation exposure was more biologically damaging than continuous radiation exposure, when energy and exposure time were the same.3

Over the years, the Soviets medically evaluated more than 1000 microwave workers.2 Regulations were in place by 1958 requiring radiation workers be given at least one annual medical exam to assess their health.1 Workers who developed an illness that was aggravated by radiation exposure at work were allowed a leave of absence or a work transfer.1

The occupational microwave standard of .01 mW/cm2 was the daily limit for exposed Soviet workers. The Soviet public's radiation exposure limit was .001 mW/cm2.2,3 In contrast, the new U.S. public's radiation exposure limit under the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) standards of August 1996 is 1 mW/cm2.4 The Soviets were more conservative in their standards assessment; they considered variables such as pre-existing health problems which could increase a person's risk of developing non-thermal radiation-induced illness and allowed a safety margin within their standards to reduce this risk.

The difference between the 1958 Soviet radiation standards and the U.S. standards of that time was explained by one Soviet researcher as simply that the U.S. standards were solely based on protection from the thermal (heating) effect, ignoring non-thermal effects.3 A recent letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that the current U.S. FCC radiation standards are also solely based on considerations regarding a thermal effect. The current FCC public exposure level of 1 mW/cm2 was recommended by Bell Telephone Laboratories for workers in the 1950s.2,5 Bell's calculations considered environmental variables that could increase the heating effect (air movement, temperature, and humidity) as well as physical work. Their guidelines were to avoid radiation exposures exceeding 10 mW/cm2, only occasionally become exposed to levels between 1-10 mW/cm2, and allow unlimited exposure only at radiation levels below 1 mW/cm2.2

Conversely, the Soviets were particularly concerned about the cumulative effects of non-thermal radiation doses over time, including reproductive and genetic effects.2,3,6 By 1973, a Soviet researcher reported that in animal studies, non-thermal microwave intensities were found to "...elicit disturbances in spermatogenesis, degenerative changes in the ovaries, decreased reproductive capacity, decreased number of progeny, and damage to the feti."3

The Soviets also used animal studies to verify and elucidate their clinical findings of ill health among microwave workers. For example, Tolgskaya and Gordon investigated microwave-induced changes in the nervous system of rabbits and rats exposed to 1 mW/cm2 for one hour daily during 100-200 days.1 Although the animals appeared healthy after this exposure, thickening and distortion of the nerves were found. Subsequent neurological findings by Tolgskaya and Gordon were reported in their 1973 book Pathological Effects of Radio Waves.7 These experiments used an in-depth assessment of nervous system changes to investigate what would otherwise not be readily apparent.

The researchers studied changes in nerve synapses and receptors, using healthy control animals for comparison.

In one study, rats irradiated by microwaves between 4-10 mW/cm2 for 30 minutes during 35-40 sessions had deformed dendrites in the cerebral cortex, displayed as a reduction in the number of appendages (spines) on the dendrites as well as thicker and shorter dendrite spines. Pavlov conditioning of the animals was also affected. As the experiment continued, the spines on the dendrites disappeared. At this time, Pavlov conditioning responses also disappeared. These changes were more apparent when using pulsed microwaves than when using non-pulsed (continuous) microwaves. Further studies revealed that both the "axo-dendritic synapses" and "axo-somatic synapses" of the brain were particularly affected by microwave exposure.7 These changes in the cerebral cortex were considered similar to changes when animals were exposed to toxic chemicals.1,7

A trend the Soviets uncovered in many studies was the often noticed fluctuating symptoms during the course of radiation experiments with animals.1,2 When first exposed, the animals became more excitable and their blood pressure often increased. Then, as the Soviets explained, a period of adaptation sets in and symptoms subside-for example, blood pressure may then reduce below normal. This period may last for the duration of the experiment. Adaptation has also been studied in the area of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) research.8,9,10

According to a paper by William J. Rea, M.D., et al, "Adaptation is an acute survival mechanism in which the individual `gets used to' a constant toxic exposure in order to survive, at the same time suffering a long-term decrease in efficient functioning and perhaps longevity."8 Apparently, in general, when this second phase has run its course, the final phase of exhaustion sets in, according to the stress-adaptation-fatigue sequence proposed by Selye's classic work.2,7,10

Interestingly, the hypothalamus is necessary to modulate responses to stress.7,11 Even more interesting is the research the Soviets did examining changes in the hypothalamus during radiation exposure. In a multi-phase animal study, three stages of blood pressure were found to coincide with three separate phases of hypothalamic neurosecretion when radiation-exposed:3,7

Phase 1 -- blood pressure rises.
During this stage, hypothalamus secretion increases and adrenal gland activity increases.

Phase 2 -- blood pressure normalizes.
The activity of the hypothalamus and adrenal gland normalize.

Phase 3 -- blood pressure decreases to below normal level.
This period is considered a state of exhaustion where neurosecretion decreases markedly accompanied by an increase in hypothalamic cell death and a decrease in RNA, DNA and lipids in the adrenal cortex.

In another study, researchers evaluated the influence of 1 mW/cm2 microwave frequencies on rodent blood pressure.1 Thirty minute daily exposures caused a tendency for increased blood pressure during the first 14 weeks of exposure followed by a reduction to subnormal levels during the second course of 14 weeks. When the microwave exposure ceased, blood pressure resumed within the normal range. This pattern is similar to other studies where animals were allowed to recover after the radiation part of an experiment-they were often able to recover normal blood pressure and symptoms would subside. However, the longer the radiation exposure interval, the less likely the animal was to make a full recovery. This finding was also true of Soviet radar workers who had a long history of microwave exposure and whose symptoms did not normalize even after discontinuing work. They were classified as "occupational invalids".3

Particular attention was accorded the hypothalamus early in the Soviet research due to the fact that the hypothalamus is important to regulation of the body's cardiovascular system, temperature, circadian rhythm, autonomic nervous system, and endocrine system, each of which can be affected by radiation exposure.7,11 Soviet researchers reported that health problems related to low intensity, non-thermal microwave exposure have "...a definite clinical form..." signified by "...autonomic asthenia, neurocirculatory dystonia, and features of diencephalic insufficiency."7 One of these researchers further disclosed that "...disfunction in the hypothalamus- hypophysis-adrenal cortex system is obviously responsible for the clinical syndromes of the disease."3,7

The functional disturbances and damage found during the Soviet animal radiation studies were several times identified as not being unique to radiation exposure; they mentioned how similar some of the results matched damage they had seen from other toxins-arsenic, lead, etc.In particular, several researchers' studies found changes in secretion of the hypothalamus and neurohypophysis during exposures other than microwaves: sound, light, chemicals, x-rays, and electricity.3 More recently, U.S. researchers have proposed studying hypothalamus changes as an important part of understanding chemical sensitivity (MCS).9,10,12,13 According to Dr. William Rea's book, Chemical Sensitivity, Volume 3, because the hypothalamus works with the pituitary gland, pineal gland, olfactory nerve, brainstem, etc., toxic stimulation of the hypothalamus could affect any of these.13 And, some symptoms of MCS such as fatigue and myalgia, he proposes, could possibly be derived from this hypothalamus stimulation.13 Fatigue is also a common symptom of electrical sensitivity, particularly during exposure to microwaves and other electromagnetic radiation. (For an in-depth technical analysis of nervous system and hypothalamus changes under radiation exposure, review in particular references 3 and 7.)

- Part 2 of a series -


1. Letavet, A.A. and Z.V. Gordon, eds. The Biological Action of Ultrahigh Frequencies. USSR: Academy of Medical Sciences, 1960.
(English edition by the U.S. Joint Publications Research Service.)

2. Baranski, S. and P. Czerski. Biological Effects of Microwaves.
Stroudsburg PA: Dowden, 1976.

3. Gordon, Z.V., ed. Biological Effects of Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields. Arlington VA: U.S. Joint Publications Research Service, 1974.

4. Federal Register. Vol. 61, No. 153. Wednesday, August 7, 1996, pp. 41006-41019.

5. Marha, Karel, Jan Musil, and Hana Tuha. Electromagnetic Fields and the Life Environment. San Francisco: San Francisco Press, Inc., 1971.

6. Biologic Effects and Health Hazards of Microwave Radiation. Warsaw: Polish Medical Publishers, 1974.

7. Tolgskaya, M.S. and Z.V. Gordon. Pathological Effects of Radio Waves. New York: Consultants Bureau, 1973.

8. National Research Council. Multiple Chemical Sensitivities: Addendum to Biologic Markers in Immunotoxicology. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 1992, p. 170.

9. Miller, Claudia S., M.D., M.S. "Possible Models for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: Conceptual Issues and Role of the Limbic System." Toxicology and Industrial Health, Vol. 8, No. 4, (1992), pp. 181-202.

10. Ashford, Nicholas A., Ph.D., J.D. and Claudia S. Miller, M.D., M.S. Chemical Sensitivity: A Report to the New Jersey State Department of Health. NJ: National Center for Environmental Health Strategies, 1989.

11. Gray's Anatomy. 38th ed. NY: Churchill Livingstone, 1995.

12. Bell, Iris R. "White Paper: Neuropsychiatric Aspects of Sensitivity to Low-level Chemicals-A Neural Sensitization Model." Toxicology and Industrial Health, Vol. 10, No. 4/5, (1994), p. 277-312.

13. Rea, William J., M.D. Chemical Sensitivity, Vol. 3. Boca Raton FL: CRC Press, 1996, pp. 1600, 1729-1731.

ESN Home

Informant: Don Maisch

Omega see also:

The following book was written in 1995 -

The Electrical Sensitivity Handbook - How Electromagnetic Fields (EMFs) Are Making People Sick

by Lucinda Grant

The book that discusses: What is Enviromental Illness? What is Electrical Sensitivity? What are the Symptoms of Electrical Sensitivity? The Causes of Electrical Sensitivity Case Examples of Types of ES Diagnosis of Electrical Sensitivity EMF Reduction in the Home A resource guide for the latest enviromental illness --- electrical sensitivity from electromagnetic fields (EMFs). This international expose' explains the intricaties of the disease with U.S. resources for medical, legal & EMF services. ISBN 0-9635407-2-6, Library of Congress Catalog Number 95-60142. $23.00, Weldon Publishing, P.O. Box 4146, Prescott, AZ 86302.

Informant: Jan Jenson

Electrical Sensitivity as an Emerging Illness
by Lucinda Grant

The Microwave Syndrome: A Preliminary Study in Spain


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