Bad Vibes | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 28.05.2002
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Bad Vibes

A community in Bavaria has taken on the US Government and won. It complained that radiation from the US-run “Radio Liberty” broadcast towers are behind the region’s high cancer rates. The towers must come down in 2005.


Antenna towers like these emit high levels of electromagnetic radiation

The community around the village of Valley southeast of Munich enjoys amid idyllic surroundings. Blue lakes and white church steeples, green fields and the nearby Alps make the region as pretty as a postcard. Over the past fifty years, people have moved here to get out of the city and find some peace and quiet amid postcard-pretty surroundings.

Nearly one in two of them now has cancer.

There’s a blot on the landscape in Valley, according to its citizens: five antenna towers belonging to the United States. The 300-meter-tall structures broadcast "Radio Liberty," the US government-sponsored station which transmits programs to eastern Europe and central Asia. To send the programs that distance, the towers have to put out up to a million watts. All that electromagnetic radiation, according to Valley residents, is making them sick.

Health Concerns

For decades, locals have been complaining of headaches, insomnia, constant ringing in the ears and heart palpitations. But what moved residents to take action is the area’s high cancer rate. In the village of Valley itself, according to pastor Pater Nicolai, almost every household has one person, maybe two, living with cancer.

In addition to health problems, the high levels of electromagnetic radiation put out by Radio Liberty has meant that telephones and even kitchen sinks have become unwanted receivers, pumping out programs in Russian and Farsi. The local church had to trade in its electronic organ for a mechanical one, since the constant "electronic smog" interfered with the first organ’s circuits.

Radio Liberty’s parent organization, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), took steps to alleviate the electronic problems, but drew the line when it came to health concerns. The IBB said there was no proof that its towers were the cause of the region’s health problems.

Taking Action

After complaining to local authorities for some six years with no results, the citizens of Valley decided to take their initiative to the source. Last year they brought their complaint to the Federal District Court in Washington DC and petitioned for the broadcaster to be removed from the area.

That brought the issue to the attention of members in the German parliament and they decided to look into the issue. Now the parliament’s petitions committee has agreed to Valley’s demands and said it will not renew the 50-year-old broadcaster’s lease when it expires in 2005.

Valley’s mayor Josef Huber says it’s nothing personal, that none of the residents have anything against Americans. But after 50 years of such high electromagnetic output over their heads, it is time for the towers to be moved.

"There are 20,000 people here directly under the towers," he said. "I think there are plenty of other places in the world where the broadcasts can originate and not affect people like they do here."

Diplomatic Tangle

Right now for the US, Radio Liberty is playing its most important role since the fall of the Wall. It has become a central tool in America’s fight against terrorism, and Germany’s foreign ministry is reluctant to dismantle that tool, especially given the country’s professions of "unlimited solidarity" with the US.

The foreign ministry has stepped in and said before removing the towers, it wants to see studies proving that the electromagnetic emissions are harming health. Those could be hard to come by, since the scientific jury is still out over the detrimental effects of such radiation.

Still, Valley’s mayor Huber is optimistic that the towers will be transported to another, less populated location in three years. He says he doesn’t think Valley is going to find itself at the center of a diplomatic brouhaha.

"I’m sure we can come to an amicable agreement with the Americans," he said. "We can even offer to pay for the move."