Israeli Soldiers Working With Radar Face Higher Risk of Cancer, Israeli Study Suggests

Study found risk of developing cancer was higher for soldiers who were exposed to radio frequency radiation

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
FILE PHOTO: Israeli army radar station
FILE PHOTO: Israeli army radar stationCredit: rami shllush
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Soldiers working as radar operators who are exposed to radio frequency radiation are at increased risk for contracting cancer, mainly the various cancers of the immune system. The risk of contracting more than one type of cancer is also higher than average, according to an Israeli study that was published in the Environmental Research journal.

The study found that the danger of developing cancer is higher among soldiers and defense industry workers who are exposed to radio frequency radiation. The researchers found a particularly high incidence (40 percent) of various types of cancer of the immune system, including lymphoma, leukemia and multiple myeloma. Among cancer sufferers of the same age in the general population, 23 percent suffer from cancer of the immune system.

The article was published by Prof. Elihu Richter, head of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the Hebrew University medical school in Jerusalem; researcher and engineer Michael Peleg of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and researcher Or Nativ of the Hebrew University. The study surveys studies of three groups of cancer patients from the military and industrial sectors – in Israel, Poland and Belgium – who were exposed to similar radiation. All three studies found a particularly high rate of cancers of the immune system compared to other types of cancer.

The researchers also found that about 13 percent of cancer patients who were exposed in the past to RFR in a military or security context suffered from more than one type of cancer, as compared to 3 percent of all cancer patients of the same age.

The question as to whether RFR increases the risk of cancer is of concern to the public, especially due to the use of cellphones, and there is a stormy scientific debate on the question. In this case the patients were exposed to radiation exceeding that to which ordinary cellphone users are exposed.

The present publication continues a study that was published in 2011 under Dr. Yael Stein, a doctor and researcher from the Hebrew University and from Hadassah University Hospital, with the participation of Richter and Nativ. The study included 47 cancer patients who were exposed to RFR – most of them during their army service and a minority as part of their work in the defense industry.

Most were professionals – technicians and engineers, and their illness was diagnosed at a very early age – an average of 33, while in the general population the average age of cancer diagnosis is 65. Over the years the patients had consulted the Department of Safety and Occupational Health at the Hebrew University in order to assess whether their illness was a result of radiation. The study that was published seven years ago did not prove a clear statistical connection between exposure to radiation and the outbreak of cancer, but according to the researchers, a certain pattern diagnosed in the study already then raised the suspicion of a connection between the two.

The present study focused on the characteristics of the illnesses of a group of patients exposed to radiation, compared to a similar profile – in terms of age and gender – of cancer patients from the general population in Israel. What caught the attention of the researchers was the high incidence of a group of cancers related to the immune system, with which 19 of the 47 patients were diagnosed, and the relatively high incidence of two types of cancer – in six of the 47 participants. The researchers concluded that the statistical significance of the figures allowed them to estimate that exposure to RFR at a level to which the subjects were exposed increased the risk of contracting cancer by about 4.5.

“The study precisely details the types of cancerous tumors and the period of time that passed between the time of exposure and the diagnosis,” says Richter. “We found that immune system tumors were exceptionally prevalent compared to the other types of cancer. The latency periods were relatively short, an average of about 10 years, and the illnesses appeared at an early age.”

Richter says that although the findings coincide with the results of similar studies worldwide, the scientific-medical community and the defense establishment tend to downplay and deny the consequences of exposure to RFR. On the other hand, he says, in the field instructions are given to limit exposure.

The discussion of a possible connection between exposure to RFR and an increased risk of cancer was not limited to the scientific community. In a State Comptroller’s report published in 2001, there were 134 documented cases of soldiers who claimed that they contracted cancer due to their work near radar facilities – in the air force, the navy and in intelligence and communications units.

“At the headquarters of the Chief Medical Officer there is no systematic follow-up of soldiers who complained that they had fallen ill as a result of exposure to radio frequency radiation, including those who complained that they had contracted cancer as a result of the exposure,” stated the comptroller at the time. The IDF did not investigate the issue nor did it change its view regarding the effects of radiation, which is not recognized at present as a cause of morbidity that requires the defense establishment to assume responsibility, and to offer treatment and funding.

The civil radiation standard in Israel is 10 times as high as in Switzerland, and a 10th of that in the United States, but the standard does not apply to soldiers and industrial workers who operate equipment that emits RFR. In 2016 researchers turned to Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and presented the information that was known to them at the time. They said that Litzman tried to help and discussed the subject with IDF representatives, but they failed to cooperate.

Intensive use of cellphones

The prevalent view today in the scientific-medical community is that there is no real proof that electromagnetic radiation is a carcinogen. However, in 2011 the World Health Organization classified electromagnetic radiation as a possible cause of cancer. Recently the Health Ministry published figures demonstrating that in the past 25 years, during which the use of cellphones has become intensive, there has been no increase in the incidence of brain tumors in Israel. Similar claims are made in publications of the U.S. authorities.

An Israeli soldier uses a cell phone on a base, March 25, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

The study is arousing divided reactions. The IDF claims that there was no use made of control groups, and that the researchers did not measure RFR emitted by electrical and radio devices used frequently in everyday life. They also claimed that according to the most up-to-date publication of the International Agency for Cancer Research, electromagnetic radiation on the spectrum of radio waves is not defined as a definite carcinogen for human beings, and that the findings of the study contradict the cumulative knowledge on the subject to the effect that no significant connection has been found between exposure to radio frequency radiation and cancer.

Prof. Eitan Friedman, director of the Oncogenetic Unit at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, says that “It’s hard to draw conclusions from a sampling of 47 subjects, 19 of whom contracted differing types of cancer. In addition, this team of researchers is familiar from the past as having an agenda designed to prove at any cost that nonionizing radiation is harmful.”

The researchers who conducted the study, on the other hand, claim that the article demonstrates the statistical significance of the 19 patients, similar to the findings of other studies in Israel and abroad. They claim that radiation really is a carcinogen and that suitable protection should be supplied to employees and soldiers and their exposure to it reduced.

Prof. Stilian Gelberg, head of the noise and radiation abatement unit in the Environmental Protection Ministry, agrees with the researchers. “The study really does reinforce the claim that there is a connection between exposure to radio frequency radiation and an increased risk of immune system cancers,” he says. He believes that the study emphasizes the need to be more meticulous about applying the precautionary principle among soldiers and defense industry employees.

“The army has adopted the recommendations and standards of environmental protection and they are doing quite a bit to meet them, including in submarines and various military facilities. If there ought to be any recommendation to security organizations in the wake of the study, it’s the use of devices to measure exposure to radiation, and strict enforcement of observing the regulations and providing instructions. At least some of the exposure to radiation originates in laziness or in the absence of strict enforcement of safety measures.

The IDF spokesman’s response: “The IDF attaches great importance to protecting the health of soldiers and monitors radio frequency radiation, in accordance with the safety rules and standardization in Israel, which are recognized by the Environmental Protection Ministry. Periodical radiation measurements are taken in the units and the equipment is tested according to strict exposure standards. We emphasize that no connection has been found between morbidity and radio frequency radiation.”

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