Traffic radar guns, which save lives by catching speeders, have come under suspicion as a possible cause of cancer in traffic officers exposed to their microwave beams, triggering a series of lawsuits by an Agoura Hills lawyer.
Attorney John E. Sweeney has filed suits on behalf of five former traffic officers who contracted cancer and are seeking millions of dollars in damages from radar equipment manufacturers, whom they accuse of failing to warn of health risks.
The lawsuits--filed in San Francisco and Wisconsin and thought to be the first of their kind in the country--have raised concern in police and scientific circles, and have prompted some law enforcement agencies to revise procedures for using the devices.
The first case, that of Leo Hutchison, 50, a former Petaluma officer with lymphoma, is scheduled for trial March 17 in San Francisco federal court.
The litigation breaks new ground scientifically as well as legally because studies on chronic, low-level microwave exposures like the officers received simply don’t exist. Before now, the question never prompted epidemiological research.
The U. S. Food and Drug Administration, which has authority to set safety standards for radiation sources, including traffic radar, is in a position of “watchful waiting” and has no grounds to regulate the devices, said Dr. Larry Cress, medical officer for the FDA’s radiation biology branch.
“This issue is something that’s recently reared its head,” added Mays Swicord, director of the radiation biology branch. “There’s still no biological database for us to suspect that there is a problem.”
Nonetheless, the lawsuits filed by Sweeney during the past year may be just the initial assault. Sweeney said he expects to file another case or two in Los Angeles soon. Another lawsuit and three workers’ compensation claims recently were filed in Connecticut by police officers who allege that they got cancer from prolonged use of traffic radar.
Other claims could follow. Ohio state trooper Gary Poynter, a leading activist on the issue, said he has amassed 85 to 100 more reports of cancer among traffic radar officers.
“We’re plowing new ground in prosecuting these cases, but I don’t have the slightest doubt in my mind that they’re justified,” Sweeney said.
Radar guns measure speed by bouncing low-power microwave beams off moving vehicles and catching the return signal. The two basic types are hand-held models and units mounted on or inside patrol cars. Depending on use, an officer’s exposure could be nil or he or she could receive frequent exposure to the eyes, head or genitals.
In some cases, for example, some departments have mounted radar behind officers with the devices transmitting forward, so the beam passes through their heads. Another common practice has involved a type of hand-held radar that is always switched on, transmitting throughout a shift.
When not beaming the devices at oncoming cars, officers typically have rested the guns on their laps or against a leg. This was done because the device was heavy and to hide the beam from radar detectors used by motorists. Although emissions from the guns are low--and fall off dramatically with distance--in this case, the business end of the gun transmitted directly against the body for minutes or hours each day.
Three of Sweeney’s clients--all former traffic officers with Bay Area police departments--say they used hand-held units this way. One contracted testicular cancer; the others developed lymphatic cancer with tumors in the groin and leg.
Manufacturers contend, however, that the microwave beam is simply too weak to cause cancer no matter how the gun is used.
The lawsuits’ allegations are “fundamentally unfair,” said Mark Oium, attorney for Kustom Signals Inc. of Lenexa, Kan., a defendant and leading manufacturer of radar guns. “You’ve got to come up with some medical evidence to say there’s a cause-and-effect relationship.”
Traffic police also “are exposed to more auto exhaust than you and I are, yet nobody’s saying it’s the auto exhaust, which contains known carcinogens, that’s causing their cancer,” Oium said.
Defendants point out that the radiated power of the traffic guns is far below safety limits set by the American National Standards Institute and other organizations.
However, health officials say these groups were mainly concerned with avoiding thermal effects--tissue heating--from microwaves, which at sufficient power can cause water molecules to vibrate, generating enough heat to cook food.
“It’s very questionable whether the ANSI standard is even applicable” to the question of cancer, said Norb Hankin, an environmental scientist with the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s office of radiation programs.
“Cancer was the furthest thing from the minds” of those who set the standards, said Swicord of the FDA.
While conceding that the officers’ exposures were low, Sweeney said they were far greater than those of the general public. There’s “an enormously important distinction between these traffic officers and the population at large,” he said. “It’s far more than adequate to explain” the officers’ ailments.
An engineer as well as a lawyer, Sweeney, 55, handled his first radar case 20 years ago, suing the Air Force on behalf of a 32-year-old radar engineer who got cataracts in both eyes.
The client, a friend of Sweeney’s, had been repeatedly exposed to intensive bursts of microwave radiation while testing a radar receiver for the Air Force. Sweeney said the Air Force settled the case for $171,000--a huge amount at the time. Five years later, the friend died of a brain tumor that developed behind his left eye.
The traffic officers “have developed problems that science has not developed a definitive answer to yet,” Sweeney said. “I really am committed to seeing the scientific as well as the legal truth of these matters exposed to the light of day.”
As of now, however, there is no medical evidence that traffic officers suffer unusual rates of cancer. At least one study is under way to see if they do.
One of the researchers, Dr. Samuel Milham Jr., chief epidemiologist for the Washington state health department, said his study will not settle the question. If no link is found, “I could kind of put the police people at ease by saying, ‘Hey look, if there’s a significantly increased risk of cancer from this exposure, we don’t see it,’ ” Milham said.
On the other hand, Milham said, if the troopers experienced higher rates of certain cancer, that would not prove traffic radar was the cause.
In the atmosphere of uncertainty, the FDA has recommended that officers avoid placing radar guns within six inches of their bodies while the devices are transmitting. Some police departments have taken other precautions.
In October, the Connecticut State Police discontinued the use of hand-held radar guns. The agency also moved units mounted inside patrol cars to the outside to prevent exposure to beams reflecting off the rear window.
“If there is a risk, it comes from using it in the vehicle in close proximity to your person,” state police spokesman Adam Berluti said. “The action we’ve taken is just to come down on the side of caution.”
Some California police agencies have also revised radar training and procedures.
Although continuing to rely mainly on hand-held guns, the Los Angeles Police Department last year purchased a new set of “instant-on” guns that transmit only when beamed at target vehicles.
Safety is also stressed in the radar training officers receive, said Dale Turner, radar coordinator for the department’s Valley Traffic Division.
Turner said the situation today is far better than in the 1970s when he became a traffic officer and was told during training: “Turn it on, kid, point it down the road and what you see is what you get.”
Turner, a motorcycle officer then, said he would find himself holding the radar against his leg on the motorcycle while waiting for a speeder.
Paul Rice, a radar instructor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said the health allegations seem to relate to improper use or mounting of radar. He said sheriff’s deputies are taught “that you don’t place yourself in the path of an emanating radar beam. . . . I don’t see any health risk generated from a properly used radar device.”
The California Highway Patrol has increased its emphasis on radar safety, CHP traffic radar coordinator Paul Crescenti said. Among other things, officers learn to avoid looking directly into the beam while calibrating radar equipment, and to mount radar in a way that minimizes reflections of the microwave beam inside a patrol car, Crescenti said.
“We don’t have any concrete evidence that there is . . . any danger from these things, but we also have no concrete evidence . . . that they’re safe,” Crescenti said. The idea is “to minimize or eliminate these unknown risks.”