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Higher Power Is Invoked in Vatican Dispute

A Roman prosecutor wants radio transmitters shut down because of the electromagnetic radiation they produce. The Holy See denies levels are illegal.

April 07, 2001|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROME — Whenever Pope John Paul II lectures the faithful about respect for the environment, the right to life or anything else on his mind, a forest of transmitters on Rome's northern outskirts beams his words in 40 languages to Vatican Radio listeners around the world.

Now it's the Vatican's turn to get lectured. Italian officials charge that those potent transmitters emit illegal levels of electromagnetic radiation, and neighborhood activists claim that they are killing children by causing leukemia.

As a Roman prosecutor presses a criminal case against three Vatican Radio officials, Italy's environment minister is threatening to pull the plug on the Roman Catholic broadcaster as early as next week.

The Holy See has responded with legal maneuvering, arguing that its officials and the transmitters, planted on property of the Vatican city-state since 1957, have "extraterritorial" status, putting them beyond the reach of Italian law.

"The health of Italians is not extraterritorial," replied Environment Minister Willer Bordon, taking the moral high ground in one of the most contentious disputes between Italy and the Vatican in years.

The case reflects a growing phobia over what Italians call elettrosmog--the radiation emitted by electric power pylons, television and radio transmitters, and relay stations serving the country's growing network of cellular phones.

Scientists in Italy and elsewhere are divided on the perils of non-ionizing radiation. But Italians, echoing a worldwide outcry by environmental groups, set up hundreds of committees around the country to lobby against pylons and transmitters.

In response, the government in 1998 lowered its limit on electromagnetic emissions to six volts per meter--far stricter than the European Union standard of 26 volts per meter. The government found 131 radio and TV transmitters in violation of the law and ordered five of them closed.

Vatican Radio's powerful transmitters--whose signals can reach the tiniest transistor radio in Asia, Africa or Australia--are by far the biggest target of the legal crackdown. Bordon has said Vatican Radio exceeds the six-volt-per-meter limit by three to four times.

Residents of Santa Maria di Galeria have complained for years about the 50 towers, which rise 390 feet above their suburb. Vatican Radio broadcasts often invade their phone conversations, intercoms, TV programs and hearing aids. Trains passing nearby used to grind to a halt, their engineering systems blocked by the electromagnetic force, until the railway created special coverings for the motors.

It was only recently, when a suburban resident began seeking the cause of his child's leukemia, that the transmitters came to be viewed as a lethal hazard.

The prosecutor's case grew from an inquiry by health officials in the Lazio region just outside Rome. The inquiry found that from 1987 to 1999, eight people died of leukemia in a six-mile zone surrounding the transmitters--an incidence of the disease roughly the same as that in Rome. But regional officials said the disease rate increased with proximity to the transmitters.

Still, that's not a clear-cut indictment of Vatican Radio, because the suburb is also home to an Italian military radar facility that has been upgraded in recent years.

Among those defending the Vatican is Paolo Vecchia, director of non-ionizing radiation research at Italy's National Institute of Health. The new radiation standard, he says, "is unjustified in light of the scientific evidence. . . . Instead of calming people down, it has provoked alarm."

Many here suspect that Bordon is pursuing the case to help the ruling center-left coalition in a May 13 general election. The minister, who is running for Parliament, recently visited a school near the transmitters and told anguished residents: "A crime is being committed. This makes shivers go down my spine."

Father Pasquale Borgomeo, Vatican Radio's director general, took to the airwaves last month to defend himself and two subordinates facing criminal inquiry.

Claiming that radiation from his transmitters is within EU limits, he faulted Italy's government for failing to stop housing construction near the transmitters, even after it tightened its radiation limits. He urged that the issue be taken out of court and left to an Italian-Vatican commission that began negotiating the issue a year ago.

The Vatican's legalistic response to the uproar "makes me indignant," said Lina Pantanella, the daughter of a policeman who guarded the Vatican Radio transmitter complex for years and died of cancer. "They're making fools of us."

Pantanella and several others who live near the transmitters have joined the court case as civil plaintiffs. Because Italy lacks a criminal statute on elettrosmog, the three defendants, including a cardinal, are charged with "dangerous showering of objects," which carries a $200 fine. A judge last month delayed the case until autumn, saying the prosecution failed to properly serve their summons.

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