Eleanor Adair, 86; studied health effects of microwaves

NEW YORK — Eleanor R. Adair, 86, a scientist who spent decades exposing monkeys and eventually people (including herself) to microwave radiation to determine whether it posed serious health risks — died April 20 in Hamden, Conn.

The cause was complications of a stroke, said her daughter, Margaret Adair Quinn.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Adair, who had done her doctoral work in sensory psychology, was pursuing an interesting but not necessarily provocative topic: how people and animals react physiologically to external heat sources. Yet over the next three decades — after her research led her to study heat generated through microwave radiation, which is used in microwave ovens and emitted at low levels by things like cellphones and electrical transmission lines — Dr. Adair became an increasingly prominent and firm voice of assurance that microwave radiation posed no health risk.


‘‘All the emphasis that we need more research on power line fields, cellphones, police radar — this involves billions of dollars that could be much better spent on other health problems,’’ Dr. Adair said in an interview with The New York Times in 2001. ‘‘Because there is really nothing there.’’

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For some people close to the issue, those were fighting words. Even as numerous studies have found that microwave ovens are safe and many scientists say there is no evidence that cellphones cause cancer or other health problems, the rising use of cellphones, wireless Internet signals, and some medical and military devices has continued to raise questions about their risk. Last year, a panel of the World Health Organization listed microwave radiation as ‘‘possibly carcinogenic.’’ In March, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it would review its standards for cellphone use for the first time since 1996.

Some scientists do not use the term microwave radiation because they are concerned it misleads and scares people unnecessarily. Microwave radiation is far weaker than the radiation in X-rays or gamma rays.

Although Dr. Adair did not receive money from cellphone makers or industries whose products released microwave radiation, she served for five years late in her career as a scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory in San Antonio.