Epitaxial La0.7Ca0.3MnO3 thin films on the SrTiO3(100) surface have been irradiated with 250 MeV Ag17+ ions at different nominal fluence values in the range of 5×1010–4×1011 ions/cm2, resulting in columnar defects. At low fluences these defects cause changes in material properties that are small and scale linearly with dosage. Above a threshold fluence value ∼3×1011 ions/cm2 dramatic changes are observed, including an order of magnitude increase in the resistivity and 50 K drop in the Curie temperature. Transmission electron microscopy measurements show that the changes are associated with a phase transformation of the undamaged region between the columnar defects. The transformed phase has a diffraction pattern very similar to that seen in charge-ordered La0.5Ca0.5MnO3. We propose that above a critical level of ion damage, strains caused by the presence of the columnar defects induce a charge-ordering phase transition that causes the observed dramatic changes in physical properties. We speculate that a conceptually similar surface-induced charge ordering may be responsible for the “dead layer” observed in very thin strained films, and the dramatic changes in optical properties induced by polishing, and that an impurity-induced charge ordering causes the extreme sensitivity of properties to lattice substitution. © 2000 American Institute of Physics.