April 12, 2013

Haven offers escape from electromagnetic radiation

By Joseph Stromberg / Slate

GREEN BANK, W. Va. — You can turn on your phone in Green Bank, W.Va., but you won't get a trace of a signal. If you hit scan on your car's radio, it'll cycle through the dial endlessly, never pausing on a station. This remote mountainous town is inside the U.S. National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square-mile area where most types of electromagnetic radiation on the radio spectrum (which includes radio and TV broadcasts, Wi-Fi networks, cell signals, Bluetooth, and the signals used by virtually every other wireless device) are banned to minimize disturbance around the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, home to the world's largest steerable radio telescope.

click image to enlarge

Nicols Fox is among the few dozen people who have moved to the U.S. National Radio Quiet Zone in Green Bank, W.Va., to avoid cellphone signals and other electromagnetic radiation.

Courtesy of Christine Fitzpatrick

For most people, this restriction is a nuisance. But a few dozen people have moved to Green Bank (population: 147) specifically because of it. They say they suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or EHS-a disease not recognized by the scientific community in which these frequencies can trigger acute symptoms like dizziness, nausea, rashes, irregular heartbeat, weakness and chest pains. Diane Schou came here with her husband in 2007 because radio-frequency exposure anywhere else she went gave her constant headaches. "Life isn't perfect here. There's no grocery store, no restaurants, no hospital nearby," she told me when I visited her house last month. "But here, at least, I'm healthy. I can do things. I'm not in bed with a headache all the time."

The idea that radio frequencies can cause harm to the human body isn't entirely absurd. Some research has suggested that long-term exposure to power lines and cellphones is associated with an increased chance of cancer, although most evidence says otherwise. But what these people claim – that exposure to electromagnetic frequencies can immediately cause pain and ill health – is relatively novel, has little medical research to support it, and is treated with deep skepticism by the scientific mainstream.

That hasn't stopped them from seeking to publicize the dangers of wireless technology. One of the most prominent activists in the field, Arthur Firstenberg, gained notoriety in 2010 for suing his Santa Fe neighbor for the effects of her Wi-Fi network. But he began organizing EHS-sufferers way back in 1996 – when digital cellular networks were initially installed across the country – forming the Cellular Phone Task Force and publishing Microwaving Our Planet, one of the first books on the topic. In the years since, a fringe movement has grown around the idea, with some 30 support groups worldwide for those affected by radiation. The purported "epidemic" is particularly concentrated in the United Kingdom and Sweden, where surveys have found that 1 to 4 percent of the population believes they're affected.

Here in the United States, West Virginia's Radio Quiet Zone has become a gathering place for the hypersensitive since the mid-2000s, when they first began arriving. Most find out about the area through EHS groups, at conferences, or by reading about it in the handful of news reports published over the last few years. Diane Schou estimates that, so far, 36 people like her have settled in and around the tiny town to escape radiation.

When you walk in the Schous' two-story brick house, four miles up a forested road from the Green Bank post office, the first item you see might be a radiation meter they keep in their living room. She and her husband, Bert, moved here from Cedar Falls, Iowa, because they believe Diane is sensitive to very specific radio frequencies. She first began noticing her sensitivity in 2002, she says, when U.S. Cellular, a wireless provider based in the Midwest, built a tower near their farm. "I was extremely tired, but I couldn't sleep at night," she said. "I got a rash, I had hair loss, my skin was wrinkled, and I just thought it was something I ate, or getting older." After she started getting severe headaches, she heard about EHS from a friend and did some reading online, and eventually came to believe the tower had triggered her latent sensitivity. She went for a consultation at the Mayo Clinic, but doctors refused to consider the possibility, and when she wrote to the FCC complaining about the tower, they simply replied by saying it was safe.

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