April 12, 2013

Haven offers escape from electromagnetic radiation

By Joseph Stromberg / Slate

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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

Over the next four years, she repeatedly left the farm to search for a safe place, traveling through Scandinavia (where their son was studying abroad) and logging more than 75,000 miles driving across the United States in their RV. She'd find relatively safe spots but still got pounding headaches and chest pains from a range of triggers: if someone nearby turned on his phone, if she drove past a signal tower, if a neighbor next door used a coffee maker. "It would be like a sledgehammer on top of my head," she said. Initially, only U.S. Cellular phones had harmed her, but eventually, being near any electrical device was a risk. (Virtually all devices that use electricity, even if they don't rely on wireless signals, emit a low level of radiation.)

Then, in 2007, she learned about the Radio Quiet Zone. When she visited, she finally started to feel better. She and Bert sold half of their Iowa farmland and bought the house in West Virginia, unfinished, and have since installed wiring with thick insulation to reduce radiation. (Bert – who gets much milder symptoms of EHS, including tinnitus – still goes back to their farm every summer to conduct corn research.) Over time, living without exposure reduced Diane's sensitivity, and she can now tolerate many devices without pain. The Schous use a landline and an Internet-connected computer (without Wi-Fi). But they still haven't found a refrigerator with low enough radiation emissions, so Diane manually fills an icebox with ice each day. Even now, if she leaves the Radio Quiet Zone, exposure can set her off: "I'll say, 'Oh, I have a headache,' and then someone's cellphone will ring," she said. "This happens time and time again."

The Schous often host EHS-sufferers who want to test out Green Bank. One person who relies on their hospitality is Deborah Cooney, a singer, pianist and voice coach from San Diego. Her problems began in 2010, she told me, when a smart electricity meter was installed on her house; she believes this triggered her boyfriend's heart issues, led to her own hypersensitivity, and even caused her cat to start panting, pacing, and shaking her paws. Over time, Cooney's symptoms intensified – they included fatigue, numbness, circulation problems, and intense jolts of pain in her heart – and she impulsively moved out one night in October 2011. "I got so sick that I felt my life was in serious jeopardy, and if I didn't leave that minute, I didn't know if I'd survive," she said. She drove cross-country to the one friend she had who didn't get any cell service (he lived elsewhere in West Virginia) and learned about the Radio Quiet Zone soon after she arrived.

Currently, she lives without running water or electricity in a simple one-room cabin the Schous built at the foot of their driveway, because simply sleeping in a wired building makes her sick. During the day, she shares a nearby apartment with another hypersensitive person, where she cooks, bathes and occasionally uses a computer. Because she has trouble finding work, she's having money problems. Recently, she traveled to Texas and Florida to perform, sleeping in her car every night of the monthlong trip because of the devices and Wi-Fi networks in hotel rooms. "This is a tough place to live," she says. "I really don't know how I'm going to be able to support myself."

Some residents of Green Bank, along with the nearby town of Marlington – also in the Radio Quiet Zone – apparently aren't thrilled about this influx. According to Schou, many locals are reluctant to rent housing to people with EHS, perhaps a result of the fact that in a remote area with few job opportunities, any new arrivals only heighten competition – and maybe because they're likely to ask for special treatment. Schou told me that since she requested to have the fluorescent lights shut off at the community center, she's faced intense discrimination: Packages have been stolen from her porch, and she once found a dead groundhog in her mailbox. "I've been told, 'We don't want your kind of people here,' " she said. Cooney was banned from the radio observatory for bringing up radiation issues at a town meeting held there and says her tires have been punctured in the night more than once. (I tried to talk to some locals about their new neighbors – but it's hard to do a man-on-the-street interview in an area with so few streets or proverbial men.)

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