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

Cooney, like many with EHS, is particularly angry about the rollout of smart meters by electric utilities in many parts of the country. In some places, the backlash has been fierce, in part because of the belief that their wireless signals (used to monitor electricity consumption in real time) are dangerous. In Maine, consumers successfully demanded opt-outs for those who don't want smart meters installed, while one utility in Hawaii switched to an opt-in program. But Cooney says this doesn't go far enough: "Those options doesn't let me opt out of the smart meter on my neighbor's house, 10 feet outside my door, or the bank of 100 smart meters on the apartment building behind by house. And radiation doesn't respect property rights." She's currently suing California's Public Utilities Commission for $120 million in damages and wants a decision that bans smart meters entirely. Cooney also believes the telecommunications industry has been actively concealing the dangers of radio frequencies for some time. "They just want to keep profits high," she said. "They want to keep injuring people because they don't want to pay the money it would take to correct the problem."

It's clear that Cooney, Schou, and the others are suffering. But the question remains: What exactly is "the problem"?

Even a skeptical thinker can be briefly entranced by the notion that researchers may have simply failed, so far, to uncover a real disease – as Carl Sagan was fond of saying, "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." It's especially tempting when talking to someone like Nicols Fox, who reported for the Economist on food safety issues for more than a decade and wrote three books before moving to the nearby town of Renick, W.V., in 2008 in an attempt to control her EHS. A science-minded person who probably would have once scoffed at the idea of hypersensitivity, she gradually came to believe that her shooting pains, unpredictably plunging heart rates, and difficulty speaking were a result of years in front of a computer. "I got more and more sensitive, and eventually there was a day when my body just screamed when I touched the keyboard," she said.

Now, she lives simply in a little two-bedroom house on a forested ridge and does her writing on a typewriter (she's working on a novel), mirroring the Luddite tradition she once wrote a book about. At night, she wears a shirt woven with silver fibers to reduce her radio frequency exposure, and though her house has electricity, she shuts it off and uses gas lamps whenever possible. During our conversation, her voice would occasionally get cracked and raspy if I got too close with my audio recorder. In the five years since she's moved to the Radio Quiet Zone, she hasn't left once.

Fox's position on the dangers of radio frequency seems to make sense at first glance. "It's completely artificial, we've invented it, and it's never been on this planet before, so nothing – not animals or humans – is adapted to it," she told me. Of course, this kind of thinking (that a natural state is inherently better than an unnatural one) is a logical fallacy, and can't replace actual evidence in proving the existence of EHS. Nevertheless, Fox and others who believe they suffer from it often compare wireless devices to tobacco – a dangerous addiction that many of us sign up for before fully understanding the risks.

Unlike many people who believe they suffer from EHS, Fox seems doesn't seem particularly worried about proving it. "I don't care if there's research or not," she said. "I've done my research. Meaning, I've sat in the doctor's office and seen my heart range drop to 36 beats per minute when they turn the equipment on." As she points out, there's no reason why she'd turn her life upside-down – abandoning her career and selling her house on Maine's Mount Desert Island – to fake a disease.

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