Nicols Fox moved to the Radio Quiet Zone to escape electromagnetic forces
Courtesy of Christine Fitzpatrick
You can turn your phone on in Green Bank, W.Va., but you wont get a trace of a signal. If you hit scan on your cars radio, itll cycle through the dial endlessly, never pausing on a station. This remote mountainous town is inside the U.S. National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000square-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 worlds largest steerable radio telescope.
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 EHSa 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 isnt perfect here. Theres 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 isnt 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 claimthat exposure to electromagnetic frequencies can immediately cause pain and ill healthis relatively novel, has little medical research to support it, and is treated with deep skepticism by the scientific mainstream.
That hasnt 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 1996when digital cellular networks were initially installed across the countryforming 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 theyre affected.
Here in the United States, West Virginias 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, 4 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.
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. Shed 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 dont 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. (Bertwho gets much milder symptoms of EHS, including tinnitusstill goes back to their farm every summer to conduct corn research.) Over time, living without exposure reduced Dianes 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 havent 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.