Issue 3 / Justice

December 01, 2017
Side of a truck with a plaque that reads "US Government National Science Foundation National Radio Astronomy Observatory"

An old car without electronics at the Green Bank Telescope. Photograph by Emma Copley Eisenberg.

Help Me or Soon I Will Die

Emma Copley Eisenberg

In the 1950s, the federal government carved out a radio “quiet zone” around a new astronomy observatory. Today, it’s a haven for people who want to escape the electromagnetic radiation that saturates our technologized world.

In her brick house on top of a hill outside Green Bank, West Virginia, Diane Schou’s phone is ringing. My head is killing me, comes a voice on the other end of the line. My toes are burning. I’m having a heart attack, a stroke, Alzheimer’s, dementia. I’m living in my car, my home is a death trap. Help me or soon I will die.

They call from Michigan, Minnesota, California, France, Turkey, Tokyo. Sometimes they use Google Translate. Sometimes they cry and Diane just listens.

“I should have a degree in counseling by now,” Diane says.

Diane is a celebrity in the electrosensitive community, a growing group of people who say they suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), or harmful health effects when exposed to electromagnetic radiation (EMR). All modern electronics that run on alternating current (AC) power emit this radiation to one degree or another; it’s also present in any device that uses wireless communication—not just our computers and cell phones but also our cell phone towers, Fitbits, and baby monitors.

Green Bank, a hamlet of 157 close to the Mountain State’s eastern border with Virginia, is one of the only places left in the world where humans can live in air that is devoid of Wi-Fi signals and emissions from other connected technology. To Diane and her fellow electrosensitives, it’s a “safe zone.”

Splashy headlines have proliferated about Green Bank, portraying it as the town that “banned cellphones” because it’s backward or has anti-technological views baked into its culture. But this isn’t so. Rather, the national government conferred this destiny upon it from the outside, in the form of a commitment, made in perpetuity, to a different kind of communication.

Listening to the Sky

Some people who call Diane are so desperate that they show up in her driveway the next day. But many come and do not stay, citing the “primitive” nature of Green Bank—it lacks a Starbucks, an organic food co-op, and a wide variety of psychological services, for instance. Some who come bring class privilege and urban values and presuppositions that can make them suspicious of, or demeaning towards, their new working-class rural neighbors—a complicated dynamic when electrosensitives often see themselves as health refugees to a place where the local community struggles to get access to fresh food or standard healthcare.

Diane has been in Green Bank since 2007, but her own assimilation hasn’t been entirely smooth. Besides her personality, there are cultural differences and class differences. She’s a religious Christian who says grace before every meal, while many of her neighbors worship bluegrass music and hard work. She comes from a middle-class family and isn’t afraid to assert her needs, while this town’s longtime residents are predominantly working poor with patterns of grit and self-sufficiency.

To try to bridge this gap, Diane has taken to recommending a trial visit accompanied by a three-pronged homework assignment while they’re here:

  1. Buy a copy of the local newspaper, The Pocahontas Times.
  2. Go to the local grocery/hardware/gas station and buy something, anything.
  3. Take a tour of the Green Bank Telescope.

I’ve come to do the third item on the list, to learn more about this telescope that is the reason that all Green Bank is safe for electrosensitives.

A man who calls himself Tour Guide Dave stands before me and the other fifteen people assembled in the small, shiny auditorium where PowerPoints and educational videos are shown. It’s the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world, he tells us, whose job is to study tiny emissions from the farthest away planets for information. Many of the most important discoveries about space have been made using this huge dish-like instrument.

He tells us that the telescope works by listening to radio waves, a kind of EMR. Any time a charged particle moves, it releases EMR. Faraway planets emit EMR too, in the form of light, heat, or infrared radiation. Weaker than infrared is microwave radiation—water in our food (and in our cells) can absorb this kind of energy, which is what causes our food to heat up and cook and our skin to burn. Weaker still is the energy that Wi-Fi networks produce. Finally, at the very bottom, are radio waves, signals so faint that even the slightest bit of interference will blot them out.

The likelihood of very little interference is why Green Bank was selected in 1954 as the location for a new radio astronomy observatory facility. It’s close to Washington DC, yet sparsely populated and conveniently protected on all sides by the Allegheny Mountains. But just in case, lawmakers drew a square on a map of the West Virginia-Virginia border, and the National Radio Quiet Zone was born: 13,000 square miles within which all devices that emit microwaves and radio waves on a large scale are severely regulated. Cell towers and radio stations do exist throughout the Quiet Zone today, but they must be directionally pointed away from the telescope and every request for a new one is subject to observatory approval. Within a ten-mile radius of Green Bank, however, cell towers and Wi-Fi networks are banned.

We are told that when we board the school bus that will take us to the telescope, our cell phones must be switched off. Even though there is no cell reception here, our phones are tiny transmitters that will keep searching for a signal, emitting radio waves all the while.

Dave steps up onto a thin strip of stage and wheels over a cage connected to a small screen. The cage is a Faraday cage, which blocks all electromagnetic radiation, and the screen is a spectrum analyzer which shows how much radiation a given object is spitting.

He puts a digital camera circa 2000 into the cage and a spike like an EKG appears on the analyzer’s previously flat line. “Whoa,” says Dave, “don’t take that near the telescope.” Then he takes a small handheld fan and repeats the experiment. The analyzer goes bonkers. “We used to sell them here in the gift shop,” Dave says, “until we realized.”

We are loaded onto a shoddy school bus, shoddy on purpose—only diesel vehicles are allowed past the visitor’s center, since modern cars have computers, spark plugs, and more. At 485 feet and a parabolic surface area of 2.3 acres, the Green Bank Telescope is visible from miles away—a giant white satellite dish atop a giant white crane. Up close, the rain rolls off its listening panels and it seems too hard and inanimate to be that sensitive—the most electrosensitive body in the world.

Taking Precautions

When Carmen Scherrer was forced to flee her home in Virginia Beach, she went to the woods. At first she just walked around, trying not to die. Then she started noticing the birds. Watching them preen and pop made her feel a little better, if only by distraction. She bought a Sibley Guide to Birds so she could identify them based on the shapes of their heads. A red-winged blackbird, a yellow finch.

Fifty cents, one fumbling call on the observatory’s payphone, and twenty minutes spent swinging my legs on the sunshiney bench outside the gift shop and a black SUV is rolling up containing Carmen and Diane. I have kept my phone totally off and been sure to wear clothes that have not been laundered with scented laundry detergent, per Diane’s instructions.

There are two kinds of electrosensitive people, I decide—the ones who seem normal, but for God’s grace go I, and the ones who don’t. Carmen is the former, Diane is the latter. Part of the electrosensitive PR problem is that the strange ones get so much of the air time.

“Well hello there,” Diane says from the passenger seat, “I thought you would have called sooner, I’ve been waiting the whole morning.” Long grey hair in pigtails, Tevas worn with socks, loose slacks.

We’re on our way to look at a rustic cabin in a nearby state park to see if it might be a suitable place for Carmen to live temporarily and host her son and parents. She has been coming to Green Bank (even the town’s name sounds better with her rolled R) for two years, just on weekends or a day or two when she is feeling extra sick. But no one in her family has ever come with her.

Diane directs Carmen to drive west on the two-lane road that runs through Green Bank, and she obeys, driving slowly. Carmen emigrated from Spain to marry her husband, who she’d met as a high school exchange student. She is slim and tan with long dark hair and a soft-looking denim shirt.

Diane is used to tour-guiding and does it well, pointing out Green Bank Middle School, which abuts the observatory property. Unlike most schools these days, this one doesn’t have any Wi-Fi, only hardwired computers.

“Thank God,” says Carmen.

The question of Wi-Fi in schools has received some mainstream attention. A 2014 article publishing the results of a study conducted by researchers at the University of California San Diego made the case for limiting children’s exposure to EMR when possible, including removing Wi-Fi from American public schools. In two Canadian cities, parents petitioned unsuccessfully to have the Wi-Fi removed from their children’s schools.

Over and over, many scientists and laypeople have pointed out that there is no hard evidence that links EMR exposure to the kinds of health effects that electrosensitives describe. But after a documentary about the health effects of Wi-Fi on children was shown widely in Israel, the mayor of Haifa announced that it was immediately removing Wi-Fi from its public schools, saying, “When there is a doubt, when it comes to our children, there is no doubt. We must take excessive precaution.”

It’s this kind of precaution that Martin Blank, a retired professor in the Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics at Columbia University, argues for in his book on the subject, Overpowered. “Just as the United States became the first nation in the world to regulate the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) when science indicated the threat to earth’s ozone layer—long before there was definitive proof of such a link—our governments should respond to the significant public health threat of EMF exposure,” he writes.

Diane also points out the Green Bank Library, where most of the electrosensitives in town come to check their email. Like the middle school, the library too has only wired computers. Diane also has a wired computer at home, which she uses to answer emails from electrosensitives the world over, stay up on the newest scientific studies about the health effects of EMR on humans—which she prints and organizes in file folders on her shelves according to their year and location—and look at baby pictures of her grandson. Most electrosensitives are not ideologically anti-technology. They just want a different relationship with it: to be able to opt out when necessary.

“I can’t go into that Dollar General,” Diane says as we pass it, “because of the fluorescent lights. I asked them to turn them off, but they won’t.”

“If I have diabetes, if I have cancer, I don’t have to tell everyone about it. I don’t want to bother anybody, I just want to live my life,” Carmen says. “But this illness is not like that. Other people’s habits affect us, they don’t stop at the border line. It blows toward us.”

House Hunting

Carmen stops the spotless Honda CRV she is driving on the crest of a one-lane road and points across a technicolor green field at something that neither I nor Diane can see.

“That white spot,” Carmen says in her Spanish accent, throwing the car in park and twisting her body into the backseat to grab the strap of her professional-grade digital camera from where it sits next to me. “Bald eagle. Oh my oh my oh my.”

Carmen had scoured the internet, trying to find out what was wrong with her—why was she suffering these inexplicable attacks of pain and irregular heartbeat that her doctors said were not a heart attack.

“I first had like a stroke, my mouth couldn’t talk, it was like drunk, I couldn’t open the door to my car, my mind and my hand weren’t communicating.”

She would have the attacks mostly at the middle school where she worked as a Spanish teacher. Sometimes she would have to call her husband to come pick her up. Soon the attacks came every week, then every day. She quit her job.

Then the attacks started happening at her kids’ school, in the supermarket, even in her own home. She now attributes the attacks to the fluorescent lights that are ubiquitous in public schools, as well as to the critical mass of cell phones, Wi-Fi, and the effects of a nearby cell tower.

She disabled her Wi-Fi network, removed the electricity in whole swaths of her home, replaced all compact fluorescent bulbs with regular bulbs, got rid of her cell phone, and asked her children and husband to keep their phones in their cars and charge them at neighbors’ homes.

“Usually when a person has a sickness they get support, that’s part of what helps them get better,” she tells me, tearing up as she drives on a cool, laurel-covered road through the state park. “Not with this. People not understanding. You have to quit working, you have to quit socializing, you have to quit your previous life. Nobody believes. You feel this loneliness. When I am calling Diane, I am just crying, saying, ‘Believe me!’”

We arrive at the cabin that Carmen wants to check out.

“Oh! This is niiiiice,” Carmen says, nosing around the place. It has an iron wood-fire cook stove, and gas refrigerator. All of its lights are kerosene and must be lit by a match. But Carmen stiffens. “I think I am picking something up a little bit here,” she says. “Yes, something is bothering me.”

The state park, which Diane has directed many of her electrosensitive guests to, also has tent camping sites. Diane tells Carmen to keep driving to the most secluded camp site, which sits near a river.

“Aha,” says Carmen, “so even if another family is having a cell phone maybe it will not bother me too much because we are so far over here.” She paces around, taking pictures. “Yes I feel much better over here. I am not feeling so good at the cabin but I feel good here.”

Diane instructs Carmen to turn left off the two-lane state road and heads up a steep dirt driveway that’s been cut—recently, it seems—into the side of a mountain. The road dead-ends in a clearing where a cinderblock foundation and some framed walls are open to the sky. A woman and a man stand in the foreground, both thin and tan, bent over the open rump of a car rummaging around inside it.

Sue’s long brown hair is up in a girlish ponytail. Her breathable shorts and hook-and-eye boots make her look more like a thru-hiker than what she is: an electrosensitive woman fleeing for her life. John—-denim work pants, a flat pencil behind his ear, drinking water from a jar—looks like he could be a local, only the New York plates on their car give him away.

Sue is not only electrosensitive, but chemically sensitive, a combination that is common, she tells me, as we settle into folding chairs in a circle of shade. She is affected by all kinds of artificial smells and substances, from treated wood to DEET to perfume, hence the instruction about my clothes. John is not electrosensitive himself, but has been supportive of Sue, a rarity I learn—electrosensitivity seems to kill most of the marriages it touches.

Sue and John are from Mamaroneck, a prosperous satellite suburb of New York City. Sue thinks it started when the utility company installed a smart meter— equipped with wireless communication so it can check rates remotely—on the back of their house. Either that or it was their new neighbor who had every gadget and every light on a dimmer switch (dimmers generate much more EMR than traditional light switches).

“When he was home, I couldn’t be in my house,” Sue says. Her skin would burn, and she got immobilizing headaches. When she used her phone, her ear would get hot. Her fingers tingled when she tried to use a computer. A new cell phone tower went up right over their kids’ school. Sue’s toes would bloat and burn, which she illustrates with a photo on her digital camera. They do indeed look puffy and red, as if from a very bad sunburn.

They hired a professional to shield their bedroom, to make it as much like a Faraday cage as possible—three layers of aluminum mesh.

Often she went whole days without leaving her cage room. “My life became very small,” Sue says. She couldn’t socialize with friends or attend events at her children’s school. She missed her son’s high school graduation. “Too many cell phones!” she cries. “Out of a class of 500, our son is the only one who didn’t have a cell phone.”

But eventually even the cage didn’t help her. She couldn’t sleep. “I would bring her out to the car and she would try and sleep in the car,” John says.

Soon she took to driving her car to the farthest reaches of town and parking it under an I-95 underpass to get relief. That’s when their daughter called. She had read an article about Diane and Green Bank.

The couple came down, then bought land here shortly thereafter. The plan is to build themselves a new house, with green chemical-free materials custom-tailored to Sue’s sensitivities, and a separate shed for the appliances.

While their house is being built, Sue and John are camping on a piece of land owned by WAVR, a nonprofit that Diane and others started to provide free lodging to electrosensitive people and their family and friends. Right now it’s a grassy field, two sleeping cabins, and a hunter’s lodge with a communal kitchen.

Sue would like to see a swath of land in every country put aside as EMR-free zones for electrosensitives to go. As it is now, she says, “there’s just no way to opt out.”

An Experiment

Until as recently as the 1980s, coal miners brought caged canaries down into the seam tunnels with them. As long as the canaries were singing, things were copacetic. But if the bird passed out or died, that signaled unsafe levels of poisonous gas in the air—time to run. Because canaries need double the oxygen of most birds—they take it in upon exhale as well as inhale—they made ideal air testers.

The phrase “canary in the coal mine” has become so overused as to be effectively meaningless. But when talking about electrosensitives, the comparison is appropriate. The working theory, according to the electrosensitive community and the scientists who support them, is that those with EHS are the same yet different from all of us. Something about the way they are built makes them especially porous, especially sensitive—so whatever is slowly killing the rest of us, the theory goes, is killing them much faster.

Just before the bubonic plague started killing millions in medieval Europe, people reported seeing rats keel over in the street with unexplainable frequency. We study honey bee death as an important sign of air pollution, and bivalve molluscs for water pollution.

Implicit in these strategies is an ethical position: it is acceptable for some life to die so that humans can live or better understand the threats stewing in their environment. But what if the harbingers are people?

Electrosensitives say they’re not fundamentally different from people who don’t experience health effects from EMR—they are simply more sensitive.

“We’re gifted,” Diane says.

“If this stuff is bad for Sue, it’s probably bad for all of us,” John says.

“You may not realize it, but you are participating in an unauthorized experiment,” Martin Blank writes in Overpowered. “For the first time, many of us are holding high-powered microwave transmitters—in the form of cell phones—directly against our heads on a daily basis…What health effects do these exposures have? Therein lies the experiment.”

Blank writes about how EMR, even at very low levels, interrupts bird and bee navigation, and can cause bee colonies to collapse. In one study Blank cites, researchers put an active cell phone in front of a bee hive, and in short order, the hive crumbled. A 2010 Dutch study tied a mystery illness decimating European trees to Wi-Fi radiation.

While Blank has some allies, his opinions are not popular in the scientific community because they go against a foundational idea upon which much of modern technology is based: sure, X-rays and ultraviolet radiation are carcinogens, known to harm human cells (which is why we wear protective gear when getting our cavities photographed), but that’s because they are ionizing radiation (short-wavelength, high-frequency).

As long as the EMR created by a given technology is non-ionizing—long-wavelength and low-frequency, such as microwave and radio—it’s not harmful to humans. But Blank’s research was showing that even non-ionizing radiation, which has much less energy than X-rays, was affecting a very basic property of cells—the ability to stimulate protein synthesis.

To accept this conclusion, many scientists would have to throw out years of research. Not to mention, Blank archly implies, sever their funding ties to the tech and telecommunications industries. Blank tells an anecdote of a scientist who challenged his research at a conference—the scientist, he later found out, was employed by a major cell phone provider.

Conspiracy theories aside, Blank is sympathetic. “People simply cannot bear the thought of restricting their time with—much less giving up—these beloved gadgets,” he writes. “This gives industry a huge advantage because there is a large segment of the public that would simply rather not know.”

Hardware vs Software

Another theory of EHS is that the sufferers’ symptoms are real, but the cause is people’s anxiety and stress in response to the idea that wireless technology is harming them, rather than any “actual” harm.

For a disease to be real, we are told, proof of physical malfunction is required. If none can be found, the suffering is deemed “psychosomatic,” and left at that. But within that word is the word “somatic”—-of the body. Suzanne O’Sullivan, a British neurologist and the author of It’s All in Your Head, regularly diagnoses patients as suffering from psychosomatic illness, but that doesn’t lessen the seriousness of their symptoms or their treatment. Psychosomatic disorders, she says, are physical symptoms, truly experienced, that mask emotional distress.

“It feels real because it is real,” O’Sullivan tells a man who used the internet to diagnose himself with multiple sclerosis. “Your paralysis is not imagined but that does not necessarily mean that it is a primarily physical disorder.” Ultimately, the man accepts this and applies his own analogy: “My hardware is intact and the wires are all in the right place, but I have a software problem that stops my legs receiving the instruction to move.”

As a culture, we are troubled only by hardware problems, and inclined to dismiss those that occur in our software, despite the fact that both can and do cause glitches and crashes. We also tend to use these words—hardware, software, body, mind—as if the boundaries between them are securely distinct. It feels necessary to distinguish between different kinds of distress.

But one thing is clear: new technologies are causing some humans to experience distress, in one form or another.

It just so happens that at the time of my trip to visit Green Bank, I had recently endured a disappointment in love. Let’s call my ex-beloved F. F and I had built a life, and then just like that it was gone, as is prone to happen. I had been hitting the tarot and journaling hard. The hours between three and six in the morning had come back to me and it was difficult to sit still by myself without water squeezing out. “I feel like poison is coursing through my veins,” I wrote.

The metaphors we use for anxiety and grief are often electrical. “My entire body buzzed as if I’d been plugged into an electrical socket,” writes psychotherapist Leslie Carr in “What Your Anxiety Is Really Trying to Tell You.” “Anxiety is your body’s way of trying to get your attention,” Carr goes on. “It’s an invitation from your unconscious, alerting you to something in your emotional life that needs to be heard.”

After I’ve dropped off Diane and Carmen at Diane’s house, I drive away through fields buzzing with katydids. I turn up the radio and hear that President Trump has officially pulled America out of the Paris climate agreement.

Google “ecoanxiety” and the results are profound. Not only does it refer to the fact that scientists are now tying climate change to increased rates of stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide due to storms and slides and tsunamis, but it also hints at something deeper and more amorphous—you might even say somatic.

At the core, we are animals destroying the resources we need to survive.

How much to compromise so that the needs of all are met is at the heart of this whole situation. “Accommodations” is a word often in Diane’s mouth. How would one build a community that preserves modern technology while accommodating electrosensitives?

Ideally it would be a both/and—a choice we can all make for ourselves. Those of us who can’t tolerate or don’t want connected technology to subsume our experience should be able to opt out. Those who need or want it should be able to opt in. But currently it seems that no one gets to choose—that, for a multitude of reasons, connected technology is a layer of living that eludes personal choice.

I do not know what exactly the sickness of EHS sufferers can tell the rest of us about how we live. But I do believe that it is meant to tell us something.

Emma Copley Eisenberg is a writer based in West Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Granta, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Splinter, Salon, Slate, and others.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 3, "Justice". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.