Sufferers of Strange Disease Seek Refuge in Town Where Cell Phones are Illegal

Wesley Sizemore stands in front of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in the mountains of West Virginia. (Photo by Michael Robinson-Chavez/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

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A remote West Virginia town with no cell service, Wi-Fi hotspots, or TV has become a haven for people who say that wireless technology is making them sick.

Dozens of so-called “Wi-Fi refugees” suffering from a controversial malady called electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) have moved to Green Bank, West Virginia, where cell phone and Wi-Fi signals are banned. An estimated five percent of Americans claim to have EHS, a condition not recognized by the scientific community.

Green Bank is located in the US National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square mile area where electromagnetic radiation on the radio spectrum—such as radio and TV broadcasts, Wi-Fi networks, and signals from cell phones, Bluetooth and other high-tech electronic devices—are outlawed, to prevent transmissions from interfering with a local radio telescope and a nearby military radio installation.

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Hiding From the Wired World in a Cage

Diane Schou and her husband moved to the Appalachian town in 2007 to escape symptoms she believes are triggered by cell phone radiation. “My face turns red, I get a headache, my vision changes, and it hurts to think. Last time [I was exposed] I started getting chest pains—and to me that's becoming life-threatening," she told BBC News. 

To block cell phone signals and relieve the pain, Schou’s husband built an insulated living space known as a Faraday cage on their Iowa farm. “It's a horrible thing to have to be a prisoner," she recalled. "You become a technological leper because you can't be around people.”

Now, Schou says she lives a relatively normal life in Green Bank (population 147) that includes going to church and socializing with friends. “There’s no grocery store, no restaurants, no hospital nearby,” she told Slate Magazine. “But here, at least, I'm healthy. I can do things. I'm not in bed with a headache all the time.”

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Disorder Only Recognized in One Country

EHS sufferers contend that exposure to electromagnetic radiation sparks a wide range of symptoms, including facial flushing, twitchy muscles, burning or itchy skin, chest pain, headaches, sleep problems, mental fog, rapid heartbeat, ringing in the ears or hearing problems, nerve or muscle pain, nausea, and chronic fatigue.

More than 30 studies have been conducted to see if electromagnetic fields (EMF) can spark these symptoms or other health problems. So far, scientists remain skeptical. When the World Health Organization (WHO) reviewed the research in a 2004 workshop, it reported that:

“There are also some indications that these symptoms may be due to pre-existing psychiatric conditions as well as stress reactions as a result of worrying about believed EMF health effects, rather than the EMF exposure itself."

In a recent report, WHO added that, “The symptoms are certainly real and can vary widely in their severity … EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem.”

Currently, Sweden is the only country that recognizes EHS as a legitimate impairing condition. In that country—where the government reports that about 3 percent of the population (some 250,000 people) are affected—those with EHS are entitled to the same legal rights and social services as those who are deaf or blind.

The government will even pay to have the homes of people with EHS electronically “sanitized” with metal shielding to block electromagnetic radiation, Popular Science Magazine reports.

Is Electromagnetic Radiation Dangerous?

Some researchers have reported that long-term exposure to power lines or cell phones might raise the risk for cancer.  Most studies have focused on possible links between electromagnetic fields and childhood leukemia, but research has had conflicting results.

Studies have also examined whether these fields have any link with other cancers, depression, suicide, heart disease, reproductive problems, and other disease. The WHO Task Force Group finds evidence that electromagnetic radiation is associated with any of these problems is “weak” at best.

A study published in Epidemiology found no link between using cell phones and risk for gliomas, cancerous tumors of the brain or spinal cord. The study analyzed glioma incidence statistics from four Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark) over a 20-year period.

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Little Evidence that EHS Is Real

 A trial at Sweden's University of Uppsala's Department of Clinical Psychology involved taking blood samples from people who claimed to have EHS. The samples were analyzed for indicators of stress, both before and after the test.

Some participants were exposed to electromagnetic radiation without their knowledge, but no differences were found between EHS sufferers and a control group in their reactions, nor were there any differences in stress among those who received radiation and those who didn’t.

When study participants received psychotherapy, those who identified themselves as EHS sufferers had a greater reduction in stress after the treatment than those who didn’t describe themselves to hypersensitive.

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