The Tiny Town Where the “Electrosensitive” Can Escape the Modern World

What's to come?
April 12 2013 5:30 AM

Refugees of the Modern World

The “electrosensitive” are moving to a cellphone-free town. But is their disease real?

(Continued from Page 1)
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A barn near Green Bank, W.Va., in the National Radio Quiet Zone

Courtesy of Christine Fitzpatrick

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 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.

But “faking it” isn’t the right way to discuss EHS—both because it alienates sufferers by making them defensive and because, more importantly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. According to research, these people’s symptoms may be real. But—and this is the important part—radiation isn’t to blame. A 2010 meta-analysis of 46 studies concluded that “repeated experiments have been unable to replicate this phenomenon under controlled conditions,” while the World Health Organization simply says that “well controlled and conducted double-blind studies have shown that symptoms were not correlated with EMF exposure.”

The primary way of testing is a provocation study, in which a purported EHS-sufferer is exposed to either an electromagnetic field or a sham field and asked to identify which is which. James Rubin, a psychologist at King’s College London who studies psychogenic illnesses, has analyzed the literature on provocation studies and conducted some at his own lab. His most recent meta-analysis—which covered 1,175 participants in 46 studies—found no rigorous, replicable experiment in which radio frequencies were identified at rates greater than chance. “It is definitely the case that some people experience symptoms that they attribute to electromagnetic frequencies,” he told me. “But is it really these frequencies causing the symptoms? At the moment, we can say that there simply isn't any robust evidence to support that.”

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Some EHS-sufferers criticize provocation studies, saying that holding them in a lab means spillover radiation from equipment and nearby buildings even in the sham condition. They also argue that the experiments don’t necessarily use the correct radiation frequency. (“The scientist is pretending to be God, knowing what frequency that person will react to,” Diane Schou said to me.) But Rubin points out that many provocation studies start with an unblinded stage, where the participants are truthfully told whether the electromagnetic field is on. “They almost always report symptoms when they know it is on, and not when they know it is off,” Rubin said. “In the second stage, when the experiment is repeated double-blind, they report symptoms to the same extent in both conditions.” When the participants know whether the field is on, in other words, contaminant radiation and frequency specificity suddenly aren’t such big problems.

As such, the best predictor for whether a hypersensitive person will experience symptoms isn’t the presence of radio frequency—it’s the belief that a device is turned on nearby. An elegant demonstration of this on a much larger scale took place in 2010, when residents of the town of Fourways, South Africa, successfully petitioned for a cell signal tower to be taken down because of the sickness caused by its radiation—even though it was later revealed that it hadn’t been switched on during the time of their complaints.

The idea of EHS is also undermined by our basic understanding of electromagnetic radiation. The full spectrum of electromagnetic radiation is divided into ionizing and non-ionizing frequencies. The former category, which includes X-rays and nuclear fallout, is energetic enough to tear electrons off our body’s atoms and cause radiation sickness; the latter isn’t. While the frequencies in this latter group (which includes visible light, cell signals, Wi-Fi, and the radiation from power lines) can burn biological tissue at extremely high intensities, our devices operate at levels well below anything considered harmful. The alluring idea that life hasn’t evolved to withstand non-ionizing radiation becomes silly when you consider that the main source of it on planet Earth is sunlight.

As Fox and others note, there is research supporting the idea that EHS is real—but scientists largely dismiss it as pseudoscience. Most well-known is the BioInitiative Report (a non–peer-reviewed publication authored by 29 self-described “scientists, researchers and public health policy professionals”), which has been widely criticized for selectively using favorable studies and data. The European Commission noted that, contrary to its claims, the report was a post facto assembly of many different papers and studies, not the consensus of a working group, and that it often ignored the conclusions of the researchers themselves in interpreting the data. A recent article in the Guardian cited a 2011 study by a team of LSU neurologists that purported to find that electromagnetic frequencies caused headaches and muscle twitching, but the study involved only one subject—and even she wasn’t able to identify if a field was turned on at rates better than chance.

Given the data, the long-hidden danger of tobacco isn’t an apt parallel for the supposed harm of radio frequency radiation. But other episodes from history are. Technology historian Genevieve Bell says that in the early days of rail travel, experts warned that if a woman traveled faster than 50 miles per hour, her uterus could suddenly fly out of her body. Bell has charged the many instances throughout history in which new technologies triggered unfounded, irrational “moral panics." She theorizes that innovations which change our relationship to time, space, and other people are the most likely to incite fear. It’s hard to imagine technologies that hit all three of these all comprehensively as smartphones and the mobile Web.

You could also view EHS as a mass psychogenic illness, in which very real symptoms arise from a socially contagious belief in a nonexistent disease. In 1962, for example, after a June bug infestation at the Montana Mills textile factory in North Carolina, workers began getting sick: They broke out in rashes, experienced nausea, and in some cases fainted and required hospitalization. A total of 62 workers exhibited symptoms, but doctors and entomologists couldn’t find any explanation. In a seminal 1968 study, a pair of psychologists who had interviewed the staff concluded that their physical symptoms had been triggered by the belief that they were at risk, reinforced by local news stories about the infestation and resulting contagion. Interestingly, those with close friends who’d gotten sick first were more likely to develop symptoms, as were those more stressed and dissatisfied with their jobs. Other episodes attributed to mass psychogenic illness include a supposed post-9/11 chemical attack at a Maryland Metro station (in which window cleaner somehow caused 35 people to develop headaches, nausea, and sore throats), and last year’s mysterious outbreak of twitching among female high school students in Le Roy, New York.

As The New Yorker recently pointed out in a blog post, EHS, along with these types of episodes, hint at the bizarre power of the nocebo effect: the flip-side of the placebo effect, in which inert substances or the suggestion of harm brings about real physical symptoms. In many studies of the nocebo effect, simply explaining to patients that a pill might trigger side effects has been enough to cause everything from back pain to erectile dysfunction. “If you believe that a substance, compound, or phenomena harms you, and you start experiencing symptoms, there's confirmation for your belief right there, and then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Brian Dunning, a prominent skeptic who hosts the Skeptoid podcast and frequently takes on pseudoscientific claims, told me. “You see that your phone has a signal or that there’s a Wi-Fi router in the room, it further increases your stress level, and you have very real and very distressing physical symptoms. Once you have this confirming experience, it becomes really difficult to sit there and be told otherwise.”

Our brains’ expectations, it turns out, have a surprisingly potent effect on the functioning of our bodies. If the people who moved to Green Bank truly suffer from piercing headaches, nausea, and dizziness when they are around wireless signals, the nocebo effect (and previous instances of mass psychogenic diseases) is as good an explanation of anything we have so far.

***

But what does this mean for people who believe they suffer from EHS? Probably not much. Science might say that they can’t possibly be allergic to cellular networks, but as long as they are certain they are, the Radio Quiet Zone is the one place they can get relief.

So, for now, most of them plan to stay in Green Bank, and more arrive all the time. In just the week before I visited, Bert Schou told me, they’d gotten calls from people in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Virginia asking whether they could come stay. Diane wants to raise money to build a resource center for the hypersensitive nearby, where they can be medically evaluated in a radiation-free setting and stay overnight when necessary.

Above all, they want to spread the message that electromagnetic radiation is dangerous—and that the only solution is getting away from this invisible form of pollution. "You might find a friend or someone in your workplace who's not feeling well,” Bert said to me as I stood in his driveway, getting ready to head out before it got dark. “Bring them here, and they might feel better, too."

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Correction, April 12, 2013: This article originally misspelled the name of the town of Marlinton, W.Va.

Joseph Stromberg is a science reporter for Vox.com. Follow him @josephstromberg.

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