< Escaping Wi-Fi in the National Quiet Zone

Transcript

Friday, September 16, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

Paul Ewing was the co-leader of the Intrepid DX group's voyage to South Sudan. He's an example of someone who will go to extremely great lengths to receive radio waves.

There is a smaller cohort of people--and a much less enthusiastic one--who go to similar trouble to avoid radio waves altogether. They are the sufferers of what they call EHS, Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity, which they say afflicts them with debilitating headaches, rashes, muscle spasms and other symptoms. So severely are they affected by radio broadcasts, Wi-fi, electromagnetic emanations of power lines, appliances and so on, that some have fled to a remote West Virginia refuge called the U.S. Radio Quiet Zone.

BBC reporter Matt Danzico made a trip recently to Green Bank, West Virginia, the epicenter of radio-free America.

MATT DANZICO:

Well, Green Bank sits in the heart of the Radio Quiet Zone, an area that's about 13,000 square miles large. And in the Radio Quiet Zone is the world's largest steerable radio telescope that monitors space. And because it's there, cell phones, Wi-fi, things that would emit any sort of electromagnetic radiation, are banned so as not to interfere with the telescope's work.

And from what I understand, there's around a dozen people living there that claim they suffer from EHS.

BOB GARFIELD:

And they get to Green Bank and what do they report about their symptoms?

MATT DANZICO:

They say that their symptoms are completely gone. They get wiped away because there’s no electromagnetic radiation in the area. One person, Diane Schou, lived right in the heart of Green Bank and another person, Nichols Fox, actually lived directly outside the Quiet Zone because she said that there was just too much radiation inside the Quiet Zone. I'm assuming she meant that the radiation was coming from the radio telescope itself.

You know, when I showed up at Diane Schou's house, I had forgotten I had kept a cell phone in my pocket. I walked in and she immediately knew that I had a cell phone on me. She even sort of pointed to the pocket that it was in. [LAUGHS]

BOB GARFIELD:

Kind of amazing. So they've settled in to Green Bank, now symptom free, but how do they conduct the rest of their lives?

MATT DANZICO:

Diane Schou moved from Iowa to West Virginia. But in Iowa before she left her husband had built her a Faraday cage, an insulated metal cage that supposedly protects you from electromagnetic fields and radiation. And so, Diane Schou was living inside one of these cages in Iowa for years before moving to Green Bank. She says that when she leaves the community, she immediately is affected by the cell phone towers that she passes on the highway.

But, you know, to be honest, she leads a fairly normal life within the Quiet Zone. She has a computer that has a cable modem, you know, that's hardwired to the Internet. She has a land line telephone.

Whereas Nichols Fox, who claims that he condition is a bit more severe, she has absolutely no electronic devices in her house whatsoever. Her, her refrigerator is powered by gas. She has gas lamps and, and reads by candlelight. When she turns up her thermostat to a certain level, heat is powered by electronic heaters but that's only if she gets to the point of risking her [LAUGHS] life as a result of being so cold.

BOB GARFIELD:

One of the things that struck me about your piece is that Green Bank is in this Wi-free free zone for fear of disturbing the radio telescope located there. But that's because the radio telescope is monitoring all of the radiation that just seeps naturally from the outside universe into the earth's atmosphere, which makes me wonder, if there is so much ambient radiation out there anyway, why aren't these people affected equally by it as by the microwave oven or the cell phone?

MATT DANZICO:

There's different frequencies of radiation, you know. Some are a lot weaker than others. And I would imagine that those living in Green Bank feel that the radiation coming in from space is just too weak to affect them. I mean, it's really just an extremely unusual community there.

BOB GARFIELD:

But not a tinfoil hat crowd, right? I mean these aren't people who believe that the FBI is sending signals into their brain.

MATT DANZICO:

A lot of these individuals are highly educated. I did not talk to one person that at least hadn't gone to college or — actually, one person that hadn't gotten a degree after college. I talked to a lawyer. Nichols Fox is a former journalist. Diane Schou has her PhD, was an agricultural researcher before she left Iowa. I spoke to a physician.

These people aren't the types of people that you would think you would encounter when reporting on a story like this.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, there's a kicker at the end of your piece, which is that there is a proposal being floated in and around Green Bank actually to put up some sort of cell phone tower. Where does that stand? Are these people gonna be sent fleeing from their only refuge?

MATT DANZICO:

There's a proposal to set up a cell phone tower outside the Quiet Zone, right where Nichols Fox lives. And she says that she just doesn't know what she's going to do.

If she comes within just several miles of a cell phone tower, she says she starts to break down. And that was sort of the sad part about the piece is this woman who seems very grounded, aside from this issue, just has absolutely no idea where to go.

So whether it's an illness or not, something is happening to these people. And frankly, after reporting on this and talking to a load of experts and a ton of people who say they suffer from this supposed condition, I'm not sure what to think.

BOB GARFIELD:

All right, Matt. Thank you so much.

MATT DANZICO:

No problem at all. Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:

Matt Danzico is a journalist for the BBC in Washington.

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