This West Virginia Town Has Gone Radio Silent

Greetings from the Quiet Zone
The Green Bank Telescope is the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope. Photograph by Steve Featherstone

The town of Green Bank, West Virginia, sits at the heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone, where cellphones, Wi-Fi routers, and broadcast antennas are all but absent. For most, it is a throwback to a different era. But for an increasing number of new residents, it is a rare refuge from wireless technology. Welcome to the fringe of the electromagnetic age.

One day in 2003, Diane Schou’s hair started falling out. She got rashes and lingering headaches. Her doctor didn’t know what was causing her symptoms, but Diane began to have her suspicions. She’d fallen ill around the same time a new cellphone tower went up near her Iowa farm. When she drove by the tower, her headaches worsened. So she and her husband, Bert, jumped in their Winnebago and fled. Diane didn’t know what she was running from. All she knew was that she felt better the farther she got from that cell tower, and civilization in general.

Months after leaving Iowa, while stopped at a state park in North Carolina, a forest ranger told the Schous about a place called Green Bank, West Virginia. It was in the middle of something called the National Radio Quiet Zone. So the Schous went to Green Bank for a few days. It was a nice place, but they quickly moved on, like gypsies of the electromagnetic age, searching for somewhere insulated from the technology now synonymous with modern society. Along the way, Diane learned that her affliction had a name–electrohypersensitivity, or EHS–and that there were other electrosensitives like her. She also learned that most doctors don’t believe her condition exists, at least outside of her mind.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), EHS is not a medical diagnosis, but rather a vague set of symptoms with no apparent physiological basis. Even so, the condition–whatever its cause–appears to be widespread. Olle Johansson, an associate professor of neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, says the number of people who claim to have EHS varies by country, from 8 percent of the population in Germany to 3.5 percent, or about 11 million people, in the U.S.

“There are few epidemic diseases this large,” Johansson says. “Nowadays, wherever you live, whatever you do, you’re whole-body exposed, 24/7.”

For Diane, the debate around EHS was academic. Her suffering was real, and no matter how far she ran–to an island in Nicaragua or a yurt in Lapland–she kept coming back to one place: Green Bank, population 143. In 2007, after racking up 170,000 miles on their RV, Diane and Bert sold off half their farmland in Iowa and used the money to buy a house in Green Bank. Diane has lived there ever since.

Over the past several years, Diane’s symptoms have faded. Her rashes dis­appeared. Her hair grew back. And while she says a stranger’s cellphone will still send bolts of pain through her head, she’s recovered to the point that she can use a computer again. But she can never return to the farm in Iowa. Green Bank is her home now, and that’s given Diane a certain sense of purpose. As a conductor on the electrosensitive underground railroad, she has helped, by her estimate, dozens of technological refugees find shelter there. More are arriving every year, and they’re finding that getting out of the radiation is the easy part. Fitting into a small town is a whole different story.

Green Bank is more a hamlet than an actual town. There is a library, a post office, and a school, but mostly it consists of farms and houses scattered throughout a pastoral valley in the Allegheny Mountains, surrounded by steep, forested slopes. Three years ago, Melissa Chalmers and a woman I’ll call Jane (at her request for privacy), met through Diane on an EHS Internet forum. Both women are airline pilots, and they had been looking for a retreat from the Wi-Fi and cellphones they so often contend with while traveling. Diane encouraged them to come to Green Bank for a trial visit.

On a cold November evening, I met Melissa and Jane at the Green Bank Cabins, a row of three log cabins located next to the Dollar General store. Billed as a rustic escape from “the fast pace of life,” the one-room cabins were built in 1810 and have since been updated with electricity and plumbing. I rented the cabin next to Melissa and Jane’s. We planned to explore Green Bank together, so I could see how they responded. Things were not going well. Even after switching off the cabin’s circuit breakers and lighting candles, Jane said she felt itchy. Every 20 minutes, she got up to check her soaring blood pressure with a portable monitor. Melissa was uncomfortable too. She winced occasionally at the stray electromagnetic pulses that she said needled her skin.

“It doesn’t just stop at your skin, like light would,” she said. “It goes into your body. You start getting all fogged out.”

Melissa pulled a digital gauss meter from her luggage. She began tracing the web of electrical wires stapled to their cabin’s log walls, searching for errant sources of electromagmetic radiation (EMR). Then she scanned the air using a radio frequency (RF) meter that looked like a prop from the set of the old Lost in Space program. She found slightly higher readings in that cabin than mine, so I obliged when they asked me to switch. The next morning, I found Melissa holding her gauss meter beneath some power lines running behind my cabin. “I think I found the source,” she grinned. “I told you there was something.”

Diane Schou is a leader of Green Bank’s electrosensitive community. At home, she can use a computer, but only sparingly. Photograph by Steve Featherstone

A little later, I grabbed breakfast at Henry’s Quick Stop and drove two miles up the road to see the town’s most notable landmark, the Green Bank Telescope (GBT), the largest steerable radio telescope in the world. Up close, the GBT is a behemoth of white steel and aluminium scaffolding taller than the Statue of Liberty. Its 100-meter dish is visible from just about everywhere in the valley, and it’s perhaps the only thing in town that’s more finely tuned to electromagnetic fields than electrosensitives themselves.

The purpose of the GBT is to capture extremely weak radio signals emanating from the farthest reaches of space. In 1958, the federal government created the National Radio Quiet Zone to shield the GBT and the nearby Sugar Grove listening post (now run by the National Security Agency) from electromagnetic interference. As a result, cellphone, television, and radio transmissions–all of which rely on electromagnetic waves–are heavily restricted within its 13,000-square-mile area and banned in a 10-mile radius around the GBT. Residents are not entirely cut off. They can access TV and Internet with cable. But Green Bank is one of the few places in the world where electrosensitives can be certain that no one is going to erect a cell tower in their backyard or bolt a smart meter to their house.

Although it’s in the heart of the Quiet Zone, Green Bank isn’t completely free of EMR. After all, sunlight is a form of EMR, and electromagnetic fields ring the planet. The big difference between natural sources and man-made ones is their intensity. “Compared to natural levels, the exposure levels today are astronomical,” Johansson says. “I would even say biblical–enormously high.” For example, he says, if you were to take a cellphone and place it on the moon in standby mode, it would still be the most powerful EMR source in the universe from the perspective of Earth.

“It doesn’t just stop at your skin, like light would. It goes into your body. You start getting all fogged out.”

Electrosensitives say they feel electromagnetic fields the same way the GBT detects radio signals from space–except it hurts. “I feel like I’m being cooked to death every time I get in the plane,” Jane says.

As palpable as Jane’s symptoms are to her–and as certain as she is that they’re caused by EMR–scientific consensus disagrees. Almost universally, scientists hold that most EMR has no adverse health effects at the levels people typically encounter. And no study has ever definitively linked EHS symptoms to RF radiation, a type of electromagnetic radiation that originates from wireless devices, such as Wi-Fi routers, cellphones, base stations, or Bluetooth antennas. “Health agencies have repeatedly waded through the scientific literature,” says Kenneth Foster, professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, “and they don’t see any clear evidence that there’s a problem other than if you put a rat in a microwave oven, it’s bad for the rat.”

The only recognized health risk from RF radiation is the heating of tissue (as in the rat in the microwave). In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a safety standard for RF-emitting devices based on thermal heating. That’s why even though the standard is set far below levels recognized to cause harm, wireless companies still recommend not carrying your phone around in your pocket or sleeping with one too close to your head.

The café at the Green Bank observatory is one of the few lunch spots in town. Photograph by Steve Featherstone

According to Joel Moskowitz, the director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California at Berkeley, the test for the thermal standard is outdated if not irrelevant. “It’s not at all reflective of what the average user looks like today and not really of any user anywhere,” he says. “It’s not even the right measurement.” Moskowitz believes that science hasn’t caught up with the rapid proliferation of RF-emitting devices–from smartphones to smart meters–that have been spilling radiation into our homes, schools, and workplaces over the past two decades. Electrosensitives may be the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, he says. He cites a growing body of research that suggests RF exposure has many nonthermal biological effects, including damage to sperm cells and changes in brain chemistry. “There are a lot of unanswered questions, obviously, but we clearly have evidence for precautionary health warnings,” Moskowitz says.

Melissa and Jane certainly had no shortage of questions by their second day in Green Bank. Jane’s blood pressure hadn’t gone down, and Melissa still felt tingly sensations on her skin. Something was triggering their symptoms, but Melissa’s equipment couldn’t identify what it was. According to a survey of dozens of studies, the biggest challenge in diagnosing EHS is that those suffering from it often exhibit what’s called the “nocebo effect,” where even the expectation of exposure to EMR can cause physiological symptoms. During dinner at the cabin, Melissa switched on her RF meter and began walking around the room. The reading was 100 times lower than what she’d recorded in the basement of her home in Canada before a cellphone company put up towers nearby. Puzzled by this, Melissa and Jane tried to square their symptoms with the extremely low measurement.

“Maybe I’m reading it wrong,” Melissa said, pressing the meter’s buttons.

“They don’t call it the National Radio Quiet Zone for nothing,” I said. “Maybe it really is that low,” Melissa shrugged. “It’s just that I’ve never seen it that low.”

Like Diane Schou, Jennifer Woods’s journey as an electrosensitive began with upheaval. In 1997, she quit her job as an architect and left her family in Hawaii. She spent the next decade adrift, mostly living out of her car as she drove across the country seeking a cure for her chronic health problems. She tried conventional medicine and homeopathic treatments, but nothing worked. Three years ago, she heard about Green Bank at an alternative medicine conference; within 48 hours, she was parked in Diane’s driveway. “I weighed 80 pounds at the time,” Jennifer said. “I was at death’s door.”

She went to live in a one-room shack in a hollow with no electricity or running water. Within nine months, she’d put on 50 pounds. “I did no medical treatment,” she said. “I didn’t change my diet. The only thing I changed was I got out of the radiation. That’s proof enough that [EMR] was causing my illness.”

Jennifer now lives in a one-room cabin on a wooded ridge outside of town that she designed and built herself. Her second home is the Green Bank Public Library, a small building situated on a hill near the middle school. A plaque out front announces it as the 2003 Rural Library of the Year. With eight computers hard-wired to the Internet, the library provides many electrosensitives with their only connection to the outside world. There’s also a kitchenette in the back where Jennifer keeps a few groceries, since she doesn’t have a refrigerator in her cabin.

One morning, Jennifer made coffee and chatted with Arnie Stewart, a library volunteer whom she considers her guardian angel. “I’ve got big gossip,” whispered Arnie. “Monique married Tom.” The news came as a shock. Monique is an outspoken EHS activist recently arrived from Florida; Tom is a Green Bank local known for his traditional views. Later that day, Jennifer relayed the news of Monique and Tom’s nuptials to Diane Schou.

“It’s not going to last,” Diane frowned, “Tom doesn’t believe in [EHS].”

Diane had reason to be doubtful. As the town’s first electrosensitive resident and the unofficial representative for electrosensitives who came after her, she is a lightning rod for criticism. Four years ago, Bert Schou gave a lecture at Green Bank’s senior center aimed at educating people about EHS. It was a watershed moment in relations between native Green Bank residents and the electrosensitive community. All the skeptics in town showed up, including Tom. After Bert’s lecture, they accused Diane of everything from faking her illness to purposely delaying the construction of a local health clinic. “I was tarred and feathered,” Diane said. “I regret that I was ever there.”

“We crucified her,” Arnie told me. “I’m sorry, but we did.” The way he remembered it, a confrontation had been brewing for a long time. It began when Diane asked the senior center to replace fluorescent lights in one section so she’d have a place to eat. It escalated when she requested that someone bring a plate to her table so that she wouldn’t be exposed to fluorescent lights near the kitchen. It reached a climax when she asked for gluten-free options on the menu. By the time Bert gave his lecture, the burning issue on the minds of many in the audience wasn’t the health effects of electromagnetic radiation–Arnie, for one, is convinced EHS is real–but rather Diane’s constant demands for special treatment. “A woman with one arm stood up,” Arnie recalled, “and she said, ‘Look, Diane, no one brings my plate to my table.’ ”

Since then, relations between townsfolk and electrosensitives have reached a kind of détente. At Diane’s request, the minister at her church no longer uses a wireless microphone. Her dentist switches off the fluorescent lights in his office. Cashiers at the Dollar General sometimes bring items outside and allow electrosensitives to pay for them in the parking lot. But Diane and other electrosensitives are alert to the tension lurking beneath social interactions. The situation isn’t as simple as close-minded hillbillies reacting to overbearing outsiders. It’s that in places like Green Bank, personal relationships go back generations. Anyone moving to a town of 143 would stand out, much less a dozen or so electrosensitives who show up and start turning out the lights. It’s not hard to see how an “us versus them” mentality could take root.

Martin Weatherall tests an electric recliner for harmful radiation. Photograph by Steve Featherstone

One afternoon, a group of us set out on a mission of mercy. A new member of the Green Bank EHS community was having a hard time with her home. Melissa, Jane, and Martin Weatherall, an electrosensitive and retired policeman from Stratford, Ontario, who has been coming to Green Bank since 2012, had offered to scan it for her. So we piled into a car and went. Along the way, we stopped in the town of Dunmore.

Five miles south of Green Bank, Dunmore consists of a few homes and a store situated at an intersection. The store was the sort of all-purpose gas station/bakery/de facto town hall often found in rural areas that haven’t been colonized by fast food chains or retail behemoths. We ordered lunch and ate at a picnic table outside as logging trucks rumbled by. Everybody was in high spirits. Perhaps it was the warm sunshine or the low EMR levels. After swapping cabins with me, Melissa and Jane had been sleeping better. Jane’s blood pressure was back down, and Melissa’s chronic tinnitus was completely gone. “I feel good,” Martin added, “definitely better than I do in Stratford.”

Inside the store, I asked the proprietor, who had recently moved to the Quiet Zone, about her experience with electrosensitive customers. She launched into a diatribe about “outsiders” who annoyed her with their petty demands and condescending attitudes and unwillingness to fit in. I thanked her and left, but she waved me down in the parking lot. Back in the store, a knot of grim-faced men confronted me. The proprietor loudly proclaimed that with the sheriff’s deputy as her witness, she was retracting everything she’d said. Unless a camouflage T-shirt qualified as a uniform, none of the men appeared to be officers of the law. One man took my tape recorder and barked at me to come outside with him. As I explained the situation, his eyes narrowed each time I used words like electromagnetic and journalist. Finally, he returned my tape recorder, pointed his finger at my chest, and growled, “Just be careful what you’re doing here.”

Over six days, Diane gave Melissa and Jane the full Green Bank experience. They visited the post office and library, toured the observatory and the town dump. They attended a mountain music jamboree headlined by a band whose fiddler was also the GBT’s principal scientist. On Sunday, Diane shepherded the women to two church services 15 miles apart. They were welcomed just about everywhere. After the service at the Church of the Nazarene in Durbin, the organist asked Jane what it felt like to have EHS. She listened intently to Jane’s reply and posed a question that electrosensitives have been asking for years. “They make allotments for all kinds of ailments,” the organist said. “Why can’t they recognize this one?”

Jane didn’t have an answer–because there isn’t one. Without an official medical diagnosis, it’s difficult for EHS sufferers to claim benefits from insurance companies and government health agencies. Only Sweden recognizes EHS as a functional impairment, equivalent to a disability. But activists are beginning to have an impact on attitudes toward EHS and EMR-related issues, such as the use of wireless networks in public schools. Some day they hope that the medical establishment will treat EHS like other mysterious syndromes, such as fibromyalgia. They won a moral victory in 2011, when the WHO classified RF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic” in response to its Interphone study, which found a 40 percent greater risk for certain brain tumors at the highest exposure levels. (Scientists, however, did not find an increased incidence in cellphone users overall.) Then, in February of this year, France restricted the use of RF devices in daycare centers, citing a precautionary approach to exposure. Those gains aside, few if any studies are taking seriously the issue of EHS, and the inexorable expansion of wireless technologies does not appear to be slowing. Barring a breakdown in relations between electrosensitives and townsfolk or defunding of the GBT, Green Bank will continue to attract technological refugees searching for a safe haven from the electrosmog they feel is smothering the rest of the world.

Electrosensitives fervently believe that it’s just a matter of time before the rest of the world catches on to what they already know.

Near the end of Melissa and Jane’s visit, Diane hosted a potluck dinner for them at her house, a large brick colonial on a wooded hill overlooking a bend on a dark country road. Electrosensitives showed up with bottles of wine and covered dishes. Faces lit by flickering candlelight, they gathered around Diane’s kitchen table and talked long into the night about the usual topics: rumors of a Wi-Fi network that the observatory was installing for town residents, old Soviet studies on microwave radiation, and the looming wireless pandemic. Everyone contributed a cautionary tale about “normal” people they knew–a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker–who were suddenly struck low by an overdose of EMR and are now struggling with health problems. Electrosensitives fervently believe that it’s just a matter of time before the rest of the world catches on to what they already know.

“Your body is getting affected–it’s just going to take a few years to really know it,” Martin warned me, “unless you end up like us, and then you’ll wish you’d never seen wireless stuff.”

I asked the group what they preferred to be called–electrosensitives? EHS’ers?

“I prefer injured or harmed,” Diane said.

“That gets people very nervous,” another person said.

“Well they should be nervous,” Diane said. “They could be harmed too.”

“EMF people,” Jennifer offered. “Electrocuted people,” Martin deadpanned, and everybody laughed.

Although the conspiratorial tone got a little thick at times, the electrosensitives sitting around Diane’s kitchen table weren’t technophobic Luddites or doomsday preppers nursing violent fantasies of social collapse. Their conversation seemed quaint in its directness, an artifact from a time when communication between people was unmediated by texts, tweets, and Facebook updates thumbed on smartphones. Over dessert, Jane announced that she was getting a realtor to look for houses in Green Bank. As for Melissa, she didn’t even want to go home. “I feel like I can finally have my life back,” she said.

Despite its abundant natural beauty and rural charm, electrosensitives come to Green Bank because they have no other place to go. Unless you know somebody, it’s almost impossible to find a job or a place to live there. Some electrosensitives leave town soon after they arrive, unable to cope with the remoteness of the place. But Diane Schou has plans to make Green Bank more accessible. Through a nonprofit, she bought 14 acres of land to establish an electrosensitive retreat. Money for the property came from private donations. On my last morning in Green Bank, she took me to see the land. I followed her car down a narrow dirt lane set between double-wide homes. We came to a clearing scented by wood smoke and pine needles. A small cabin stood at the edge of the clearing.

“If people find that they’re affected by [EMR], they can get away from it, get it turned off, recover,” Diane said. That’s how it worked for her. Living in the Quiet Zone, away from the cell towers, has allowed Diane to recuperate. Now, she can tolerate limited excursions into the wireless world to visit her son in Baltimore. “You might be able to go back home and take cautions and be able to live maybe a normal life,” she said, pausing. “Maybe. Cautiously.”

Diane walked around the clearing, gesturing to places where she planned to build structures. Cabins over here. A communal area over there. In this spot, a shielded computer room. Other board members of the nonprofit vetoed the computer room. Too much EMR, they said. But Diane insisted. People have lives. They might want to keep working or email or Skype with their families. It’s a community, not a cult.

“That’s why I call [EHS] technological leprosy,” Diane said. “We can’t be with other people in society. We have to live like lepers. Technology is wonderful stuff–if we aren’t harmed by it.”

Leaving town, the GBT’s big white dish floated in my rearview mirror like a harvest moon shining in the clear autumn sky. At an intersection somewhere in the mountains, I realized that I’d left my road map at the cabin. My cellphone didn’t work, and the radio played only static. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten lost, but I knew I’d left the Quiet Zone when I heard a preacher’s voice cutting through the static on the radio. “You see, our problem is not our weaknesses,” he bellowed. “Our problem is not staying plugged in! We need to plug into our power source, which is God!”

I turned the radio off, relishing the silence while it lasted.

This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Greetings From The Quiet Zone.”