Radio Silent: Living Inside the National Radio Quiet Zone

By Wesley Fenlon

The National Radio Quiet Zone protects electromagnetic hypersensitivity sufferers from the world's abundant radio signals. But is minor radiation really causing their conditions?

Green Bank, West Virginia, a town of 147, sits inside the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000 square mile area of land near the Virginia border. Green Bank is surrounded by national and state forests and parks like so many other secluded rural towns in the United States. It is not, however, surrounded by the radio signals that crisscross the rest of the country. There are no cellphone towers, no AM or FM radio stations. Thanks to the National Radio Quiet Zone, the skies above Green Bank are effectively dead air.

The radio-free Quiet Zone fills one important purpose and a second coincidental one. It was established by the FCC in 1958 to protect the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank from interference; the observatory operates the largest steerable radio telescope in the world. Of growing importance, however, is the fact that the Quiet Zone protects its inhabitants from radio signals as well.

Most of us don't think twice about needing to protect ourselves from radio signals. We use Wi-Fi and cell phones every day. Everything plugged into a wall socket gives off some low level radiation. While some studies have raised concerns about cell phones eventually causing cancer, we never think twice about the electromagnetic fields emitted by our refrigerators, televisions, or microwaves. Some of Green Bank's residents, however, worry about all of those things. In fact, they moved to Green Bank specifically to get away from it all.

Slate just published an article titled Refugees of the Modern World, detailing the issues some people have with electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or EHS. As the name implies, EHS sufferers are unusually sensitive to radiation that isn't harmful to the rest of us, and several dozen have moved to Green Bank in recent years to live in relative isolation. Some still use electronics in their homes, but they're still protected from the radio signals that would fill the air in most other parts of the country.

EHS is fascinating because the symptoms are most definitely real, but scientists aren't convinced that electromagnetic radiation is the cause. Slate details the conviction of several Green Banks residents and how much the National Radio Quiet Zone has improved their health. But it also dives into studies that have returned inconclusive results about EHS:

"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.' "

Slate also covers the opposition--some claim that the settings those tests were conducted under (in labs where other devices emitting radiation would be present) undermines the test. But there's a counter to that, too:

"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."

It's a fascinating issue. EHS deserves more tests, and its symptoms are either resulting from a widespread psychological effect--a buildup of stress or other issues related to the always-on nature of the modern world--or genuine sensitivity to radiation. Either way, more and more people in the future will turn to places where electronics and electromagnetic radiation aren't so prevalent. Slate's article covers the social issues Green Bank's new issues are causing, international initiatives from EHS sufferers to see the condition recognized, and more--it's well worth a read.