Escaping the radio smog

A National Radio Quiet Zone In West Virginia, designed to protect radio telescopes, is also easing the symptoms of people who say they're made sick by radio transmissions.


    What do you do if you're one of those people whose health is affected by all those radio waves buzzing around our heads from mobile phone masts, Wi-Fi and even microwave ovens?

    The answer, if you live in the US, is move to West Virginia.

    For here exists the world's only National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ), set up to protect the sensitive telescopes of the country's biggest star gazing radio observatory.

    People who claim to have been made ill by radio waves say they find relief from their symptoms when they're in the radio quiet zone.

    I came to West Virginia to do two things - see the telescopes - and meet some of those who have moved into the NRQZ to seek respite.

    It takes your breath away to see the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) for the first time. The GBT, or the Great Big Telescope as the locals call it, is the biggest fully movable telescope on the planet.

    Others might have bigger dishes but they can't move round the sky like the GBT can.


    The GBT and its seven smaller sister dishes are radio telescopes that never stop looking for clues to the origins of the universe.

    Since it began scanning the heavens twelve years ago, the GBT has confirmed the existence of all the key building blocks of life in the universe. It does this by listening out for low-level radiation coming in from outer space.

    A NRQZ has been set-up around the telescope's base at the National Radio Astronomical Observatory in Green Bank to protect the faint incoming data they're listening for.

    The zone means no mobile phones or Wi-Fi, without permission, for thousands of square kilometres around.

    Michael Holstine, from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory told me: "The National Radio Quiet Zone is an extremely unique area ... it's a preserve if you will ... it's like a National Park ... once it's gone, it's gone."

    So unique in fact, he says South Africa, Australia and Chile are looking into their own national radio quiet zones - free of electro-magnetic frequency interference from phones and computers.

    Electro-magnetic frequency interference

    Michael took me to the top of the giant dish and sure enough I noticed my mobile phone didn't work and nor would it for many hundreds of kilometres around because of the NRQZ.

    That's why some people move to this area, claiming to live free from electro-magnetic frequency interference which, they say, makes them sick.

    People like Diane Schou, who has lots of ailments that she blames on certain radio frequency transmissions.

    Over lunch at her home, with family and some friends, Diane told me: "I had a rash on my face I had hair loss, my vision had changed, I was extremely, extremely tired."

    She says moving into the NRQZ from her previous location in Iowa - where she lived near a mobile phone mast - has helped to ease many of her symptoms and she feels better. As does Jennifer, who claims to suffer from EHS or electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

    Jennifer felt so ill that she built a wooden cabin nearby in the woods where any radio transmissions that penetrate the NRQZ are blocked by the mountains that surround her tiny new home. She can lie in bed and touch three of the four walls.

    "It's like an electrical smog ... it makes you feel hazy ... it's a sensation of radiation poisoning," says Jennifer. "Radiation poisoning," you hear that a lot among people who are sensitive to transmissions, she adds.

    Jennifer says living in the NRQZ means she has recovered from her symptoms sufficiently to allow her to make regular visits to the library, shops and friends just long enough to live a semi-normal life again, unburdened by the universal presence of electricity in the air.

    There's lots of research on the web about how radio waves and radiation can affect a person's health.

    Scientific uncertainty

    The World Health Organisation doesn't support the notion that mobile phone signals can cause illness, though it does acknowledge the symptoms are real and can be severe.

    Back at the GBT, the scientists don't have the answers to this conundrum either but they're happy the giant zone set-up to protect their delicate equipment can help the local community as well.

    Michael Holstine of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory put it this way.

    "They do seem to feel better once they're here and if that's what matters to them, then it's an important aspect of their lives."

    As wireless coverage expands - heck there are even tiny transmitters in car tyres these days to tell you when you've got a flat! - the GBT's zone of protection and the stunning countryside it covers, is likely to become even more of a haven for people seeking to escape that "radio smog" Jennifer was talking about.



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