Consider this story: It’s January 1990, during the pioneer build-out of mobile phone service. A cell tower goes up 800 feet from the house of Alison Rall, in Mansfield, Ohio, where she and her husband run a 160-acre dairy farm. The first thing the Rall family notices is that the ducks on their land lay eggs that don’t hatch. That spring there are no ducklings.
Illustrations by Michael Morgenstern, mmorgenstern.com.
By the fall of 1990, the cattle herd that pastures near the tower is sick. The animals are thin, their ribs are showing, their coats growing rough, and their behavior is weird – they’re agitated, nervous. Soon the cows are miscarrying, and so are the goats. Many of the animals that gestate are born deformed. There are goats with webbed necks, goats with front legs shorter than their rear legs. One calf in the womb has a tumor the size of a basketball, another carries a tumor three feet in diameter, big enough that he won’t pass through the birth canal. Rall and the local veterinarian finally cut open the mother to get the creature out alive. The vet records the nightmare in her log: “I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire practice… All of [this] I feel was a result of the cellular tower.”
Within six months, Rall’s three young children begin suffering bizarre skin rashes, raised red “hot spots.” The kids are hit with waves of hyperactivity; the youngest child sometimes spins in circles, whirling madly. The girls lose hair. Rall is soon pregnant with a fourth child, but she can’t gain weight. Her son is born with birth defects – brittle bones, neurological problems – that fit no specific syndrome. Her other children, conceived prior to the arrival of the tower, had been born healthy.
Desperate to understand what is happening to her family and her farm, Rall contacts the Environmental Protection Agency. She ends up talking to an EPA scientist named Carl Blackman, an expert on the biological effects of radiation from electromagnetic fields (EMFs) – the kind of radiofrequency EMFs (RF-EMFs) by which all wireless technology operates, including not just cell towers and cell phones but wi-fi hubs and wi-fi-capable computers, “smart” utility meters, and even cordless home phones. “With my government cap on, I’m supposed to tell you you’re perfectly safe,” Blackman tells her. “With my civilian cap on, I have to tell you to consider leaving.”
Blackman’s warning casts a pall on the family. When Rall contacts the cell phone company operating the tower, they tell her there is “no possibility whatsoever” that the tower is the source of her ills. “You’re probably in the safest place in America,” the company representative tells her.
The Ralls abandoned the farm on Christmas Day of 1992 and never re-sold it, unwilling to subject others to the horrors they had experienced. Within weeks of fleeing to land they owned in Michigan, the children recovered their health, and so did the herd.
We are now exposed to electromagnetic radio frequencies 24 hours a day. Welcome to the largest human experiment ever.
Not a single one of the half-dozen scientists I spoke to could explain what had happened on the Rall farm. Why the sickened animals? Why the skin rashes, the hyperactivity? Why the birth defects? If the radiofrequency radiation from the cell tower was the cause, then what was the mechanism? And why today, with millions of cell towers dotting the planet and billions of cell phones placed next to billions of heads every day, aren’t we all getting sick?
In fact, the great majority of us appear to be just fine. We all live in range of cell towers now, and we are all wireless operators. More than wireless operators, we’re nuts about the technology. Who doesn’t keep at their side at all times the electro-plastic appendage for the suckling of information?
The mobile phone as a technology was developed in the 1970s, commercialized in the mid-80s, miniaturized in the ‘90s. When the first mobile phone companies launched in the United Kingdom in 1985, the expectation was that perhaps 10,000 phones would sell. Worldwide shipments of mobile phones topped the one billion mark in 2006. As of October 2010 there were 5.2 billion cell phones operating on the planet. “Penetration,” in the marketing-speak of the companies, often tops 100 percent in many countries, meaning there is more than one connection per person. The mobile phone in its various manifestations – the iPhone, the Android, the Blackberry – has been called the “most prolific consumer device” ever proffered.
I don’t have an Internet connection at my home in Brooklyn, and, like a dinosaur, I still keep a landline. But if I stand on my roof, I see a hundred feet away, attached to the bricks of the neighboring parking garage, a panel of cell phone antennae – pointed straight at me. They produce wonderful reception on my cell phone. My neighbors in the apartment below have a wireless fidelity connection – better known as wi-fi – which I tap into when I have to argue with magazine editors. This is very convenient. I use it. I abuse it.
Yet even though I have, in a fashion, opted out, here I am, on a rooftop in Brooklyn, standing bathed in the radiation from the cell phone panels on the parking garage next door. I am also bathed in the radiation from the neighbors’ wi-fi downstairs. The waves are everywhere, from public libraries to Amtrak trains to restaurants and bars and even public squares like Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan, where the Wall Street occupiers relentlessly tweet.
We now live in a wireless-saturated normality that has never existed in the history of the human race.
It is unprecedented because of the complexity of the modulated frequencies that carry the increasingly complex information we transmit on our cell phones, smart phones and wi-fi systems. These EMFs are largely untested in their effects on human beings. Swedish neuroscientist Olle Johansson, who teaches at the world-renowned Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, tells me the mass saturation in electromagnetic fields raises terrible questions. Humanity, he says, has embarked on the equivalent of “the largest full-scale experiment ever. What happens when, 24 hours around the clock, we allow ourselves and our children to be whole-body-irradiated by new, man-made electromagnetic fields for the entirety of our lives?”
We have a few answers. Last May, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, a branch of the World Health Organization), in Lyon, France, issued a statement that the electromagnetic frequencies from cell phones would henceforth be classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The determination was based in part on data from a 13-country study, called Interphone, which reported in 2008 that after a decade of cell phone use, the risk of getting a brain tumor – specifically on the side of the head where the phone is placed – goes up as much as 40 percent for adults. Israeli researchers, using study methods similar to the Interphone investigation, have found that heavy cell phone users were more likely to suffer malignant tumors of the salivary gland in the cheek, while an independent study by scientists in Sweden concluded that people who started using a cell phone before the age of 20 were five times as likely to develop a brain tumor. According to a study published in the International Journal of Cancer Prevention, people living for more than a decade within 350 meters of a cell phone tower experience a four-fold increase in cancer rates.
The IARC decision followed in the wake of multiple warnings, mostly from European regulators, about the possible health risks of RF-EMFs. In September 2007, Europe’s top environmental watchdog, the EU’s European Environment Agency, suggested that the mass unregulated exposure of human beings to widespread radiofrequency radiation “could lead to a health crisis similar to those caused by asbestos, smoking and lead in petrol.” That same year, Germany’s environmental ministry singled out the dangers of RF-EMFs used in wi-fi systems, noting that people should keep wi-fi exposure “as low as possible” and instead choose “conventional wired connections.” In 2008, France issued a generalized national cell phone health warning against excessive cell phone use, and then, a year later, announced a ban on cell phone advertising for children under the age of 12.
We now live in a wireless-saturated normality that has never existed in the history of the human race.
In 2009, following a meeting in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, more than 50 concerned scientists from 16 countries – public health officials, biologists, neuroscientists, medical doctors – signed what became known as the Porto Alegre Resolution. The signatories described it as an “urgent call” for more research based on “the body of evidence that indicates that exposure to electromagnetic fields interferes with basic human biology.”
That evidence is mounting. “Radiofrequency radiation has a number of biological effects which can be reproducibly found in animals and cellular systems,” says David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York (SUNY). “We really cannot say for certain what the adverse effects are in humans,” Carpenter tells me. “But the indications are that there may be – and I use the words ‘may be’ – very serious effects in humans.” He notes that in exposure tests with animal and human cells, RF-EMF radiation causes genes to be activated. “We also know that RF-EMF causes generation of free radicals, increases production of things called heat shock proteins, and alters calcium ion regulation. These are all common mechanisms behind many kinds of tissue damage.”
Double-strand breaks in DNA – one of the undisputed causes of cancer – have been reported in similar tests with animal cells. Swedish neuro-oncologist Leif Salford, chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Lund University, has found that cell phone radiation damages neurons in rats, particularly those cells associated with memory and learning. The damage occurred after an exposure of just two hours. Salford also found that cell phone EMFs cause holes to appear in the barrier between the circulatory system and the brain in rats. Punching holes in the blood-brain-barrier is not a good thing. It allows toxic molecules from the blood to leach into the ultra-stable environment of the brain. One of the potential outcomes, Salford notes, is dementia.
Other effects from cell phone radiofrequencies have been reported using human subjects. At Loughborough University in England, sleep specialists in 2008 found that after 30 minutes of cell phone use, their subjects required twice the time to fall asleep as they did when the phone was avoided before bedtime. EEGs (electroencephalograms) showed a disturbance of the brain waves that regulate sleep. Neuroscientists at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia discovered in 2009 a “power boost” in brain waves when volunteers were exposed to cell phone radiofrequencies. Researchers strapped Nokia phones to their subjects’ heads, then turned the phones on and off. On: brain went into defense mode. Off: brain settled. The brain, one of the lead researchers speculated, was “concentrating to overcome the electrical interference.”
Yet for all this, there is no scientific consensus on the risks of RF-EMFs to human beings.
The major public-health watchdogs, in the US and worldwide, have dismissed concerns about it. “Current evidence,” the World Health Organization (WHO) says, “does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.” (The WHO thus contradicts the findings of one of its own research units.) The US Federal Communications Commission has made similar statements. The American Cancer Society reports that “most studies published so far have not found a link between cell phone use and the development of tumors.” The cell phone industry’s lobbying organization, CTIA-The Wireless Association, assures the public that cell phone radiation is safe, citing studies – many of them funded by the telecom industry – that show no risk.
Published meta-reviews of hundreds of such studies suggest that industry funding tends to skew results. According to a survey by Henry Lai, a research professor at University of Washington, only 28 percent of studies funded by the wireless industry showed some type of biological effect from cell phone radiation. Meanwhile, independently funded studies produce an altogether different set of data: 67 percent of those studies showed a bioeffect. The Safe Wireless Initiative, a research group in Washington, DC that has since closed down, unpacked the data in hundreds of studies on wireless health risks, arraying them in terms of funding source. “Our data show that mobile phone industry funded/influenced work is six times more likely to find ‘no problem’ than independently funded work,” the group noted. “The industry thus has significantly contaminated the scientific evidence pool.”
The evidence about the long-term public health risks of exposure to RF-EMFs may be contradictory. Yet it is clear that some people are getting sick when heavily exposed to the new radiofrequencies. And we are not listening to their complaints.
Take the story of Michele Hertz. When a local utility company installed a wireless digital meter – better known as a “smart” meter – on her house in upstate New York in the summer of 2009, Hertz thought little of it. Then she began to feel odd. She was a practiced sculptor, but now she could not sculpt. “I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t even finish sentences,” she told me. Hertz experienced “incredible memory loss,” and, at the age of 51, feared she had come down with Alzheimer’s.
One night during a snowstorm in 2010 her house lost power, and when it came back on her head exploded with a ringing sound – “a terrible piercing.” A buzzing in her head persisted. She took to sleeping on the floor of her kitchen that winter, where the refrigerator drowned out the keening. There were other symptoms: headaches and nausea and dizziness, persistent and always worsening. “Sometimes I’d wake up with my heart pounding uncontrollably,” she told me. “I thought I would have a heart attack. I had nightmares that people were killing me.”
Roughly one year after the installation of the wireless meters, with the help of an electrician, Hertz thought she had figured out the source of the trouble: It had to be something electrical in the house. On a hunch, she told the utility company, Con Edison of New York, to remove the wireless meter. She told them: “I will die if you do not install an analog meter.” Within days, the worst symptoms disappeared. “People look at me like I’m crazy when I talk about this,” Hertz says.
Her exposure to the meters has super-sensitized Hertz to all kinds of other EMF sources. “The smart meters threw me over the electronic edge,” she says. A cell phone switched on in the same room now gives her a headache. Stepping into a house with wi-fi is intolerable. Passing a cell tower on the street hurts. “Sometimes if the radiation is very strong my fingers curl up,” she says. “I can now hear cell phones ringing on silent. Life,” she says, “has dramatically changed.”
Hertz soon discovered there were other people like her: “Electrosensitives,” they call themselves. To be sure, they comprise a tortured minority, often misunderstood and isolated. They share their stories at online forums like Stopsmartmeters.org, the EMF Safety Network, and the Electrosensitive Society. “Some are getting sick from cell phones, some from smart meters, some from cell towers,” Hertz tells me. “Some can no longer work and have had to flee their homes. Some are losing their eyesight, some can’t stop shaking, most cannot sleep.”
In recent years, I’ve gotten to know dozens of electrosensitives. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, I met a woman who had taken to wearing an aluminum foil hat. (This works – wrap a cell phone in foil and it will kill the signal.) I met a former world record-holding marathoner, a 54-year-old woman who had lived out of her car for eight years before settling down at a house ringed by mountains that she said protected the place from cell frequencies. I met people who said they no longer wanted to live because of their condition. Many of the people I talked to were accomplished professionals – writers, television producers, entrepreneurs. I met a scientist from Los Alamos National Laboratories named Bill Bruno whose employer had tried to fire him after he asked for protection from EMFs at the lab. I met a local librarian named Rebekah Azen who quit her job after being sickened by a newly installed wi-fi system at the library. I met a brilliant activist named Arthur Firstenberg, who had for several years published a newsletter, “No Place to Hide,” but who was now homeless, living out of the back of his car, sleeping in wilderness outside the city where he could escape the signals.
In New York City, I got to know a longtime member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) who said he was electrosensitive. I’ll call him Jake, because he is embarrassed by his condition and he doesn’t want to jeopardize his job or his membership in the IEEE (which happens to have for its purpose the promulgation of electrical technology, including cell phones). Jake told me how one day, a few years ago, he started to get sick whenever he went into the bedroom of his apartment to sleep. He had headaches, suffered fatigue and nausea, nightsweats and heart palpitations, had blurred vision and difficulty breathing and was blasted by a ringing in the ears – the typical symptoms of the electrosensitive. He discovered that his neighbor in the apartment building kept a wi-fi transmitter next door, on the other side of the wall to his bedroom. When Jake asked the neighbor to shut it down, his symptoms disappeared.
The government of Sweden reports that the disorder known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or EHS, afflicts an estimated 3 percent of the population. A study by the California Department of Health found that, based on self-reports, as many as 770,000 Californians, or 3 percent of the state’s population, would ascribe some form of illness to EMFs. A study in Switzerland recently found a 5 percent prevalence of electrosensitivity. In Germany, there is reportedly a 6 percent prevalence. Even the former prime minister of Norway, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, until 2003 the director general of the World Health Organization, has admitted that she suffers headaches and “strong discomfort” when exposed to cell phones. “My hypersensitivity,” she told a Norwegian newspaper in 2002, “has gone so far that I react to mobile phones closer to me than about four meters.” She added in the same interview: “People have been in my office with their mobile hidden in their pocket or bag. Without knowing if it was on or off, we have tested my reactions. I have always reacted when the phone has been on – never when it’s off.”
“People are reporting these symptoms all over the globe. It’s not likely a transcultural mass hallucination.”
Yet the World Health Organization – the same agency that Brundtland once headed – reports “there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure.” WHO’s findings are corroborated by a 2008 study at the University of Bern in Switzerland which found “no evidence that EHS individuals could detect [the] presence or absence” of frequencies that allegedly make them sick. A study conducted in 2006 at the Mobile Phone Research Unit at King’s College in London came to a similar conclusion. “No evidence was found to indicate that people with self-reported sensitivity to mobile phone signals are able to detect such signals or that they react to them with increased symptom severity,” the report said. “As sham exposure was sufficient to trigger severe symptoms in some participants, psychological factors may have an important role in causing this condition.” The King’s College researchers in 2010 concluded it was a “medically unexplained illness.”
“The scientific data so far just doesn’t help the electrosensitives,” says Louis Slesin, editor and publisher of Microwave News, a newsletter and website that covers the potential impacts of RF-EMFs. “The design of some of these studies, however, is questionable.” He adds: “Frankly, I’d be surprised if the condition did not exist. We’re electromagnetic beings. You wouldn’t have a thought in your head without electromagnetic signals. There is electrical signaling going on in your body all the time, and the idea that external electromagnetic fields can’t affect us just doesn’t make sense. We’re biological and chemical beings too, and we know that we can develop allergies to certain biological and chemical compounds. Why wouldn’t we also find there are allergies to EM fields? Shouldn’t every chemical be tested for its effects on human beings? Well, the same could be said for each frequency of RF radiation.”
Dr. David Carpenter of SUNY, who has also looked into electrosensitivity, tells me he’s “not totally convinced that electrosensitivity is real.” Still, he says, “there are just too many people with reports of illness when chronically near to EMF devices, with their symptoms being relieved when they are away from them. Like multiple chemical sensitivity and Gulf War Syndrome, there is something here, but we just don’t understand it all yet.”
Science reporter B. Blake Levitt, author of Electromagnetic Fields: A Consumer’s Guide to the Issues, says the studies she has reviewed on EHS are “contradictory and nowhere near definitive.” Flaws in test design stand out, she says. Many with EHS may be simply “too sensitized,” she believes, to endure research exposure protocols, possibly skewing results from the start by inadvertently studying a less sensitive group. Levitt recently compiled some of the most damning studies of the health effects from cell towers in a report for the International Commission on Electromagnetic Safety in Italy. “Some populations are reacting poorly when living or working within 1,500 feet of a cell tower,” Levitt tells me. Several studies she cited found an increase in headaches, rashes, tremors, sleep disturbances, dizziness, concentration problems, and memory changes.
“EHS may be one of those problems that can never be well defined – we may just have to believe what people report,” Levitt says. “And people are reporting these symptoms all over the globe now when new technologies are introduced or infrastructure like cell towers go into neighborhoods. It’s not likely a transcultural mass hallucination. The immune system is an exquisite warning mechanism. These are our canaries in the coal mine.”
Swedish neuroscientist Olle Johansson was one of the first researchers to take the claims of electrosensitivity seriously. He found, for example, that persons with EHS had changes in skin mast cells – markers of allergic reaction – when exposed to specific EM fields. Other studies have found that radiofrequency EMFs can increase serum histamine levels – the hallmark of an allergic reaction. Johansson has hypothesized that electrosensitivity arises exactly as any common allergy would arise – due to excessive exposure, as the immune system fails. And just as only some people develop allergies to cats or pollen or dust, only some of us fall prey to EM fields. Johansson admits that his hypothesis has yet to be proven in laboratory study.
One afternoon not long ago, a nurse named Maria Gonzalez, who lives in Queens, New York, took me to see the cell phone masts that irradiate her daughter’s school. The masts were the usual flat-paneled, alien-looking things nested together, festooned with wires, high on a rooftop across from Public School 122 in Astoria. They emitted a fine signal – five bars on my phone. The operator of the masts, Sprint-Nextel, had built a wall of fake brick to hide them from view, but Maria was unimpressed with the subterfuge. She was terrified of the masts. When, in 2005, the panels went up, soon to be turned on, she was working at the intensive care unit at St. Vincent’s Hospital. She’d heard bizarre stories about cell phones from her cancer-ward colleagues. Some of the doctors at St. Vincent’s told her they had doubts about the safety of their own cellphones and pagers. This was disturbing enough. She went online, culling studies. When she read a report published in 2002 about children in Spain who developed leukemia shortly after a cell phone tower was erected next to their school, she went into a quiet panic.
Sprint-Nextel was unsympathetic when she telephoned the company in the summer of 2005 to express her concerns. The company granted her a single meeting that autumn, with a Sprint-Nextel technician, an attorney, and a self-described “radiation expert” under contract with the company. “They kept saying, ‘we’re one hundred percent sure the antennas are safe,’” Maria told me as we stared at the masts. “‘One hundred percent sure! These are children! We would never hurt children.’” She called the office of Hillary Clinton and pestered the senator once a week for six months – but got nowhere. A year later, Gonzalez sued the US government, charging that the Federal Communications Commission had failed to fully evaluate the risks from cell phone frequencies. The suit was thrown out. The judge concluded that if regulators for the government said the radiation was safe, then it was safe. The message, as Gonzalez puts it, was that she was “crazy … and making a big to-do about nothing.”
I’d venture, rather, that she was applying a commonsense principle in environmental science: the precautionary principle, which states that when an action or policy – or technology – cannot be proven with certainty to be safe, then it should be assumed to be harmful. In a society thrilled with the magic of digital wireless, we have junked this principle. And we try to dismiss as fools those who uphold it – people like Gonzalez. We have accepted without question that we will have wi-fi hotspots in our homes, and at libraries, and in cafes and bookstores; that we will have wireless alarm systems and wireless baby monitors and wireless utility meters and wireless video games that children play; that we will carry on our persons wireless iPads and iPods and smart phones. We are mesmerized by the efficiency and convenience of the infotainment appendage, the words and sounds and pictures it carries. We are, in other words, thoughtless in our embrace of the technology.
Do you like enterprising journalism on the environment like this? Make a contribution to our investigative fund.
Because of our thoughtlessness, we have not demanded to know the full consequences of this technology.
Perhaps the gadgets are slowly killing us – we do not know. Perhaps they are perfectly safe – we do not know. Perhaps they are making us sick in ways we barely understand – we do not know. What we do know, without a doubt, is that the electromagnetic fields are all around us, and that to live in modern civilization implies always and everywhere that we cannot escape their touch.
Christopher Ketcham has contributed to ORION, Harper’s, and GQ, where portions of this reporting appeared previously. Find more of his work at ChristopherKetcham.com.
We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.