In January 1990, a cell tower goes up 800 feet from Alison Rall’s dairy farm in Mansfield, Ohio. By fall, the cattle herd that pastures near the tower is sick, and Rall’s three young children begin suffering bizarre skin rashes, raised red “hot spots.” The kids are hit with waves of hyperactivity. The girls lose hair. Rall, when she becomes pregnant with a fourth child, can’t gain weight.
Desperate to understand what is happening to her family and her farm, she contacts an Environmental Protection Agency scientist named Carl Blackman. He’s 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 also 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.”
When Rall contacts the cell phone company that operates the tower, she is told there is “no possibility whatsoever” that the tower is the source of her ills. But within weeks of abandoning the farm, the children recovered their health, and so did the herd.
We all live in range of cell towers now, and we are all wireless operators. 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.
I don’t have an Internet connection at my home in Brooklyn, and, like a dinosaur, I still keep a landline. Yet even though I have, in a fashion, opted out, I’m bathed in the radiation from cell phone panels on the parking garage next door. The waves are everywhere. We now live in a wireless-saturated normality that has never existed in the history of the human race, and the effects of EMFs on human beings are largely untested.
In May 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a statement that the electromagnetic frequencies from cell phones would henceforth be classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The IARC decision followed multiple warnings, mostly from European regulators, about the possible health risks of RF-EMFs. In September 2007, the EU’s European Environment Agency suggested that widespread radiofrequency radiation “could lead to a health crisis similar to those caused by asbestos, smoking, and lead in petrol.” Double-strand breaks in DNA—one of the undisputed causes of cancer—have been reported in tests with animal cells. Neuroscientists at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia discovered a “power boost” in brain waves when humans were exposed to cell phone radiofrequencies. The brain, one of the lead researchers speculated, was “concentrating to overcome the electrical interference.”
Yet the major public health watchdogs, in the United States and worldwide, have dismissed concerns. 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 assures the public that cell phone radiation is safe.
But according to a survey by Henry Lai of the University of Washington, although only 28 percent of studies funded by the wireless industry showed some type of biological effect from cell phone radiation, 67 percent of independently funded studies showed a bioeffect.
Despite the conflicting results, it is clear that some people are getting sick when they are 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 “smart” meter on her house in upstate New York in 2009, Hertz experienced “incredible memory loss,” and, at the age of 51, feared she had Alzheimer’s.
On a hunch, she told Con Edison of New York to remove the wireless meter. Within days, the worst symptoms disappeared. But her exposure to the meters has supersensitized Hertz to all kinds of other EMF sources. “Life,” she says, “has dramatically changed.”
In recent years, I’ve gotten to know dozens of “electrosensitives” like Hertz. To be sure, they constitute a tortured minority, often misunderstood and isolated. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, I met a woman who had taken to wearing an aluminum foil hat to kill wireless signals. I met a former world record marathoner who had lived 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.
The government of Sweden reports that the disorder known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or EHS, afflicts an estimated 3 percent of the population. Even the former prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, has acknowledged that she suffers “strong discomfort” when she is exposed to cell phones.
Yet the World Health Organization reports that “there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure.” A study conducted in 2006 at the Mobile Phone Research Unit at King’s College in London came to a similar conclusion.
“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 cover the potential effects of RF-EMFs. “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.”
Maria Gonzalez, a nurse who lives in Queens, New York, took me to her daughter’s school to see the cell phone masts, which were built in 2005. The operator of the masts, Sprint Nextel, had built a wall of fake brick to hide them from view, but Gonzalez was skeptical. 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 to express her concerns. A year later, Gonzalez sued the U.S. 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 said the radiation was safe, 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 something 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. 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. 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 written for Harper’s, The Nation, Salon, Mother Jones, National Geographic, and many other periodicals and websites.Excerpted from Earth Island Journal (Winter 2012), a quarterly that publishes investigative journalism and thought-provoking essays on environmental matters.