The small town of Green Bank, W. Va., has a number of claims to fame, starting with being the site from which astronomer Francis Drake began a search for extraterrestrial life in the universe in 1960, testing the hypothesis that intelligent beings would be detectable by radio waves. In order to minimize extraneous signals that might interfere with the reception of radio waves, the Federal Communication Commission in 1958 designated a 13,000-square-mile area near the border between Virginia and West Virginia as a National Radio Quiet Zone in order to minimize signals that could interfere with the reception of infinitesimal gradations of radio waves.
The quest to find extraterrestrial intelligence continues, so far, without success. But lately, Green Bank seems to attract more attention as a radio quiet zone than for its astronomy. An article in the current Washingtonian magazine is the latest sign of the wired-up and wireless world’s fascination with “the other” — what it calls “A town without Wi-Fi.” In this and several other publications in the last few years, the tiny hamlet of Green Bank with a population listed as 143 in 2010 has been exalted as a refuge for a particular group of people who consider themselves ‘“electrosensitives”, that is, sensitive to various radio frequencies to the point that they feel severe pain and discomfort. There are said to be about two dozen individuals who have moved there to get away from their electric demons.
The city of Santa Fe has been one of the most vocal centers of opposition to “electromagnetic pollution,” a concern apparent in public debates about cell-tower construction, Wi-Fi service in libraries and most recently in a legal challenge to a city plan to replace current water meters with wireless devices.
The argument typically involves a controversial illness known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity, a poorly defined set of maladies like allergies and obscure chemical sensitivities, that may turn out to have some basis in fact, but can be inconsistently represented and hard for the vast majority of unaffected people to understand.
Richard Lowenberg, executive director of the 1st-Mile Institute, a nonprofit organization that conducts community-oriented broadband research and education, said he has been interested in the subject since the ’70s. “There is too much noise to signal and very little appropriate work,” he said. “Like the climate discussion, there is a lot of counterfactual information and anytime you say something, some obscure finding can be raised to contradict it.”
Lowenberg said that the future of broadband depends on coordinated research at both the microscopic, cellular level and at the macroscopic, environmental level. “Nobody is looking at electromagnetic environment as a part of our ecosystem, not as a whole system,” he said, which is why he has proposed an exemplary project called “Mapping the Information Eco-System of the Colorado Plateau,” to get a grip on the major issues in the Four Corners region before they run away on their own.
The Santa Fe Wi-Fi community has been inspired by the latest surge of interest in electromagnetic hypersensitivity. The latest article on Green Bank was posted on the group’s list serve and drew some sympathetic comments.
“I just think it’s wonderful that there’s a place where electrosensitive people can find solace,” said Jane Hill, owner of Cyber Mesa Telecom, a Santa Fe Internet provider.
Steve Ross, an editor at Broadband Communities Magazine, cited a dearth of double blind challenge tests that support electrosensitivity, but he was also “willing to bet there are some people who are sensitive to some frequencies.”
Medical literature typically aims at helping a physician cope with patients who report symptoms associated with radio waves. Some medical professionals are said to acknowledge the phenomenon of hypersensitivity, but others believe it is psychosomatic or fictitious. An abstract of an article by S.J Genuis at the University of Alberta, Canada, in the journal Science of Total Environment, reports, “Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: fact or fiction? Various organizations, including the World Health Organization as well as some nation states are carefully exploring this clinical phenomenon in order to better explain the rising prevalence of non-specific, multi-system, often debilitating symptoms” associated with the electromagnetic exposure. The author concludes that the literature is sparse and the condition perplexing.
Prescribed remedy: Smart use of quiet zones and more research would seem to be very much in order.