Golden Cage

In our increasingly interconnected world, technology feels inescapable. But what if the same devices that are supposed to make our lives easier were actually threatening our health?

A small but growing number of people claim to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, more commonly known as EHS. The condition causes people to feel sick in the presence of the electromagnetic waves that emanate from virtually all modern electronics.

Anything from a cell phone tower to a wireless router to a refrigerator can trigger feelings of nausea, dizziness, heart palpitations and even rashes on the skin, according to the World Health Organization. People who say they suffer from EHS can feel sick merely from the presence of a nearby cell phone. Prominent figures such as Gro Harlem Brundtland, former chair of WHO and prime minister of Norway, say they are electrosensitive.

EHS is controversial, though, because doctors cannot diagnose it. Studies of people who suffer from EHS have not revealed a consistent link between the presence of electromagnetic radiation and the display of EHS symptoms. And a WHO study of current scientific evidence determined that there are no current known health consequences for exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields. Still, some doctors, such as David Carpenter, director of the University of Albany’s School of Public Health, have argued that more independent studies are needed and that electromagnetic wave exposure should be reduced generally as a precaution.

The lack of hard evidence that electromagnetic waves lead to EHS means that EHS is not an officially recognized medical diagnosis in the U.S. In Europe, various surveys have indicated that between one and ten percent of the population suffers from the symptoms of EHS. In Sweden, people can claim disability benefits if their symptoms are severe enough.

Though science backing up EHS is scant (some researchers believe the condition is psychological), the effects that people feel from it are very real. Sufferers line their homes with aluminum foil to block electromagnetic waves, or sleep in underground bunkers to avoid wireless signals. People with more drastic symptoms have to seek out places far removed from technology. Green Bank, W. Va., for instance, is the location of the U.S. Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square-mile area where many types of electromagnetic signals are banned because they could interfere with the world’s largest steerable radio telescope. It’s become the home of many who have essentially abandoned the modern world. With Wi-Fi and cell phone coverage spreading further all the time, it may one day be their only place of refuge.