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12 March 2015

Green Bank, West Virginia: Inside the 'Quiet Zone', Home to Electrosensitives

Inside the 'quiet zone', home to electrosensitives
North America correspondent Ben Knight, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 
10 March 2015

The tiny US town of Green Bank, West Virginia is in the 'quiet zone' - free from wireless communications due to the sensitivity of a high powered telescope. That makes it attractive to so-called 'electrosensitives' like Diane Schou - those who say they are unable to live with the frequencies emitted by modern electrical devices.


EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: If you are worried about your privacy, you could start encrypting all your messages. Or how about throwing away your smart phone, laptop altogether?

Just for a minute, imagine life without those wireless gadgets you carry everywhere: the mobile, the tablet. What do you think you'd do if you didn't have them anymore?

That's some people's idea of nirvana but not just ageing drop-outs: an unfortunate group of people who call themselves "electrosensitives". They believe that electromagnetic radiation from the modern world is making them physically ill.

In high-tech countries, finding a place without phone towers, microwaves and Wi-Fi is next to impossible. But there is one refuge in the US state of West Virginia: the town of Green Bank, population 150.

In Green Bank, wireless signals are banned by law but, as our North America correspondent Ben Knight reports, the real world may soon catch up with Green Bank.

BEN KNIGHT, REPORTER: This is actually a bit of a trip back in time. Someone my age can remember what it was like not to have a mobile phone, to only ever have a landline in the house, not to have any internet. But it's been a long time since I've actually lived like that.

Now this all might sound like your idea of paradise. I mean, it's beautiful and I'm actually really looking forward to going cold turkey on the phone for a couple of days. But there are people who are moved here from all over America for exactly this reason: to get away from the mobile phones, to get away from Wi-Fi, to get away from microwave ovens. There is no place like this in the US.

And this is why. This is the Robert C. Bird radio telescope.

(to Mike Holstine) Hey, Mike. How are you going?


BEN KNIGHT: It dominates the tiny town of Green Bank in more ways than one.

MIKE HOLSTINE: It's actually taller than the great pyramid of Giza.


This is the largest radio telescope of its kind in the world. It can see billions of years into the past, back to the very dawn of the universe - which makes it a difficult neighbour.

MIKE HOLSTINE: The sensitivity of this telescope is such that it could detect the equivalent energy given off by a single snowflake hitting the ground. So, with that type of sensitivity, you can imagine that any man-made interference is certainly going to blow away any of the astronomical observations.

BEN KNIGHT: Which is why Green Bank is the epicentre of the only legislated "quiet zone" in the US. The quiet zone was enacted back in the 50s. Back then, controlling unwanted radio interference was a lot simpler.

MIKE HOLSTINE: In the last 10 to 15 years the technology has exploded in wireless communications. And so that has been a huge, huge problem for us trying to maintain that radio atmosphere.

BEN KNIGHT: Especially for the guy whose job it is to track down rogue electrical signals.

CHUCK NYLAND, NAT'L RADIO ASTRONOMY OBSERVATORY: This really has raised the whole "noise floor", as it were, for the observatory. And it's become really difficult to observe.

BEN KNIGHT: This may well be the last inhabited place in the United States without a mobile phone tower.

It's a time capsule of a past that those of us over the age of 30 can still remember, but which seems like an aeon ago.

The thing that really strikes you is when you come into a cafe you see people sitting, talking to each other as they normally would. But no one ever glances down at their phone.

There are a lot of people around here who like it that way. Bob Sheets' family has been living here since the 1800s.

BOB SHEETS, GREEN BANK RESIDENT: People have asked me, "What's it like to live in a quiet zone?" And I often say, "Well, you should have been in Green Bank before the observatory. It was really quiet." (laughs)

ELAINE SHEETS, GREEN BANK RESIDENT: There are people who won't come here because they can't use their cell phone and they're afraid if they break down they won't be able to get help. But in fact, if you break down here, chances are somebody's going to stop and help you, so you don't really need your cell phone.

I just don't feel the need to have it. I kind of like living here in the quiet and not being bothered all the time.

BEN KNIGHT: But there's been a wave of newcomers to Green Bank, looking for more than just peace and quiet.

DIANE SCHOU, GREEN BANK RESIDENT: After travelling into Scandinavia and Nicaragua and not finding a place in the United States, I decided this was the best place to be.

BEN KNIGHT: Diane Schou describes herself as electrosensitive: unable to live with the frequencies admitted by modern electrical devices.

DIANE SCHOU: When I have a headache here or in the back, then there is something there. I can't tell you whether it's a cell tower or a cell phone or iPad or computer. I don't have that gift. But when I do have a headache, there is definitely something wrong.

BEN KNIGHT: The pain began in 2002. It was her husband Bert who tracked down what they believe was the cause of her pain: a mobile phone tower near their home in Iowa.

BERT SCHOU, GREEN BANK RESIDENT: We were faced right away with: what do you do? Our doctor said, "Move." That was the first step. But where to?

BEN KNIGHT: After years of travelling and searching, they found the answer in Green Bank and refitted a house for Diane to move into.

BERT SCHOU: Well, first of all the electrical is going into this metal so that it is protected. That's the first level of defence. And we have incandescent lights and they are not...

DIANE SCHOU: It's not perfect but I can be more of a normal person. I'm not living in a Faraday cage and I have freedom. I can go out and see the sun. I can see the rain. I can see the stars at night.

BEN KNIGHT: But you can't go far beyond Green Bank? You're here for life?

DIANE SCHOU: That's what I believe. That's what I think is true.

BEN KNIGHT: What's causing that? Which one is the cell tower?

DIANE SCHOU: Most likely the one up here: be about the 900 megahertz.

BEN KNIGHT: Both Diane and Burt Schou are PhD scientists in industrial technology and biology. They are convinced that her illness is caused by radio frequencies. Others who feel the same have come looking for help.

DIANE SCHOU: One person called me and she just discovered a week before that she was electrosensitive. I said, "Come here." She was here three months. Another person was near death.

I try and help others because I have been, I have been through this before. I had to leave home and, as I said, I travelled over 170,000 miles looking for a place to be. And it was just- it's been very, very difficult.

BEN KNIGHT: Especially because electrosensitivity is not a recognised medical condition. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence but a lack of clinical research. No one doubts that Diane Schou and others like her are ill; they just doubt that it's caused by Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or fluorescent lights.

Chuck Nyland doesn't know if it's real but he's not an out-and-out sceptic.

CHUCK NYLAND: We had one person that came to us and said they were looking at a new house but the woman that was sensitive was saying that there was something wrong. She was getting sick and that there must be a smart meter there someplace.

We said, "This is crazy." So we go out and look for it and sure enough, there was... it's not really a smart meter but it was one of those meters that transmits its readings on a radio frequency. And we found it and we found the signal and it was there.

BEN KNIGHT: But just like any small town, the wave of newcomers has caused friction.

CHUCK NYLAND: Well, we've got a few that are really annoying and those few have really upset a lot of people around here. So they've all been labelled with the same label.

BEN KNIGHT: After their arrival, Diane and Burt Schou held a community meeting to explain electrosensitivity but it didn't go well.

DIANE SCHOU: What I call "tar and feathering" me. They said a lot of negative things about me and they also said a lot of false things about me. And I didn't respond to them. Maybe I should have but I just wrote it down and left. I haven't- I went back once or twice but I don't go there anymore.

BEN KNIGHT: But there may be more change coming for Green Bank. The National Institute of Science's budgets are stretched. Last year a committee recommended this observatory be closed.

If that happens, it means not just the end of this observatory but, possibly, the end of the Green Bank quiet zone. And once the first mobile phone tower goes up, there will be no going back.

MIKE HOLSTINE: It's almost like a national park - let's say Yellowstone in Wyoming. If Yellowstone were to disappear, you'd never get Yellowstone back.

BEN KNIGHT: For Diane Schou, the only option left might be that remote island in Nicaragua.

EMMA ALBERICI: And that was Ben Knight there, our North America correspondent in Green Bank, West Virginia.

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