By Kristin Fisher
GREEN BANK, W.V. (WUSA9) - When cell phones first hit the U.S. market in the mid-'80s, there were only a few thousand subscribers.
Today, there's more cell phones in this country than there are people: 322 million subscribers. On top of that, 20 million Americans now use wireless-enabled laptops, tablets, and modems, and that number has jumped 50 percent in just two years, according to The Wireless Association.
The invisible electromagnetic radiation that these wireless devices emit are all around us, and most of us can't get enough. But a growing number of people are moving to Green Bank, West Virginia to get away from it.
"To come to Green Bank, it's leaving the shopping malls, the theaters, the cultural events. Here, I don't have my family, I don't have my friends. But at least now I have some hope and a future," said Diane Schou, a Green Bank resident.
Schou is one of about thirty "wireless refugees" now living in Green Bank, and three agreed to meet with WUSA9 at Schou's home.
"I was a police officer in Toronto," said Martin Weatherall.
"I was a professional pianist and singer in California," said Deborah Kooney.
"I was working as an architect in Hawaii," said Jennifer Wood.
They've left their families, jobs, everything because they believe they have a condition called Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity, or EHS. Think of it as an allergic reaction to wireless technology.
"It's horrible when something is emitting and your body is having reactions," said Schou.
"I felt like I had some kind of radiation suit on and my muscles were getting all bound up," said Kooney.
"It just feels like pins and needles all over my face and head. I felt dizzy, violently ill to my stomach. I just felt poisoned," said Wood.
Weatherall said his symptoms started with heart problems and heart arrhythmias.
"Just more recently, I found that the cancer has come back and I know that if I'm going to survive this, I really need to go somewhere I can be safe. So that's the main reason that I'm here," he said.
Here, wireless technology is strictly outlawed because of the Green Bank Telescope. It's protected from any interference by the only Radio Quiet Zone in the country. There's no cell phone towers and no microwaves. It's a radio dead zone.
"It's not perfect here, but it's the only place in the world I know that's protected where people live," said Schou.
Before you write these people off, think about the electromagnetic spectrum. The radiation that comes from things on the long-wavelength end of the spectrum, power lines and AM/FM radio, are harmless. But the radiation that comes from things on the short-wavelength end, gamma rays and x-Rays, can hurt us. Wireless technology sits right on the threshold of what's safe for us and what's not. So, what if some people are simply more sensitive to it than others?
In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified radio frequency electromagnetic fields as "possibly carcinogenic to humans." But the report stopped short of recognizing EHS as a real medical condition. It said the symptoms are certainly real, but "there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to electromagnetic field exposure."
Dr. Andrew Marino, a neurology professor at Louisiana State University, disagrees with the World Health Organization.
"You're talking about an area that hasn't been studied," said Marino.
Last year, Marino published a study in the International Journal of Neuroscience titled, "Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: Evidence for a Novel Neurological Syndrome." It concluded that EHS can occur as an environmentally inducible neurological syndrome.
"There's no question in my mind that exposure to environmental electromagnetic fields produces acute responses," said Marino.
But there's also no question in the mind of Bob Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland. He says there's no scientific evidence that EHS exists.
"There's not only no science, there's science showing that there's no science," said Park.
There's been dozens of studies, but the scientific community is split.
"If you're talking to a physicist, you're talking to the wrong guy in terms of background," said Marino.
"Oh, I think he's wrong," said Park.
So I asked the wireless refugees this question: "What do you have to say to people who think that EHS isn't real. That it's all in your head?"
"I don't worry about that because I know it's happening. It's happening and it's getting worse, and I would suggest that we are probably near the end of the wireless age. Wireless will become a technology that can't be used anymore," said Weatherall.
The conclusion I've come to is that the U.S. government needs to do more independently funded research. The National Institute of Health is not funding or conducting any studies on EHS, but other countries are. Sweden has fully recognized EHS as a physical impairment. Meanwhile, the Canadian government has started funding treatment of EHS and there's currently a nine-month waiting list to get in.