Return to Transcripts main page

Vital Signs with Dr. Sanjay Gupta

National Radio Quiet Zone in West Virginia Profiled; Sufferers from Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Describe their Symptoms. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired November 18, 2017 - 14:30   ET



[14:30:11] DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: We're in the remote mountains of West Virginia, and we just entered America's only national radio quiet zone.

This is "Vital Signs." I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

National radio quiet zone -- that means there no cell service, there's no Wi-Fi, there's no radio. It's just really quite, making it an ideal place to disconnect.

Welcome to Green Bank, West Virginia. The last official census in 2010 lists the population of 143. It's peaceful, beautiful, and true to its name, very green. In the middle of the surrounding forest, a stark white object rises from the landscape. This telescope and the seven others here are the reason this quiet zone exists in the first place.

In order for that telescope to function properly it has to have minimal to no interference from radio waves. I can't even wear a wireless microphone right now while I'm talking to you.

Mike Holstine first came Green Bank as an engineer, and now helps run the observatory.

MIKE HOLSTINE, GREEN BANK OBSERVATORY: Man is great at creating electronic signals and electromagnetic signals that would simply overwhelm the astronomical signal that the astronomer is trying to obtain.

GUPTA: Transmissions using electromagnetic waves like radio and TVs are heavily restricted in the zone's 13,000 square mile radius. And they are completely banned by the state of West Virginia in a 10-mile radius around the observatory. Of course that's easier said than done because electromagnetic fields exist everywhere you find electric currents. These frequencies are invisible to the human eye. They are natural sources like the electric charges that built up in the atmosphere during thunderstorms, and there are manmade sources such as x-rays, TV antennas, and cell phone towers.

The type of radiation also differs. Unlike ionizing radiation from x- rays which everyone agrees is harmful, cell phones use nonionizing radiation. Nonionizing radiation doesn't strip away electrons or harm your DNA. It's more like holding a low powered microwave like you use to heat your food up to your head.

At the observatory, the mountains surrounding this valley help create a natural barrier. But as technology keeps encroaching, it's harder and harder to maintain.

HOLSTINE: They can be unintentional transmitters. Your digital camera creates radio frequency interference. All of that being said, this is still one of the most radio quiet areas in the world because of those protections.

GUPTA: Driving up from the south of town, we lost cell phone reception 45 minutes away. Not being tethered to the internet or any type of wireless device is attractive to another group of people, those who say radio frequencies from wireless technology are interacting with their bodies in a negative way and making them sick. It's known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity or EHS.

DIANE SCHOU, GREEN BANK RESIDENT: This whole world is about electromagnetic radiation and lots of reading.

GUPTA: Diane Schou is a bit of a trailblazer around these parts. She is one of the first to move to Green Bank specifically to escape electromagnetic waves. That was back in 2007. Now she's one the first contact points for other people considering the same.

SCHOU: There are no cell towers here, or cell phones. And for me, that is what injured me.

GUPTA: Diane and her husband lived in Iowa when she said a cell phone tower went up here their home. Less than a year later she had intense headaches and extreme fatigue.

SCHOU: It took another period of time to do the correlation of the cell tower and the headaches. And my son was studying a ham radio license. There's a chapter in the book there of the symptoms of a ham radio operator, radio operator standing in front of an antenna. And the symptoms were similar to the symptoms that I had. And so my husband ran some experiments. I got in the car, we drove away, my headache got better. If we turned back home the headache grew again.

GUPTA: One the sayings, as you know, is that correlation does not equal causation. You've said this a few times. It probably caused the symptoms. There was a correlation between the two. How do you -- cause and effect is a much different thing.

SCHOU: It was just doing a number of the experiments. By being near the tower, I was ill. By getting away, I got better. Just driving by home, driving by the tower, I got ill.

[14:35:03] GUPTA: Diane did visit her doctor but never received a diagnosis. It's one of the frustrations for those who say they have EHS.

DAVID CARPENTER, DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT, UNIVERSITY AT ALBANY: One of the big problems is that these are very nonspecific symptoms. GUPTA: David Carpenter is the director of at the Institute for Health

and Environment at the University of Albany in upstate New York.

CARPENTER: We all get headaches every now and then. Most of us don't have chronic headaches. We all feel like our brain doesn't work too well sometimes. But it's not continuous and it's not related to any particular exposure. But I think this is one of the reasons why it's difficult for physicians, for the general public to accept that this is a real syndrome.

GUPTA: For the first part of his career, Carpenter did not believe EHS was a real medical condition, but his work over the years has since changed his mind.

CARPENTER: It's appropriate to be skeptical. It's appropriate then to look at the evidence and take the evidence seriously, and in this case while the evidence is still building, I'm convinced this is a real disease.

GUPTA: Studying this effect does not necessarily a new concept. More than two decades ago a study in the "Journal of Bioelectricity" concluded that EHS sensitivity is, quote, "a real phenomenon in some environmentally sensitive patients, urging further studies and testing.

CARPENTER: EHS patients in general are totally frustrated. Often their family doesn't believe them. Their physicians don't believe them. They think it's all, quote, in their head. I do think it's in the head. I think this syndrome is a nervous system affect. What causes them, again, we don't know. But the frustration of, first of all, not being able to live a normal life, not to be able to go around and go places everyone else goes, it's a very disruptive. And that adds to anxiety which makes it even more difficult to distinguish what's the psychological effect and what's the real disease.

GUPTA: How convinced are you of this for yourself?

SCHOU: This is no question. It is real. And it really does affect my health. However, I've learned by getting away, one can heal.

GUPTA: So let me ask you. Some of the things you mentioned that you had before you were living here, I'm just asking and you can tell me yes or no if you still have them now, OK? So the fatigue or the extreme tiredness?


GUPTA: Headaches.


GUPTA: The rashes?


GUPTA: Living here is not without sacrifice. Diane's husband still works and lives half the year in Iowa and she has family Maryland. Moving to Green Bank was a drastic choice for Diane, but one she says was necessary for her quality of life.

Next, should we all be trying to reduce exposure in our everyday lives?


[14:41:34] GUPTA: At the University of California Berkeley, you won't find a smart phone in Joel Moskowitz's office. That's by design. He's the director of the Center for Family and Community Health where he studies the link between low intensity radiation exposure from cell phones, for instance, and our health.

JOEL MOSKOWITZ, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR FAMILY AND COMMUNITY HEALTH, U.C. BERKELEY: If you could actually see these wave, just like we see light, these waves would look pretty chaotic.

GUPTA: In 2011 the World Health Organization classified radio frequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans, saying that their conclusion was based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer associated with wireless phone use. And the World Health Organization post guidelines on its website about reducing exposure.

MOSKOWITZ: I use a landline phone whenever possible. You can have wired internet access in your home or your office. That is the preferable way to go. Reduce your exposures whenever possible.

GUPTA: The U.S. Federal Communications Commission lists similar guidelines, suggesting you use speaker phone and headset and to consider texting rather than talking. But above the guidelines in bold type, the FCC also says it, quote, "does not endorse the need for these practices."

Joel Moskowitz says, on the other hand, those guidelines don't go far enough when you look at data from studies like Interphone, an international study completed in 2012.

MOSKOWITZ: The risk currently is one in 250 people will get brain cancer over their lifetime. What we're finding with 10 years of cell phone use is a doubling of risk.

GUPTA: So I always use a piece like this. It's wired. I find this somebody the safest thing mainly because it just forces you to keep the phone further away from your body. When it comes to electromagnetic hypersensitivity, the World Health Organization says there is no scientific basis EHS linking the symptoms to exposure from electromagnetic fields. It says, quote, "EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem."

Look, if someone says they have symptoms of EHS, it's hard to discount what they're experiencing. Back in Green Bank, West Virginia, in the national radio quiet zone, you can feel that frustration.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I used to take care of these horses.

GUPTA: At an inn 15 minutes from the center of town where the owners turned off the Wi-Fi, I met Kevin, Dafna, and Melissa. All three tell me they have suffered varying degrees are ill effects from radio frequency waves.

KEVIN MOTTUS, GREEN BANK RESIDENT: Like a lot of people I get tingling if my hands when I use a cell phone. I had swelling in one of my hands because I wore a metal watch that seemed to be attracting microwaves from the cell phone. I didn't realize it was related. I had singling across the shoulders when I'm in an environment with lots of Wi-Fi.

GUPTA: How about you? Do you remember when you first had any symptoms or when you first recognized this?

MELISSA CHALMERS, GREEN BANK RESIDENT: Yes, in 1998 my mother gave me a cell phone as a gift, and she thought it was a great gift. And I could feel something was off when I would hold it close to my head. It almost felt like when you two magnets are opposing each other when you put the two ends together. It kind of felt like that.

DAFNA TACHOVER, GREEN BANK RESIDENT: I could not, when I discovered they're putting Wi-Fi in schools I could not tolerate the thought they are going to expose us the children to this radiation and children might become as sick as I was, or I am.

[14:45:04] GUPTA: Dafna Tachover is an attorney, and she has challenged the use of Wi-Fi in schools in the Israeli court system. Her work is personal because she says she experienced it firsthand.

TACHOVER: Today eight years ago I developed my sickness. I became sick from wireless. I actually wireless was my job. I'm a telecommunications officer in the Israeli army. After becoming electro sensitive, I was a refugee for a long time desperately trying to find how to survive in a wireless world, which was a living hell, really.

GUPTA: And how are you today?

TACHOVER: I feel it but it doesn't devastate me the way it used to. So I basically acclimated to being away from this environment and being able now to protect myself.

GUPTA: Melissa is an airline pilot, but she hasn't been able to fly for a few years. She too has found refuge in Green Bank.

CHALMERS: And I felt like my old self again. I couldn't believe it. I've been suffering, every waking moment I was suffering so much. And all of a sudden I had relief here. And so I started coming like two weeks every month, for the next two years I did that. And it was very disruptive to my life, to do that, but I felt so good here.

GUPTA: Kevin has a background in social work and is currently working to raise awareness about the next generation of cell phone networks. MOTTUS: OK, so I minimize my exposure, which everyone should do. We

should be minimizing not maximizing our exposure. But with the new rollout of 5G, which is the new wireless, they're planning on putting small cell transmitters admitting high density wireless radiation.

GUPTA: While EHS might not be as well known in the United States, in Europe a 2010 survey found that 70 percent of more than 26,000 Europeans believe emissions from cell phone towers affect public health. Of course not everyone there still agrees. Lena Hillert is a researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.

LENA HILLERT, KAROLINSKA INSTITUTE: The patients who report electromagnetic hypersensitivity report all kinds of symptoms. There's no specific symptom pattern. Most commonly, for example, headache, difficulty concentrating, vertigo, also skin systems like feeling heat in the skin. The symptoms that are reported by these patients can be seen. We try to see if we can measure any physiological changes between not being able to do that.

GUPTA: Hillert has been researching this field since the 1990s. In the studies she has seen and done she says she cannot find a link between exposure and symptoms, but also acknowledges how quickly the technology continues to change.

HILLERT: There are studies going on, especially in other countries where they start as early as the Nordic countries. And when you exposure like mobile telephone some 20 years ago increased, you don't know. You do need research for new exposures. But we also need to be able to say, well, as far as we know today there's no relationship. We have to look at other aspects, other possible courses of the impact.

GUPTA: Establishing cause and effect relationships takes decades. For those in Green Bank, they feel though don't have decades to wait. Rough local estimates put somewhere between 50 and 100 people living in the area who say they have EHS. As you might guess, it's a close community where they can find support, encouragement, and understanding. And they have come from all over the world. How a young man from Turkey ended up in Green Bank, that's next.


[14:52:07] GUPTA: Leo Hallepally is headed to the library. Not to check out a book, but to use the computer. Leo is 37 and has been living in Green Bank on and off for the last three years. Originally from Turkey, he's a management consultant by trade.

LEO HALEPLI, GREEN BANK RESIDENT: I'm a tech geek. I used to run the network at my school when I was young. That was my favorite thing to do. I spent hours on computers.

GUPTA: About a decade ago Leo says his health began to change.

HALEPLI: My body tensed up from my legs up. I started having horrible gastrointestinal issues, couldn't digest, couldn't go to the bathroom. Tremendous fatigue in a way I can't explain. This was just very foreign. So a long story short, as it happens with a lot of these mystery illnesses, basically the doctor said, you know, there's nothing wrong with you on paper. We can't help you. Go and talk to psychologist.

GUPTA: Leo said he worked with a psychologist for two years. Again on paper the psychologist could not diagnose him with anything. So Leo starting doing research on his own.

HALEPLI: I looked into things like mercury toxicity, I looked at Lyme disease. I looked at mold toxicity.

GUPTA: He also learned about Green Bank from his suspicion that perhaps he was having negative reactions to electromagnetic waves.

HALEPLI: Eventually I learned of this place. I heard people had settled here. At that point, you have to understand, my mentality was I will do anything sane that has any possibility of helping me. So I came here to check it out, and when I was driving into the zone, I felt a sense of relief. Again, I don't know what to correlate that with at that point, but that relief was significant enough coming in and going out that was undeniable for me, and that's all the evidence I needed. So I decided to settle here.

GUPTA: Leo doesn't know why he feels better here, he only knows that he does. And for now, that's good enough for him. He also said the longer he spends here, the more time he can spend away in small doses.

When you go back to visit your family and tell them about this and your experiences, what is their reaction?

HALEPLI: Most of them are in some form of disbelief. But I've been very lucky that these people love me and they put that first. So at one point I hadn't seen my family for three years, which hasn't happened ever. And I was speaking to my dad, and my dad went, son, come home. We'll live in the candle light if we have to. And so I've just had the blessing that even if people don't believe what I'm going through is real, they had to say that whatever he's going through, he's suffering, so why don't we show him love instead of trying to argue with him.

[14:55:03] GUPTA: Leo's been in Green Bank for about three years now and he's put his dreams on hold. But he hasn't abandoned them.

Late 30's, you've had to sacrifice in order to even live here part- time away from your academia and your work. That's required sacrifice away from your family. What is the plan?

HALEPLI: I'm hoping to have, frankly, a very ordinary life. And my experience going through this health journey was, in my mind, I was like those crazy people that go to the arctic to explore it under terrible weather circumstances and make it to the other end. So to me right now, frankly, this whole thing has been a gift. It has been a tremendous gift because I've changed in ways I otherwise wouldn't have. And I'd like to work with people and organizations to get them to achieve the ends they want. I'd like to get married and have kids, raise a family. GUPTA: For now, Leo plans to stay in Green Bank, this fascinating

place nestled in the West Virginia mountains, a place where these telescopes, these impressive feats of technology provide a refuge for those looking to escape technology itself. While the scientific research regarding EHS continues, one thing is for sure -- disconnecting from our devices and reconnecting to each other can't hurt.