All I Really Need to Know About EMF I Learned After My Wife Got Sick

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Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy
—Tobacco executive internal memo, 1969

There really are people who feel pain, etc., related to EMF, etc., and rather than have them becoming hysterical, etc., I would quietly leave them alone.
Former California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey in an email to Pacific Gas & Electric’s Brian Cherry seized by California authorities, 2010.

History was never my favorite subject. I preferred English, theatre, religion—subjects where the imagination seemed unrestricted by the weight of historical facts. Of course, I had heard the truism about not being able to understand the present without knowing the past. I appreciated the idea intellectually. But it wasn’t until my wife Godeliève Richard, a Swiss dancer, choreographer, and visual artist, became sick in the spring of 2010 and we came to understand, after three torturous years, that the root of her suffering was her sensitivity to radio frequency (RF) wireless radiation of the sort emitted by cell towers, cell phones, computers trying to pick up wi-fi, wi-fi-enabled routers, cordless phones, tablets, our electric meter, etc., etc., etc., that I became an avid student of history.

We began reading books, articles, websites. We watched documentaries. We spoke with activists. It took me several months to completely accept that electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) was what had derailed our lives and stolen time and energy from our now seven-year-old son. Members of our family and friends quietly confided their belief to me that this must be a mental problem. In a way, I wished they were right. How would we live? How would she survive?

Sometimes at four in the morning after another sleepless night when we were deciding whether or not to go to the emergency room, it seemed like death was a possible final outcome. Luckily, we followed a Swiss doctor’s recommendation and found a solution for our home that has allowed her to sleep well again and begin to heal; however she still can’t leave the house for more than a few hours at a time.

The author and his wife Godeliève Richard. Matthew Cavanaugh

One of my many layers of resistance to accepting that electromagnetic pollution or electrosmog was what had destroyed her health was a simple, naive faith in the regulatory powers of the US government. This radiation is literally everywhere. If it could be so dangerous, how could it be allowed on such a massive scale? But after I found the startling analogy between RF and asbestos and cigarettes laid out on more than one advocacy group site, things began to click.

The tobacco industry’s manipulation of the science and the US court system began in the 1950s. In 1981, Japanese researcher Takeshi Hirayama definitively established the link between cancer and second hand smoke. Every year that passed added to the death toll in America. Why the lag time? One reason was that the tobacco industry had hired product defense firms that specialized in one product: doubt. If you can define the parameters of a scientific study that you pay for, it turns out there is quite a good chance the scientists you have hired will reach a conclusion that supports your position. Cell phone companies have hired, literally, some of the same supporting cast used by the tobacco industry.

In May 2014, tobacco scientist Peter Valberg of product defense firm Gradient testified in Worcester, Massachusetts, to the Worcester Zoning Board of Appeals about the safety of National Grid’s smart meter pilot program. Smart meters are two-way RF transmission devices that the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities issued an order for utility companies to install on June 12, 2014. The DPU relied on Valberg’s testimony in their assessment that the radiation emitted from smart meters was safe because it is below FCC limits. A fraud complaint was filed with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office against the DPU in March.

It turns out our electric meter was installed in the late 90s already equipped to pulse RF radiation every couple of seconds from the meter to the street. I called our electric company and told them that radiation made my wife sick and asked that they pull in to our driveway as they drive by and read the meter in person. I was told this was not possible. I suggested that we could simply shield the meter and they could lift the shielding off to take the readings. But this, they warned, would lead to potentially more expensive “estimated readings” when their truck got back to headquarters without a reading from our meter.

Telecom Companies Hold A Legislative Trump Card
Between 1994 and 1998, telecom companies made nearly $12 million in campaign contributions to members of Congress. In 1996, they helped write the Telecommunications Act, which stipulates that “no state or local government…may regulate the placement, construction and modification of personal wireless facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions to the extent that such facilities comply with the [Federal Communication Commission’s] regulations concerning such emissions.”

This provision stripped my town’s zoning board of appeals, not to mention every US individual and local and state government, of the ability to say “no” to a cell tower proposal on the basis of health concerns. The result is that although the now more than 15,000 independent studies demonstrating health risks may be mentioned during the hearing process, the tower AT&T proposed on our road had to be denied on some other grounds, like its proximity to a road designated as a scenic byway or perhaps the average of 15 percent drop in property value for those unfortunate enough to live next to it.

Luckily for us—and even better for the elderly people and children who would have been living about 150 feet from the tower—AT&T withdrew their proposal. They didn’t say why, but looking at the pattern of new cell tower placement around the US, we can surmise that this was a business decision based on their strategy of following the path of least resistance. In other words, putting a new tower on the road of a publicly known person suffering from EHS probably looked a little too costly. My wife and I make plays for a living, and one family-friendly piece, Innocenzo, tells the tale of a clown who, after visiting many doctors and healers, finally realizes that he has become electro-hypersensitive. We didn’t have to do much research.

Cell companies have become adept at hiding their antennas and AT&T wanted to stash the one designated for our road in an oversized barn silo. In Switzerland, where we tour our plays in French, there is a tower hidden in a church steeple not far from our apartment. Consequently, although Switzerland has some of the lowest RF limits in the world, Godeliève has a harder time leaving the house there than the rural road where we live in the US. Unfortunately, hiding cell towers or decorating them as trees does nothing to change health impacts.

A German study published in 2004 (Eger, et al), found that living within 400 meters of a cell tower increased the likelihood of developing cancer by 300 percent. These results are typical of the growing number of studies being done outside the US where the distinctive lack (read $0) of federal funds being spent on RF safety research seems unsurprising given the “over 400 million dollars in political contributions and lobbying [by the wireless industry],” according to lawyer Andrew Campanelli, who now specializes in preventing unwanted cell tower installation after starting his career as a telecom lawyer.

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iStock.com / FelixVeilands

Right now, the FCC and the US Senate are both in the process of considering padding out the industry wish list to pave the way for deployment of 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT). The stated goal and parting gift of former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler is to deploy millions of small cell antennas in front of every 3–10 houses while stripping local governments of any say in the siting process, in other words, taking over the “right-of-way” and mounting cell antennas on top of light poles and other structures at will, without testing the health effects of this technology. Not surprisingly, the Republican Senate and new FCC Chairman Pai are picking up Wheeler’s fumble and running with it. The FCC deadline for comments is the day this article is being posted: March 8, 2017. A Senate vote on S.19 (“Mobile Now Act”) and S.88 (“Digit Act”) is expected in the coming days.

Everyone is Electro-sensitive
It might seem, at first glance, that people like Godeliève should be shipped off to an island so that the rest of the un-sensitive population can enjoy their wireless lives. Although countries are establishing radiation-free zones for people like her, everyone is electro-sensitive. Everyone’s melatonin production (the substance which cleans up cancer-causing free radicals, among other things, while we sleep) is inhibited when exposed to levels of RF currently deemed safe. Humans are electrical beings composed of cells that have been proven damaged by much, much lower levels of RF than you would experience in your typical coffee shop or elementary school.

One key historical moment concerns the FCC standards themselves. Back in 1953, researcher Herman Schwan, a former Nazi scientist imported in 1949 to work for the US Navy, suggested a thermal (heat) exposure limit for RFs based on heating effects he had noted when radar operators cooked hot dogs in their microwave beams. In other words, if your cell phone doesn’t measurably heat your skin, it must be okay, even if you are a fetus, newborn, or otherwise more-vulnerable being than the top 10% of US military recruits in 1989, the skulls of whom the FCC bases its SAR (specific absorption rate of RF by the brain) calculations upon.

The patently absurd idea, if you are a biologist, of no cellular damage happening below the thermal limit has been challenged by the American Pediatric Association, the US Department of the Interior (who are concerned about effects on migratory birds), the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, the California Medical Association, Swisscom (in a patent application), and many others. The FCC standard is so high that telecom companies have had no incentive to engineer anything that might be even a little bit safer. Isn’t it every person’s right to stream an HD movie on a phone while waiting in line at the post office? How about two at time? How about 16?

The changes that are needed in federal policy will never come as an initiative from corporations or government. Those types of changes have only happened, as Ralph Nader likes to remind us, because people came together in the common wish for a place where people can drink clean water, breathe clean air, share the same rights as other citizens and, in this case, be able to live their lives without having their health damaged in the relative safety of their own homes.

Global RF Reduction Efforts
One of the ironies of the RF radiation puzzle is that there are many straightforward steps that can be taken by individuals, governments, and corporations to reduce this multiple-source 24/7 exposure. And there are a few hopeful developments. In 2015, France and Taiwan became the first countries to pass national legislation aimed at protecting the public from wireless emissions. In this case, they took their cue from emerging health research and primarily defined the public as very young children, whose thinner skulls allow lower levels of RF to penetrate more deeply into the brain. There will be no more wi-fi in French nursery schools; in elementary schools it will be turned off except when needed.

Last month, the Maryland State Children’s Environmental Health and Protection Advisory Council became the first state agency in the US to issue recommendations to reduce wi-fi in schools by providing wired—rather than wireless—Internet connections. This recommendation was in part a response to the $25 million National Toxicology Program study which began releasing partial findings last May that cell phone exposure caused cancer and DNA damage in rats.

National legislation of this sort, besides being progressive and forward-thinking also happens to be in the financial self-interest of governments around the world. Insurance companies have quietly stopped offering coverage for wireless-related health problems. Who is going to pay for skyrocketing rates of cancer, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, autism, and burn-out leading to missed work days? Since there can be no definitive one-to-one correlation for the multiple environmental factors weighing on our systems, how are you going to make anyone pay the bill for what Swedish researcher Lennart Hardell describes as “the world’s greatest biological experiment ever”?

iStock.com / Photodjo

In 2011, the World Health Organization classified RF as a Class 2B “possible carcinogen,” along with lead and car exhaust. In the 2014 French documentary Microwaves, Science, and Lies, director Jean Heches demonstrates that despite this classification, the WHO is extremely influenced (to put it politely) by the telecom industry. Sweden, the first country where EHS is officially recognized as a functional impairment, offers a cell phone network and a provider of health care coverage to around 300,000 people with the sensitivity. Lennart Hardell’s 2014 research on long-term cell phone use in that country suggests that RF should be re-classified as a Class 1 “known carcinogen.” However, this reclassification is a financial impossibility (from a certain privileged point of view) as there are trillions of dollars and hefty sections of the economy depending on the perpetuation of doubt. Unsurprisingly, Hardell has become the victim of a smear campaign.

The makers of wireless technology are in a terrible spot. Like the tobacco companies, they have to keep denying the existence of a problem or face major legal and financial repercussions. Utility companies and the state bureaucracies charged with regulating them (or abetting them in California’s case), after having installed RF-emitting transmitters on our homes, are in the same bind. So you can bet no corporate movement will be made towards protecting the public until we create a financial incentive for them—or they have no choice. That is, if history has anything to teach us.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Spirit of Change magazine.

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