Feature

West Virginia's colony for 'Wi-Fi refugees'

An unusual condition purportedly caused by wireless signals has sufferers fleeing to an isolated Appalachian town

You may find cell phones annoying, but for some people, they're downright sickening. These people suffer from an unusual — and disputed — condition known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or EHS. And in our wireless age, their lives can be hell. But many EHS victims have found a place that's almost heaven: West Virginia. In an area of the state where wireless technology and radio signals are forbidden, these "Wi-Fi refugees" have found shelter. Here, a brief guide:

What exactly is this condition?Symptoms may include fatigue, dizziness, nausea, heart palpitations, and digestive disturbances, according to the World Health Organization. An estimated 5 percent of Americans believe they have the condition, though Sweden is currently the only country that recognizes EHS as a real syndrome. Some studies have found that EHS could be caused by electromagnetic fields found in the environment, though many medical experts are skeptical. 

And these EHS sufferers are fleeing to West Virginia?Yes, largely because an isolated area in the state is home to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which is in Green Bank, and to radio receiving facilities belonging to Navy intelligence and, purportedly, the National Security Agency. The entire 13,000-square-mile region is therefore off-limits to radio signals, cell phone towers, and other signals that would disrupt those government installations.

What is it like to live there?Quiet. The village of Green Bank — population 143 — has become a mecca for people who believe their lives have been disrupted by EHS. Until she moved to Green Bank, Diane Schou lived in a shielded metal cage to try and alleviate her EHS symptoms. "Living here allows me to be more of a normal person," says Schou, as quoted by BBC News.  "I can be outdoors. I don't have to stay hidden."

Sources: BBC News, Discover, MSNBC.com

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