On the run from radio frequencies

Some Canadians go to great lengths to escape waves of radiation from electronics that are considered harmless

Refugees in their own land

Simon Hayter/Maclean's

As the mother of two young girls, Samantha Boutet does what she believes is necessary to protect her family. That’s why, with the spread of radio frequencies from increasingly common wireless technology, Boutet is a refugee in her own land. The naturopathic doctor and her two daughters are relocating more than 600 km east of their home in Maple Ridge, B.C., to a small cabin in a remote valley in B.C.’s Kootenay mountains.

The decision was spurred by a series of health problems affecting her older daughter, Amelia, which started in Grade 4. For more than a year, Amelia suffered from deep headaches, nagging nausea, inexplicable muscle soreness, tingling extremities, and insomnia, Boutet says. Eventually, after visiting a number of specialists, the family doctor diagnosed Amelia with electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), a medical condition that involves a range of non-specific symptoms attributed to electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs), much like those described by sufferers of multiple-chemical sensitivity, another environmental illness believed to be caused by low-level exposure to chemicals. “I felt really bad because her body was telling her there was something wrong, and I was telling her there couldn’t be, and I couldn’t understand why she was behaving the way she was,” says Boutet.

EMFs are invisible radioactive frequencies emitted from radio towers, WiFi routers, cellphones, wireless laptops, TV remotes—even the new smart meters that measure water and electricity use and beam information to the utilities. These non-ionizing radioactive waves travel through the air at much lower frequencies than ionizing radiation (which includes X-rays and gamma rays) and are widely considered harmless. And due to the proliferation of technology that releases them, others like Amelia, now 11, feel as if their health is being compromised. They can either live with their pain, or flee to backcountry refuges. “It’s not that I’m just worried,” Boutet says. “My older daughter will be deathly sick, so we have to leave.”

In the U.S., people are flocking to the tiny town of Green Bank, W.Va., part of the country’s Radio Quiet Zone. No wireless is allowed within 33,000 square kilometres so the waves don’t interfere with telescopes operated by an astronomy observatory and the U.S. military.

The World Health Organization says that “there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure,” and there are indications these symptoms “may be due to pre-existing psychiatric conditions,” namely stress from worries about exposure.

Health Canada, meanwhile, maintains electromagnetic frequency does not pose a threat. According to the government department, devices like cellphones and radio towers emit waves at levels “thousands of times” lower than the threshold where it would harm human health, according to spokesman Stéphane Shank. As long as exposure remains below that, Health Canada says “there is no convincing evidence that this equipment is dangerous.” They do agree that “additional research is warranted” into a possible link to cancer.

Una St. Clair, director of Citizens for Safe Technology, isn’t convinced. She has been scouring the B.C. Interior for areas “free from all this poison in the air.” St. Clair, who has also been diagnosed with EHS by a doctor, doesn’t leave her house without a special hat and an undershirt woven with silver that is meant to ward off electromagnetic waves. For her, the fact that people are willing to drop everything and move is evidence enough that electromagnetic frequencies cause harm. “Apprehension doesn’t make people leave their lives behind or quit their jobs,” she says.

Lucy Sanford, a former Toronto real estate agent, had been in a decade-long battle with anxiety, insomnia, periodic body numbness, breathing trouble and other ailments when she became depressed, even suicidal. After moving out of the city to the small Lake Erie community of Crystal Beach, Ont., Sanford feels better, and blames her past troubles on electromagnetic waves. For her, there’s no doubt technology is taking a toll. “We know it’s there. We don’t need the proof,” she says. “We are the proof.”

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