PhotoIn most of the modern world, the air around you is filled with invisible communication signals: radio waves, television broadcasts, cell phone transmissions, CB or police radio chats, wireless Internet and more.

Depending on where exactly you live, these communications have filled the air around you for over a century now -- unless you're in a certain part of West Virginia known as the National Radio Quiet Zone.

The federal government established the Quiet Zone in the 1950s, in a radius surrounding the gigantic radio telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

The radio telescopes pick up the faint traces of radiation falling on Earth from outer space, traces faint enough to easily be overwhelmed by even a low-powered transmitter nearby. So Quiet Zone residents live under unusual restrictions most Americans needn't worry about: not only are commercial TV or radio stations banned within the zone, but ordinary residents are limited to dial-up Internet, and cannot have cordless telephones or other commonplace technologies whose electromagnetic pollution interferes with radio telescope readings. Smartphones and cell phones are useless in the zone, since there are no signals for them to pick up.

This ban is considered a blessing by the small number of people who have diagnosed themselves with “electromagnetic hypersensitivity,” or EHS --people who believe they're basically allergic to electrical waves, certain radio frequencies, or other electromagnetic forces which appear harmless to the majority of people.

All in their heads?

The medical community has found no evidence EHS is an actual physical illness, though it might be an actual psychosomatic one; double-blind tests have shown EHS is triggered not by the presence of electrical signals, but by the belief that electrical signals are present -- basically, if you believe the signals from wireless routers make you sick, then seeing a wireless router will make you sick provided you think it's turned on -- even when it's actually powered down.

As early as 2004 -- roughly the same time cell phones and the Internet changed from “exotic new technologies” to “commonplace everyday things”-- Wired magazine wrote a story about the Quiet Zone, focusing specifically on the radio astronomers' concerns that the growing use of cell phones and wireless Internet might destroy the Quiet Zone's status as a haven from electromagnetic pollution.

Ten years later, such fears have proven unfounded -- the Quiet Zone remains quiet except for a mini-population boom (roughly two or three dozen people) of self-diagnosed EHS sufferers who moved to the Quiet Zone seeking refuge from whichever electromagnetic frequencies they blame for their health problems.

The media check it out

In April 2013, Joseph Stromberg (writing for Slate) visited Green Bank, West Virginia, in the middle of the Quiet Zone, to chat with some EHS refugees. There is friction in town between the newcomers and the old-timers; Stromberg mentioned one EHS sufferer who complained of “intense discrimination” from the townspeople after she asked them to turn off the fluorescent lights in the town community center. Another says she was banned from the radio observatory for “bringing up radiation issues” there.

News of the EHS community in the Quiet Zone has proven especially popular on the other side of the Atlantic; if you read non-American news sources you're likely familiar with that subgenre of foreign news with the theme “America: a crazy country filled with crazy people, amirite?”

For example: the Daily Mail (in the UK) wrote about Green Bank just after Slate did in April 2013, discussed it again that August, reprinted an AP story about it in December, then revisited it again this week, helpfully noting that “Dozens of Americans who claim to be allergic to electromagnetic signals settle in small West Virginia town where WiFi is banned.”

Share your Comments