A story about the concerns of some Eugene residents about the possible negative influences of microwaves from cell towers and wireless devices on citizens’ health.
Words by Forrest Welk, Photos by Angelina Hess
In March 1978, Eugene, Oregon faced a small crisis concerning the fears of what cannot be seen. People were inexplicably getting sick. Many in the Lane County area reported nausea, headaches, and insomnia in the same month. The source? Some local physicists attributed the confusion to a microwave signal 3,000 feet above the city surface. The power level was unusually high – about 500,000 watts. The incident was explored for months in the local media.
“It was one of the most complicated, weird stories I have ever covered,” says University of Oregon Professor Mike Thoele, who wrote for The Register Guard.
The origins of the signal were never found. Later that year, the story was forgotten and residents went on with their lives.
In the nearly four decades since the event, a lot has changed in Eugene.
For one, radio frequency waves are everywhere – a spectrum of signals typically used for wireless communication. It seems that everyone has a cell phone now. Eight cell phone towers registered to the Federal Communications Commission reside in the proximity of Lane County. This is just one example of the modern technology boom and these technologies often rely on these transmissions. For some, this is a problem.
“I keep my phone off most of the time,” says Neil Hunter, a self-described educator about the health risks of electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Hunter is an affiliate at EMF Power Pro, a company that specializes in testing EMF levels in homes. EMFs include anything emitting from televisions to computers. She believes that it all amounts to a health hazard and recommends ways to reduce exposure of what many do not give a second thought to.
“What worries me is that more and more people are unaware of the health risk, and that they’re going to get sick,” she says.
Hunter, like others concerned about wireless technology, limits her exposure to wireless devices in hopes that she will be less vulnerable to future health problems. Her computer is hardwired, devoid of Wi-Fi. None of her devices are on when she sleeps.
The fear is that waves emitted from EMFs pass through the body and potentially cause an abundance of symptoms. Much like those possibly affected by the mysterious Eugene signals in 1978, many concerned claim that exposure to these waves can cause headaches and a lack of sleep. Hunter caters to those who frequently report symptoms around these devices. Some are more at risk than others– a condition known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity. In a sense, those affected claim to be “allergic” to these signals.
Hunter’s son, Ryan Edwards, says that he experiences these symptoms when he is around a large number of electronics. He appears like a typical college-aged kid – full of life with an upbeat personality. He has a thin frame and short, blonde hair. Among many, he is what many would call an average person, but there is more to Edwards underneath the surface.
The 22-year-old was born in Colorado and moved to Eugene after his parents divorced when he was 12.
“That was huge,” recalls Edwards. “I was going into adolescence full force without a strong father-figure to help guide me.”
When his mother became interested in starting a company to fight electromagnetic radiation, Edwards was initially skeptical.
“I was less than enthused about it,” says Edwards, who was studying exercise and movement science at Lane Community College. “I just saw it as another side project that took away from my studies.”
As time went on, Edwards embraced the endeavour. He says that his own experience in dealing with electromagnetic hypersensitivity makes him want to help others.
“The more research I did, the more I realized that this was something real,” says Edwards. “It corroborated with my real-life struggle with cell phones, computers, and video games.”
Today, he acts as an associate for EMF Power Pro after dropping out of community college in 2012. Edwards says that his newfound knowledge allows him to experience fewer headaches and a clear mind. This is his life now.
But the concerns of those who believe this to be the cause get more serious than an occasional migraine.
One physician who has taken a special interest in EMFs is Dr. Paul Dart, an osteopathy practitioner in Eugene. When explaining the health effects of these signals, Dart categorizes the risks. He says that acute effects amount to fairly minor harm such as ear-ringing and headaches, while chronic effects are far more damaging.
“Chronic symptoms are going to come from damage to tissues due to increased levels of oxidant activity in the body,” explains Dart. “The main documented chronic problems are increased levels of cancer and effects on fertility.”
Dart stresses that these long-term effects are not like gamma rays in that they directly break DNA. Rather, the damage comes from changes to biochemical functions.
Rather than crafting thousands of pages of research, he condenses his studies into simple papers easily read by the FCC and the general public. The doctor is concerned for public safety and the skepticism that he has encountered.
“People that are skeptical about this ought to look at what the research is actually showing,” stresses Dart. “They can draw their own conclusions after looking at what the science really says.”
The reality behind the concerns is highly debated in the scientific community.
University of Oregon biology professor Alan Kelly teaches a course dealing with the causes of cancer. When asked if cell phones are a potential cancer culprit, his response is like many: inconclusive.
“The issue has been controversial from the start,” explains Kelly. “The number of studies looking at possible associations with cell phone usage and cancer is likely increasing.”
He points to a 2011 study conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer regarding the issue. The oncologists concluded that there may be slight increased risk of brain tumors from the long-term use of a cell phone. Conversely, a 2010 case-control study by the Interphone Study Group found no link to cell phones as a carcinogen.
Kelly stresses that more robust studies will be conducted as cell phones continue to become more widespread. For now, the issue is up in the air.
Like cancer, the more minor effects of EMFs are equally debatable. Sample surveys in the United Kingdom and Switzerland report that four to five percent of people claim to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. However, the World Health Organization, a member of the United Nations Development Group, said in a 2004 study that although “the symptoms are certainly real and can vary widely in their severity,” there is no known medical cause for electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
The study goes on to say, “These symptoms may be due to stress reactions as a result of worrying about believed EMF health effects, rather than the EMF exposure itself.”
Though the science is often muddy, and the experts do not always agree, Edwards is all-in on his efforts to help raise awareness for the cause against EMFs. In a culture that continues to embrace wireless technology with open arms, he is an outlier–cautiously skeptical of the cordless trends. Since leaving college, Edwards hasn’t looked back.
“It was a life changing decision, but to this day, I don’t regret it.”