By Emily Anthes, published on November 5, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Lloyd Burrell says his life was turned upside down "like a bolt from the blue" with a single phone call in February 2002. It wasn't anything anybody said. It's what happened when he put his cell phone to his ear. All of a sudden, he says, he felt as if he was losing his balance. A few minutes later, his phone rang again. This time, as he answered, he felt a jolt of pain on the side of his face. "It was just a searing pain," recalls Burrell, who owns a vacation rentals business in Royan, France. "People say, 'Well how do you know it was your cell phone?' It's like, 'How do you know when you hold a drill up to the side of your face that it's causing you pain?' It was that obvious."
Burrell concluded that he was electrosensitive and undertook a series of changes to his home and his life. First thing: He swapped out his cordless phone for a tethered line. He instituted a strict "no cell phones in the house" policy. Others with similar concerns have snapped up "shields" and "filters" that allegedly block cell phone radiation. They have launched campaigns to stop the installation of smart meters, wireless devices that monitor home energy consumption and relay that information to power companies.
Dozens of Lloyd Burrells have literally gone much further to manage their own, largely self-diagnosed, electrosensitivity. They have uprooted themselves and moved to the remote town of Green Bank, West Virginia, population 143. Three hours outside of Charleston, deep in the Allegheny Mountains and surrounded by thick forests, this pastoral paradise is virtually untouched by wireless technology. It is ground zero of a federally mandated 13,000 square mile radio Quiet Zone.
Green Bank is home to the enormous Robert C. Byrd radio telescope, which allows astronomers to pick up radio signals emitted by stars, comets, and other objects in the cosmos. Since the signals given off by wireless devices can easily overwhelm the faint radio waves arriving from distant stars, the use of such technologies is severely limited.
Diane Schou is a "Wi-Fi refugee" now living in Green Bank. Cell phones and cell towers used to give her headaches, vision and memory problems, and chest pains. So she left her native Iowa for West Virginia's Quiet Zone, where she says she's finally found relief.
The World Health Organization says that the symptoms reported by people like Burrell and Schou are real and can be disabling. But scientists find little evidence that they're actually caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs). People who claim to be electrosensitive, studies show, cannot identify sources of electromagnetic radiation any better than the rest of us.
Some researchers have proposed that the symptoms of electrosensitivity could be a response to other environmental exposures—such as to flickering fluorescent lights. It's even possible, the World Health Organization notes, that the symptoms are "stress reactions as a result of worrying about EMF health effects, rather than the EMF exposure itself."
Nor does research support the view that wireless devices pose a serious health hazard. Cell phones emit lower-frequency radiation than X-ray machines, for example, and if there is a cell phone-cancer link, it has eluded detection. "Scientists would say it's unlikely that cell phones are a risk we should be concerned about," says Michael Siegrist, a social psychologist at the University of Zurich, who has studied public attitudes to wireless technology. "But they'd also say that we don't know about the long-term effects. We can't say for sure that there's no risk."
In that sliver of uncertainty lies a deep psychological ravine, carved by the very nature of wireless and cellular technology—man-made, novel, and emitting signals that are invisible and nearly inescapable. In that dark chasm, doubt and fear thrive.
Uncertainty is difficult for the human mind to grasp. It prefers snap judgments. "Our brain is inherently lazy," says David Ropeik, a risk communication consultant, instructor at Harvard University, and author of How Risky Is It Really?: Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts. "It has learned to use a whole bunch of mental shortcuts to make quick judgments that feel right." Adds Siegrist: "In many instances we have to quickly decide whether an object is dangerous or not. A quick classification has helped us survive."
Quick judgments, Siegrist observes, work especially well for obvious risks like snakes and heights. But chemical toxins, climate change, and wireless communication, along with other invisible markers of modernity, are far more complex, and grappling with them requires more cognitive firepower.
With the real risks unknown, and very little that any individual can do to eliminate them, those who are especially uncomfortable with uncertainty tend to react in one of two ways: They may refuse to acknowledge that any problem exists at all—say hello to the climate-change deniers—or they do everything possible to avoid what they fear, say, turning their homes into toxin-free bunkers. Or moving to the Quiet Zone. Ropeik says we shouldn’t be surprised that people adopt extreme measures in the face of unknown risks. “It takes more time and energy to have a more nuanced view.”
Stephanie Langford was 21 when she was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, a disorder marked by hormonal imbalance and difficulty producing mature eggs for fertilization. The doctor told her there wasn’t much she could do about the condition, but Langford walked out of the office determined to live more healthfully. First, she focused on getting more nutrients into her body, eliminating processed foods, and adding whole grains to her diet. But the more she looked, the more information she encountered about environmental toxins and how they can wreak havoc with body processes. She switched to nontoxic household cleaning products and all-natural personal products such as shampoo and toothpaste. “It was really gradual steps over the course of a few years,” says Langford, who lives in Vancouver, Canada.
Ten years and three children later, her life now excludes plastic as well as many other chemicals. She’s particularly concerned about bisphenol A (BPA), a known endocrine disruptor that can interfere with body hormones by mimicking estrogen. Studies in animals have shown that the compound can cause a variety of reproductive and developmental defects as well as cancers.
BPA is present not only in certain plastics but in the lining of metal cans, from which it can leech into foods, especially when heated. Langford stores leftovers in glass containers, and her children drink out of steel bottles and cups. Instead of buying canned food, she preserves her own in glass jars. She also freezes berries and spinach and dehydrates fruits, tomatoes, and beans. She makes her own home cleaning supplies, body lotion, and lip balm, even shampoo and deodorant. “I will do everything I can do at home, but when we go out, it’s hard,” she says. “We live in a toxic sea.”
More than 84,000 distinct chemicals are manufactured or processed in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The list grows by some 2,000 each year. Through water supplies, food containers, household and personal products, many chemicals make their way into our bodies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regularly analyzes blood and urine samples from a representative selection of Americans. In 2009, the agency reported that of the 2,517 urine samples it examined, 93 percent contained BPA.
The CDC has also detected perfluorocarbons (PFCs) in a majority of urine samples. Components of nonstick cookware and waterproof and stain-resistant coatings on clothes and furniture, PFCs in high doses can cause tumors, hormone abnormalities, liver toxicity, and other problems in lab animals. Large percentages of the CDC study subjects also had detectable levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (fire retardants often added to mattresses, furniture, and textiles), perchlorate (used in the manufacture of explosives), and other industrial chemicals.
No one, however, knows exactly what that means. “The measurement of an environmental chemical in a person’s blood or urine is an indication of exposure; it does not by itself mean that the chemical causes disease or an adverse effect,” the CDC acknowledges in its National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. The amounts of PFCs that the CDC detected are hundreds, even thousands of times lower than the levels associated with illness in animals. As with many chemicals, it's not clear whether such low concentrations are enough to cause disease in humans—or whether they even work the same way in human and animal bodies.
The evidence on BPA is particularly unclear. Some studies show that, as with other endocrine disruptors, low doses cause abnormalities in lab animals; indeed, lower doses can be more hazardous than higher doses. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled BPA safe in 2008 but recently banned its use in infant feeding bottles and cups—long after parents had begun to shun products containing the chemical.
The majority of the 80,000 compounds the EPA tracks have never been rigorously studied for human health effects. Most predate creation of the EPA and were granted automatic approval for use when the agency came into being in the 1970s. Even today companies do not have to prove that new chemicals are safe before putting them on the market; the burden of proof falls on the government to demonstrate danger.
Even if scientists discover that a given chemical is toxic, there are still issues to puzzle through. What level of exposure is harmful to a fetus, a child, or an adult? How does low-level, chronic exposure over the course of years compare to higher doses given to lab animals over days or weeks? Does ingesting a chemical have the same effects as inhaling it or merely touching it? How does the compound interact with other chemicals to which we may also be exposed? The list of unanswered questions is long.
Jennifer Taggart, Los Angeles lawyer, daughter of a hippie mom, has always been ecologically conscious. She studied environmental engineering and now practices environmental law. But, as with many, her concerns ratcheted up when she became pregnant with her first child. "That global focus became much more personal," she recalls. She found herself wondering, "What chemicals are in the things in my daily life—my food, my personal care products, the building products our house was constructed with?"
She grew especially concerned about the ingredients of products applied to her skin—makeup, moisturizer, sunscreen. She learned that many conventional cosmetics contain a variety of industrial chemicals. She no longer wanted them near her body—or her children.
Although parents are scarcely the only individuals worried about industrial chemicals, becoming a parent seems to sensitize people to such issues. For many women, routine pregnancy precautions—taking prenatal vitamins, avoiding alcohol—give way to more extreme attempts to protect the health of their developing child. They prowl websites that report on toxins, turn to nonprofit organizations for information they feel they can rely on, even tap into scientific journals. Taggart sometimes emails scientists who've conducted studies if she has questions about how to interpret the results.
Fetuses, infants, and children are especially vulnerable to the effects of environmental toxins. After a review of the literature, the government's National Toxicology Program announced "some concern" about the effects of BPA on fetal, infant, and childhood brains and prostate glands, but "negligible concern" that BPA would accelerate puberty or affect the reproductive systems of adults. Not only does the small body size of children magnify the impact of any dose of chemicals but the existence of critical phases of development creates the opportunity for widespread permanent damage.
"I was a little nutso when I was pregnant," Taggart says. "I stopped taking warm showers." Compounds known as trihalomethanes, possible carcinogens, can form in tap water, and they form at higher rates when the water is warm. Taggart bathed in chilly water. "I was crazy," she now says. In addition, "I stopped using a lot of products. I was really conscientious about use of chemicals that contain hormone disruptors. I didn't use any scented products for cleaning or laundry."
Today, she remains especially conscientious about personal-care products—like moisturizer and sunscreen—that her 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son use. Taggart, the author of Smart Mama's Green Guide: Simple Steps to Reduce Your Child's Toxic Chemical Exposure, warns against any hint of phthalates, present in many fragranced products and thought to be endocrine disruptors.
The kids themselves don't always appreciate the effort. Many popular vinyl toys—dolls, action figures, purses, balls—contain phthlates, as well as toxic metals. Taggart sometimes finds herself explaining to her children that the objects they covet are simply too toxic to own. "It's really hard because they want the toys that their friends have," she says. Taggart satisfied her budding princess's desire for body glitter—a repository of toxic metals and endocrine disruptors—by whipping up a substitute: mineral powder mixed with aloe vera gel. Her husband, she reports, doesn't worry about "this stuff."
But plenty of parents do. Out go nonstick cookware, plastic bottles, stain-resistant rugs, foam mattresses, and children's pajamas. They take down vinyl blinds and shower curtains, shell out for organic baby bassinets and soy mattresses. They don't stop at making their own cleaning supplies and toiletries. They lobby the maintenance staff at their children's schools about switching brands of paint.
Worrisome research findings, scientific uncertainty, and parenthood are not alone in contributing to contemporary chemophobia. Our inborn cognitive biases alone can trip the switch. Evolution has particularly attuned our brains to evidence of danger. Since the federal government doesn't rigorously test new chemicals before they hit the market, sometimes cognitive biases are all people have to go on.
"The perception of risk is subjective—a combination of the facts and how those facts feel," says Harvard's Ropeik. Many factors can make a particular hazard feel especially risky. Uncertainty itself is a big one. People judge hazards that are unfamiliar and poorly understood to be riskier than those whose effects are well known. The lack of conclusive evidence doesn't alleviate fears; it magnifies them.
The word "chemical" itself carries a strong negative charge. "Industrial chemicals have been framed repeatedly, excessively for decades as dangerous," Ropeik says. A 2010 European Union survey asked more than 26,000 people what words came to mind when they thought of "chemical products." Most—68 percent—responded with "dangerous." A close 63 percent added "harmful to the environment"; 51 percent threw in "unhealthy." Only 22 percent said "useful." "If you're getting negative vibes" about a hazard, says Paul Slovic, a psychologist at Decision Research in Eugene, Oregon, "uncertainty gives you the flexibility to spin it the way you're leaning."
The stigma is such that we tend to put more faith into findings of hazard than of exoneration. In 2001, Zurich's Michael Siegrist found that subjects were more likely to trust scientific studies concluding that artificial food colorings are hazardous than those that said such dyes pose no human health risks. "People assume more vested interest in studies showing no risk," Siegrist explains. They worry that research concluding a given product is safe is driven by a hidden agenda. "Ninety percent of studies can suggest that a chemical carries no risk, but people will pay attention to the 10 percent that say it's a risk," Siegrist notes.
The stigma is also conducive to black-and-white thinking. Most people intuitively recognize the importance of dose in creating effects. But not when it comes to industrial chemicals. In a survey of more than 3,000 people across the U.S., nearly 63 percent agreed: "It's not how much of a chemical you are exposed to that matters to your health, it's whether or not you're exposed at all." And 73 percent agreed that "if a person is exposed to a chemical that can cause cancer, that person is likely to get cancer later in life."
And then there's dread, which Slovic deems "one of the most powerful" influences on risk perception. "If the potential adverse consequences are things that are dreaded, we have a high perception of risk," he says. That's why most of us worry more about a meltdown of a nuclear power plant than the health effects of routine X-rays, even though X-rays are far more likely to pose risks over the course of our lives. Cancer ranks high on the dread scale, making any chemical with the slightest link to it especially terrifying.
Slovic has identified other factors that can make a hazard feel especially dangerous. "Things seem more risky when the exposure is not under our voluntary control," Slovic says. We also find things that are man-made to be riskier than those that are natural, and things that are novel to be scarier than hazards that have been around for generations. Hazards that are invisible or hard to detect with our own senses seem riskier than those we can easily see. Industrial chemicals, anyone?
Once we're anxious and afraid, hard data and the statistical odds that, say, using a nonstick pan will make you ill mean little. Outcomes that are overwhelmingly positive (winning the lottery) or overwhelmingly negative (experiencing a terrorist attack) skew attention so that we ignore that the possibility of such an event is staggeringly low. The emotional weight shoves probability aside. Mired in "probability neglect," our brains don't care that a chemical compound presents only the tiniest risk of cancer.
Perpetual vigilance against environmental hazards has its cost. Last year, in a blog she maintains about living healthfully, Vancouver's Stephanie Langford confessed to coming down with "natural-living fatigue." "Sometimes we get burnt out from all this bombardment of information," she says. "Some days I don't want to pay five dollars for another tube of toothpaste."
"When you're becoming more aware of dangers you need to avoid and working hard to make changes, there comes this point where you're overwhelmed," Langford says. "It becomes too much to think about, too much to take all these extra steps, to make your own products, to source products that are different from the conventional ones." In addition to making the family's lotions, diaper cream, and shampoo, she was making most foods from scratch—breads and cereals, condiments.
She couldn't just run to the store when the household was running low on something. "It required a huge amount of effort," she says.
Information overload added to the burden. "When I first started studying natural living, there was a lot less information out there. You had to seek it out. Now you have to avoid it; it's everywhere." Go to the store and the packaging screams "No BPA" or "No MSG." "Everywhere you go," she now feels, "you're being bombarded with messages saying, 'This is dangerous.'"
Over the years, Langford has embraced the fact that she can't be perfect and can't eliminate every potential risk from the environment: "I've relaxed a lot." She confesses she was "pretty extreme" about what her kids ate. She still feeds them organic, toxin-free food at home, but she looks the other way if they're served hot food on plastic plates or blue frosting at a party. "The relationships my children have are more important to me than the fact that they ate a certain way at lunch. For my sanity, I had to let go."
Nervous or Nonchalant?
Why do some people go to great lengths to ban plastic from the home while others microwave Tupperware with abandon? Psychologists have begun to identify some factors that separate the nervous from the nonchalant.
There is, for starters, "the white male effect." White men view a variety of environmental and safety hazards—including pesticide residues in food and chemical pollution—to be less risky than do women or members of other racial groups, reports psychologist Paul Slovic. "We found these differences even among toxicologists," he says. "Female toxicologists interpreted the data about chemical risks in a much more negative way. There's really something fundamental going on."
Slovic theorizes that the differences may stem from the fact that women and minorities have often been marginalized and discriminated against in society. "Perhaps women and non-white men see the world as more dangerous because in many ways they are more vulnerable, because they benefit less from many of its technologies and institutions, and because they have less power and control over what happens in their communities and their lives."
Political, social, and economic attitudes also influence risk perception. Egalitarians, who want power and wealth to be shared across society, find an array of environmental and health hazards—nuclear power, bacterial contamination, chemical pollution, food additives—to be riskier than hierarchists, who believe in rigid social structures and clear lines of authority. Communitarians, who believe that members of society depend upon one another and should work together, similarly believe these kinds of hazards are more dangerous than individualists, who think that people should be left alone to fend for themselves.