a13 – Radiation sickness blues

By Alice

Over the last few years, I’ve rolled my eyes as what seemed to be a baseless moral panic about cellphone towers erupted among my more conspiracy-oriented friends. Cell phone towers can’t hurt you, right? 

But then, last August, I moved into a rooftop apartment in Berkeley. The building next door had a bunch of weird electronics installed on the roof, including two little red-capped antennas peering out over a wall that were eye level with me while I stood at my kitchen sink. These little metal nodes were at such an angle that I could see them out the window while lying in my lofted bed. 

In the first days after moving in, I started to have very vivid dreams. Flashbacks. The quality of my sleep began to suffer. Within a few weeks, little cigarette-burn-sized sores started to appear on my body, concentrated around my organs and as well as around the fattier bits, like the underside of my arms but not on top. I’ve never had sores like that before: they felt like first degree burns, like when you burn yourself while baking. More and more sores began to appear, and they never seemed to heal. As the weeks passed, my short-term memory and concentration started to suffer. I work in education, and minor tasks that I’ve done for years were suddenly taking more time. I was having to relearn software tools that I already knew. 

My grandfather was a physicist and engineer, and when I was a small child, he taught me how to use a gaussmeter (a.k.a. an EMF meter). I have fond memories of walking through the house with him, the meter held out before us, scanning things, getting a sense of all the invisible forces all around us. Normally, when you use a gaussmeter to scan your home, the center of the room should be at or near zero microTeslas (μT), but as you move it closer to power outlets, it should pick up a bit of a charge (perhaps around 4 to 7μT), and that’s perfectly normal. In recent years, I’ve tended to include a gaussmeter as part of my maker stuff, alongside my soldering iron and other tools, and usually, at some point after moving into a new apartment, I’ll give the place a good scan, while thinking of my grandfather. It’s a soothing ritual to me, much like the way some people like to “smudge” their homes with sage.

In November, while unpacking the last few boxes from the move, I found my gaussmeter and turned it on. To my utter shock, the reading immediately shot up to over 100 μT, which is higher than the international safety standards set by the CNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection). As I walked around the apartment, I found that there wasn’t a single place much lower than 20 μT, and that around my sink and bed, the levels shot up to 120 μT or more.

I immediately called the landlord, thinking that perhaps a wire was loose or something. A guy from the power company came out and the landlord also came out as well, and we were all trying to figure out what was going on. The power guy inspected all the wires, and they were fine. The landlord let me go out on the roof, and we walked around together with the gaussmeter in front of us, moving towards the spot with the highest reading. We quickly realized that the source of the radiation was from those little red-capped antennas poking up over the wall on the neighbor’s roof, and my landlord identified them as a type of cellphone tower. I hadn’t realized that cell towers emit so much radiation, and that they can be installed literally on top of and next to dwellings. 

Contemporary cellphone towers emit a type of radiation called RF EMR (Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Radiation). RF EMR is a form of non-ionizing radiation, meaning it doesn’t knock electrons off atoms. We get small doses of this type of radiation from the sun. It becomes a problem, though, when you’re getting heavy, consistent doses.

In 2021, a systematic review of over 30 studies found that consistent exposure levels of RF EMR higher than 0.4 μT led to a doubled rate of leukemia [6]. The levels in my apartment were over 250 times higher than that. Other health risks associated with RF EMR exposure include tumors in the heart and cell damage in mammals [1], cognitive issues and memory loss [3], and an ailment identified by World Health Organization as EHS (Electromagnetic field Hypersensitivity Syndrome), which includes diminished tolerance to pain and heat [4].

Many of my symptoms matched the classic symptoms of RF EMR exposure, and as the weeks progressed through winter, they were getting worse and worse. I tried covering the windows and parts of the wall with foil, but the radiation kept coming in through the floors. The burns around my organs were getting worse and worse, constantly oozing a thin layer of yellow puss. My ability to focus and memory were falling apart, and I also began to experience nerve pain all through my body, along with migraines. It was like I was being cooked, slowly, from the inside.

In December, I asked the landlord if there was anything that could be done about the neighbor’s cell tower. “My hands are tied,” the landlord said and explained that since the cell tower was technically on the neighbor’s property, there was nothing he could do. “There’s no law to make him move it, and he refuses to do anything unless told by law.”

RF EMR is a public health risk, yet, currently, there are no enforceable laws in the U.S. protecting people from it. Many countries have regulations against unsafe levels of RF-EMR in places where people live and work [7]. These regulations were often set in the late 2010s, as more research about associated health risks with RF EMR came to light. At that time, however, the U.S. was in a strange place because of the way Trump gutted the EPA. During his first 18 months in office, Trump fired over 1,500 EPA workers, including 260 scientists and 106 engineers. Because of this, the U.S. has fallen behind other countries in regulating environmental hazards. 

Having things in our environment that make us sick infringes upon our freedom and autonomy. Whether it’s lead in the soil, microplastics in the water, RF EMR from cell towers, or wildfire smoke from climate change. 

I wish I could trust other humans to not do this kind of stuff (i.e., putting hazardous things around that hurt people), but it’s like how in any community organization, there will be a few bad actors who make selfish decisions that hurt everyone else (every anarchist community has had to deal with at least one such person over the years). Some people are just built that way, and it’s pointless to try to convince them to change. Without being confronted with some kind of regulations, policy, or social agreement—whatever you want to call it—these people are going to continue to harm the rest of us. 

Luckily, I had the resources to move, and got out of that apartment in January. I’m sad to think that the landlord has probably rented that apartment out to someone else by now, and that they are probably going to get sick.

Currently, homes, workplaces, and even elementary schools across the country have cell towers on the roofs, and thousands of people are currently being exposed to this form of radiation. 

Within days of getting out of that apartment, the burns have started to heal and scab over, but the headaches and nerve pain remain and my ability to focus isn’t what it was before. I am contending with the reality that I may have permanently damaged my body and brain just from those five months of exposure. RF EMR is a silent killer, not just through cancer rates but through the way it impacts memory and cognition, robbing you of the ability to think and remember.

As an anarchist, I imagine that even after we create a federated cooperative commonwealth, there would be some kind of board or union that serves the same role as the EPA in making sure that things meet safety standards. I dream of a consent-based society in which environmental safety is valued as the backbone of autonomy. In the meantime, I hope some kind of regulations about RF EMR are passed soon. 

Studies referenced: 

Adebayo, E.A., et. all. (2019)  “Bio-physical effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation (RF-EMR) on blood parameters, spermatozoa, liver, kidney and heart of albino rats,” Journal of King Saud University – Science 31(4), 813-821, sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1018364717308789

  1. Kim, JH, et. (2019) “Possible Effects of Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Field Exposure on Central Nerve System.” Biomol Ther 27(3):265-275,ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6513191/
  2. Narayanan, S.N., et al. (2019) “Radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation-induced behavioral changes and their possible basis.” Environ Sci Pollut Res 26, 30693–30710,link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-019-06278-5
  3. Ouadah NS, Blazy K, Villégier AS. (2020) “Effect of Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields on Thermal Sensitivity in the Rat.” Int J Environ Res Public Health 17(20):7563,ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7589172/
  4. American Cancer Society “Cell Phone Towers” White Paper. Accessed 22 December 2023. cancer.org/cancer/risk-prevention/radiation-exposure/cellular-phone-towers.html
  5. Seomun G, Lee J, Park J. Exposure to extremely low-frequency magnetic fields and childhood cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2021 May 14;16(5):e0251628. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0251628. PMID: 33989337; PMCID: PMC8121331. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8121331/
  6. See: tinyurl.com/EuropeLawsRFEMR