Last February, the Senate held a committee hearing on the future of 5G wireless technology. Amid fulsome praise of the technology’s potential—five times faster internet speeds!—Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal introduced a note of caution. “5G, as you well know, uses higher-frequency waves that don’t travel as far, and rely on a network of hundreds of thousands, potentially millions, of small cell sites,” he said. “The question then is, are there any health implications, any public safety implications, to those additional sites that are likely to be located close to homes, schools, workplaces, and closer and closer to the ground?”
The answer from the assembled industry leaders was likely not what the senator was hoping for. “There are no industry-backed studies [of risks to public health] to my knowledge right now,” admitted Brad Gillen, the executive vice president of CTIA, a trade association representing the wireless communications industry. “With small cells, especially, you’re going to have lower power levels … but no, I’m not aware of any [studies],” offered Steve Berry, CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association. “So, there really is no research ongoing; we’re kind of flying blind here so far as health and safety are concerned,” Blumenthal concluded, looking rather dissatisfied.
The impending arrival of 5G has thrust the debate about the health risks of cell phones back to the forefront. But for the subjects of Claudia Gori’s photographs, who suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), it’s not a debate—it’s their lives. Gori first learned about the condition from the Werner Herzog documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, and decided to seek out EHS sufferers in her native Italy. “The people I met began to have symptoms when they started using a lot of electronic devices, especially after Wi-Fi was developed,” Gori says. “They started to feel disturbed by their computer screens or smartphones.”
According to the World Health Organization, a few individuals per million suffer from EHS, with higher rates in Sweden, Germany, and Denmark. Symptoms range from tingling and burning sensations to fatigue, concentration difficulties, nausea, and digestive disturbances. Because no causal link has been scientifically established between these symptoms and the electromagnetic fields emitted by electronic devices, the WHO has said that “EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem.”
Since EHS isn’t recognized as an illness, most sufferers are self-diagnosed. The widespread skepticism about their condition is often the hardest part, Gori says. “Some of them lose their families and friends, because nobody believes them. People say they’re crazy or depressed, that they have psychological problems. The way people talk about EHS is very painful to them.” Many EHS sufferers have to quit their jobs because they can’t use a computer, further isolating them from society. Some, like EHS sufferer Chuck McGill on Better Call Saul, have transformed their homes into makeshift Faraday cages to keep out electromagnetic waves.
For her part, Gori says she emerged from the project convinced that EHS is real. “I’ve never been skeptical of them,” she says. “We are often not aware of all the kinds of pollution that surround us, whether it’s chemicals, noise, or electromagnetic fields. So the idea that these invisible things can make our bodies suffer made sense to me.” The title of her project, The Sentinels, refers to the idea, popular among people who suffer from EHS, that they are simply canaries in the coal mine.
“They say that what they feel now, everyone will feel in the coming years,” Gori says. The science, though, says that that’s unlikely.
More Great WIRED Stories