Something in the Air


Photographs by Sarah Illenberger


n the 1970s, the bogeyman was power lines. Low-frequency electromagnetic fields were emanating from them all the time, and a shocking 1979 study suggested that children who developed cancer lived near power lines “unduly often.” Around the same time, because of Cold War panic about radiation in general, televisions and microwave ovens also became a possible human health catastrophe. Later, concern bubbled up around a slew of other household appliances, including hair dryers and electric blankets.

Now the advance of cellphones and, more recently, the new high-speed networks built to serve them have given rise to a paranoid coalition who believe to varying degrees in a massive cover-up of deleterious harm. The devices are different, but the fears are the same: The radiation from the things we use every single day is destroying us; our modern world is a colossal mistake. The stakes are about as high as they could possibly be: If it were true that our cellphones were causing brain tumors, that our wireless devices were damaging our DNA, and that radiation emanating from cell towers was sickening us in any untold number of ways, this would be the greatest human health disaster the world has ever known. As well as, perhaps, its greatest capitalist conspiracy.

It’s too big to be true. The science is confusing, but the World Health Organization, noting decades of research, has found no significant health risks from low-level electromagnetic fields. Yet amid a broader tech backlash—against screens, against social media, against power consolidating in a handful of companies, against a technology industry that rolls out new products and protocols faster than we can keep up or argue with, against the general fatigue and malaise associated with a life spent typing and scrolling—it’s just big enough to seem, to many, like the obvious explanation for so much being wrong.

A wildly disorienting pandemic coming at the same time as the global rollout of 5G—the newest technology standard for wireless networks—has only made matters worse. “5G launched in CHINA. Nov 1, 2019. People dropped dead,” the singer Keri Hilson wrote in a now-deleted tweet to her 4.2 million followers in March. As the coronavirus spread throughout Europe, fears about 5G appear to have animated a rash of vandalism and arson of mobile infrastructure, including more than 30 incidents in the U.K. in just the first 10 days of April. In the case of one arson attack in the Netherlands, the words “Fuck 5G” were reportedly found scrawled at the scene. Mobile- and broadband-infrastructure workers have also reported harassment and threats from deluded citizens: A recent Wired UK report detailed an instance in which a London network engineer was spit on; he later contracted an illness that was suspected to be the coronavirus.
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While those theories are flat-Earth-level absurd, legitimate scientists have long been interested in a relationship between wireless technology and cancer, and tens of millions of dollars have been spent investigating it. Activists have lobbied politicians and government agencies, who have been thus compelled to address it. Mothers have always told their children not to stand in front of the microwave. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences published an overview of electromagnetic-radiation research in 1975, acknowledging the public’s concern about how quickly “technologic advances” were moving along, resulting in the use of “electromagnetic emitting equipment … in medicine, industry, research, military systems, and the home.”

The wildest thing about baseless coronavirus and 5G theories is that they’re barely part of the story—they’re just the latest headline.

The ranks of the 5G-skeptical include environmental activists, politicians, celebrities, and fringe scientists. In 2015, 190 scientists, doctors, and engineers from about 40 countries sent an appeal to the United Nations, urging the World Health Organization to reconsider the international guidelines for human exposure to the kind of radiation emitted by cellphones and other wireless technologies. In 2017, some of the same group co-signed a letter to the European Union asking that 5G rollout be put on hold pending further investigation. Though this community is far from mainstream, it is large. And it is powerful: In April 2019, Brussels stopped work on its 5G network, with the environmental minister of the region saying that citizens wouldn’t be treated as “guinea pigs.” A few cities and towns in Northern California have passed ordinances to curb 5G deployment, explicitly because of health concerns, and three members of Congress have written to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai about their constituents’ worries over 5G safety.

Last fall, the activist group NYC 5G Wake-Up Call hosts Patti Wood, the executive director of the national nonprofit Grassroots Environmental Education—founded by Wood and her husband in 2000 to address issues including pesticides, GMOs, fluoridated water, fracking, and synthetic turf—for an event about the ills of wireless technology. The venue is a church in Midtown Manhattan, and the audience is rowdy and simmering with anger—at the telecom companies, at the government agencies that are supposed to protect us, at the scientists who ignore the work of other scientists.

With white hair and a severe laugh, Wood is a woman you’d gravitate toward in the midst of disaster. “You have no rights. These are involuntary exposures,” she tells the 30 or so attendees. “But we need it in order to use our fun little toys,” she shoots at the crowd, many of whom have been on their phone the whole time she’s been talking.

The FCC, the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency are supposed to protect our health, Wood says, but they’re failing. People are suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity—a condition also known as “microwave sickness,” with symptoms including fatigue, dizziness, and nausea—but they’re afraid to talk about it. “These are not ‘wacko’ people. These are principals of schools, and doctors who work in emergency rooms—I’m just giving you examples of people—people who work in the IT business,” she says. “You see a lot of health-care professionals who are dealing with this. And yet, nobody’s really talking about it. Nobody’s talking about it. It’s like nobody talks about vaccinations, you know, because nobody wants them to think that ‘I’m a crazy, I’m an anti-vaxxer.’” (Wood later says she’s not an anti-vaxxer. Grassroots Environmental Education says it has never taken a public stance on vaccines.) “It’s all about power,” she says, encouraging activists in the room to band together to exert political influence.   

As with any argument about injustice and capitalist conspiracy, it is easy to flirt with believing for moments or hours at a time. Wireless technology could be slowly killing us all, or at least it could be slowly killing some of us (as other profitable things have done from time to time), or at least it could be true that we aren’t sure, and are moving ahead recklessly. In the 50 or so years since Americans started eyeing our microwaves with suspicion, we’ve been introduced to a parade of new products so quickly it’s hard to feel as if we ever had a choice. In 2020, the average person doesn’t get to decide whether she wants a smartphone or an email account or a home computer: They’re the default, the instruments we all need to live a functional life. In the case of 5G, the lack of agency is even more obvious. The infrastructure is being built whether we want it or not. So at some level, the conversation becomes not about the technology itself, but about the fact that ordinary people don’t feel as though they had any personal say. And sometimes, in fumbling for lost agency, people grab on to conspiracy theories.
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“The fact that the fields produced by electric current … were both invisible and ubiquitous, that exposure was largely beyond one’s control, and that the alleged health consequences were depicted as catastrophic helps to account for the intense fear that came to be associated with [the] question in the public mind,” the cancer epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat writes in his 2008 book, Hyping Health Risks. He compares looking for evidence of a relationship between various forms of electromagnetic radiation and brain cancer to looking for shapes in the clouds: It’s easy to see something, if that’s what you really want to do.

One of the most careful voices of reason in the debate about electromagnetic fields is the epidemiologist David Savitz. He stresses that “there’s not really been a clear indication that there is a problem” with Wi-Fi, but acknowledges the validity of the concern. As far as any individual fear is understandable, fear of cellphones makes sense: They went from basic nonexistence to ubiquity in about a decade. Now nearly every public urban place has Wi-Fi, and we will soon have small cell towers every few blocks. Whether or not you believe this will give you brain cancer, you didn’t have a chance to opt out. And if there is anything—even anecdotal evidence—to suggest that it might cause cancer, that can be uniquely terrifying.

“To be honest, I don’t think research can ever put [the concern] to rest,” Savitz tells me. “It can bound it. It can raise or lower the level of concern. But … when we do nothing, there are legitimate questions in the order of Who knows what it does?”

Activists tend to cite the existence of “hundreds” or even “thousands” of studies that prove a connection between low-level radiation and various adverse health effects. They aren’t wrong about the volume of research. They aren’t even wrong that some of the studies find what they’re looking for. What is impossible to say in a sentence is that they find any one thing in particular, and no evidence supports the idea that global industry and governments have made a concerted effort to keep shocking findings from the public.

Work that points to dangerous connections between electromagnetic radiation and negative human health outcomes tends to ignore much of what we know about electromagnetic waves and the way they interact with the body. Though the word radiation always conjures up a little something frantic in the gut, there is a diverse spectrum of electromagnetic waves, with big differences among them. Gamma rays and X-rays—waves with very short wavelengths and very high photon energies—can cause cellular damage because they can knock electrons out of atoms. It is very bad to be exposed to them for extended periods.

But current wireless technology uses fields in the microwave range, and the FCC sets limits for radiofrequency exposure from cellphones well below the line at which we would expect heating to happen in human tissue. In 1991, the Yale physicist Robert K. Adair wrote in Physical Review that “there are good reasons to believe” that weak fields “can have no significant biological effect at the cell level—and no strong reason to believe otherwise.”

The best evidence that electromagnetic radiation does not cause brain cancer is simple: We have been placing antennae on our bodies and next to our heads almost 24 hours a day for two decades, and the world has not seen an epidemic of brain cancer. In fact, in the U.S., the rate of new brain-cancer cases was lower in 2017 than in 1992.

For years, scientific attempts to find a meaningful relationship between brain cancer and cellular radiation have failed. For 13 years starting in 1982, scientists followed every adult in Denmark who had a cellphone plan—420,000 people. In the end, they found no evidence at all of an association between brain tumors and cellphone use.

In 2010, the World Health Organization released the results of a decade-long international case-control study. The study’s 48 authors took more than four years to decide how to interpret the data, and it’s easy to see why: The findings were simultaneously explosive and meaningless. The participants who held their phone to their head most often had a 40 percent increase in risk for developing a glioma—absolutely shocking, and significant. But the group with the second-highest use showed, bafflingly, one of the lowest risks for glioma.

The science remained muddy.

In 2018, the largest-ever study of cellphones and brain cancer, conducted by the U.S.’s National Toxicology Program, tested rats at high-level, full-body exposures—far higher than the average cellphone user would experience. It found “clear evidence” that cellphone exposure was correlated with malignant heart tumors in male rats (but not females), and “some evidence” that exposure was correlated with gliomas and adrenal-gland tumors in male rats (but not females).
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One of the biggest challenges of studying brain cancer is that it is very rare. An association between a brain tumor and anything at all would be incredibly difficult to prove, even if the association existed. But there is a reason that the question keeps getting asked and the studies keep getting funded: In addition to being rare, brain cancers are exceptionally deadly. Only one in three people who are diagnosed with brain cancer will be alive five years later.

One afternoon, I attend a NYC 5G Wake-Up Call meeting in a prewar co-op on Manhattan’s Museum Mile, overlooking Central Park. When I arrive, five women are sitting in a ring around the edge of a sun-dappled sitting room. They’ve all brought stacks of paper—printouts of studies and reports and pamphlets, along with a couple of sheets that are just lists of video links.

The meeting’s host, Stephanie Low, has been an activist for 20 years, working against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, fracking, and, now, wireless technology of all sorts. “I only work on things that are enormous horrors,” she says. She hands me a business card, one of 1,000 she had printed to hand out to parents around the city when she sees them giving their young children a cellphone to play with. The card depicts a cartoon child with a smart meter—which emit electromagnetic radiation—hovering near their throat and a cellphone near their brain, next to a stop sign and a note: “Protect Your Kids! Studies show that the developing brains of children from conception to teenage years can be damaged by cell phone use. To be safe, even casual play should be prevented.”

Last June, Low finished treatment for pancreatic cancer. A few months before, she’d become personally involved in the wireless issue because of a friend who is electro-hypersensitive. This friend had lived a normal life in New York City—until her landlord installed 25 smart meters in the building without warning. She didn’t sleep for five nights, Low says, and had to come stay with her.

Three weeks later, Low’s friend was in excruciating pain again whenever she moved. She started living in Low’s guest bathroom, the only place that felt slightly less like a frying pan. Eventually, she moved upstate. A week after she left, Low found out that her building had installed smart meters in its basement too, a fact she relays with her eyes burning a hole through the floor at her feet.

The WHO has a very long informational page about electromagnetic hypersensitivity. It is clearly written to be careful about stories like Low’s friend’s, describing the suffering as real but the idea that a person with EHS can specifically detect and feel electromagnetic-field exposure as suspect. “EHS is characterized by a variety of non-specific symptoms that differ from individual to individual. The symptoms certainly are real and can vary widely in their severity,” it reads. Then, “EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem.”

The friend, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the telecom industry, calls us from upstate and retells the story, adding, “We’re truth detectives, sorting propaganda from reality.”

Of the thousands of isolated bits of pop-culture ephemera floating around TikTok, one of the stickiest is a clip of Khloé Kardashian berating her sister Kourtney in an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians that aired in the summer of 2016.

“What the fuck is up with your Wi-Fi?” she demands, walking around her sister’s basketball court with a phone outstretched. “You have this big-ass house and you can’t afford a Wi-Fi box out here?”

“It’s not about affording …” Kourtney tells her, looking up from her phone, as if exhausted by the never-ending chore of explaining the world to a slightly younger adult sibling. Then, pinching the air under her chin, emphasizing each syllable as if she’s teaching phonetics: “It’s about … radiation.” This does nothing to console Khloé—in fact, it seems to offend her on a moral level—and she screams, “You’re going to die anyway; you understand that, right? Die with a good Snapchat going through!”

Though the young people ripping the audio for a 15-second joke probably consider Kourtney the butt of it, a fair number of rich and famous Californians likely side with her. Fran Drescher is best known for her starring role as the titular nanny in The Nanny, but she has spent the past 15 years talking about all sorts of things that could cause cancer, including EMFs. Drescher calls me from her car one Saturday afternoon, using speakerphone but not Bluetooth—Bluetooth turns your car into a microwave, she says. The American people are enabling the “greedy sociopaths” of the tech and telecom industries, she argues, and we should be expressing our opinions with our dollars. We can’t just sit back and let them use us as guinea pigs. She speaks at the clip of a podcast on 3x playback for most of the conversation, but her voice dips low and a little mournful before we hang up. “We are part of this planet,” she tells me. “And we are harmonic with it. We are in disharmony with electromagnetic fields.”

The model Miranda Kerr, who is married to Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, told a beauty-magazine editor that she uses an EMF detector to monitor “the waves in the air,” and that she installed a kill switch to turn off the Wi-Fi and all the electricity at night (save for the refrigerator and security cameras) in her Malibu house. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, said last year that he owns a small sauna with an EMF-shielding tent, to protect him from radiation when he wants to relax. (“It feels a little bit different because you’re not getting hit by all the EMF energy,” he explained on a podcast.)

Indeed, as with all fears, you can buy things to ease your mind: Belly Armor, recently featured in People magazine, sells blankets lined with RadiaShield Fabric “to protect your reproductive organs from exposure to cell phones, laptops and other smart devices while at home or at the office,” as well as radiation-deflecting mouse-shaped baby hats to protect babies’ brains once they’re outside the womb. Companies like Less EMF sell silver-threaded fabric, polyester window film, and carbon paint, which are often used by people who want to block electromagnetic radiation from their homes.

Heather Askinosie, a co-founder of the California jewelry company Energy Muse, approaches the same problem by selling, among other things, well-designed products made with a mostly carbon mineraloid called shungite. “Two years ago we really started selling a lot of shungite to people who were more in tune with EMFs and looking for other modalities of how to harmonize,” she tells me in a phone call. “More and more people are becoming EMF sensitive. Will shungite protect you from an EMF? I don’t have the research to say that it will. But I do think that will harmonize those waves so that you have more of a harmonious energy coming at you.”

The supremacy of wireless technology in American daily life is, really, a capitalist plot—at least insofar as the best way to protect yourself from anything is with money. The No. 1 seller in Askinosie’s shop is a rectangular shungite sticker ($9.95) that goes on the back of a cellphone case and protects “your energy against EMFs.” Second is a shungite phone stand ($34.95), and third is a shungite plate ($14.95), to set any kind of electronic device on. (“By placing your devices on a Shungite Plate, the Shungite stone properties minimize the EMFs emitted by technology.”)

The California-based lifestyle brand GIA Wellness offers the typical roster of skin-care products and meal-replacement protein powders alongside a range of Lifestyle Energy Products, including a $64.95 cellphone case that was designed in part “to help support your body’s natural resistance to the stress-related effects of electropollution (EMF) exposure,” a pendant that serves a similar purpose for $312.50 (both use “Energy Resonance Technology,” a “proprietary process, custom programmed to resonate with, and support your body’s energy field”), and a “Home Harmonizer” that costs $234.50 and has been designed to “support an energetically harmonious environment” with up to a 60-foot radius.

“We have really profound results, which is the most exciting thing,” the company co-founder Lynda Cormier-Hanser says. “When people put a cell guard on their phone and they no longer have migraine headaches. That’s really rewarding when you hear those stories.”

When products alone don’t seem to have addressed the problem, there are also services on offer. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Building Biology Institute offers several types of home-inspector certifications, including one for electromagnetic-radiation specialists (a trademark-pending term). The coursework for that program costs $5,355, and requires a series of online classes, a correspondence course, three one-week sessions in person, plus a final project mentored by a current building biologist.

Inspecting an average 1,800-square-foot home with three to four bedrooms is usually a full day of work, the BBI-certified specialist Stephanie Kerst tells me, including four to six hours on-site and an hour or two of reporting and preparing recommendations for the client. Kerst charges $125 an hour for phone or Zoom consultations, and $150 an hour for in-person inspections.

“I’ve been doing this about two years now. And I would say, what I have noticed is just a steady increase in the number of clients,” she says in a phone call. “There’s so much work to go around.”

To believe that wireless technology is deadly, you can start by believing in a few simple, true things, and then go from there.

“There is so much dishonesty in this field, and people paid by the industry,” one activist tells me coolly, a few moments after we first shake hands. Then she looks at me as if she’s about to take notes on the muscles in my face. “You have to dig for the truth. But are you interested in the truth?”  

I am, which is how I end up reading a booklet by Norm Alster titled “Captured Agency,” subtitled “How the Federal Communications Commission Is Dominated by the Industries It Presumably Regulates.” It was published in 2015 and is a common reference point for activists. The accusations of corruption it contains are extreme, to say the least. Invoking “the hardball tactics of the tobacco industry,” Alster accuses the wireless industry of “bullying potential threats into submission,” and the FCC of allowing it to happen. The flamboyant prose, and the overreactions throughout the paper over minor connections and shared dinners, makes it rhetorically unpersuasive. But Alster is not wrong that the FCC has been accused, credibly, of blurring the lines between regulation and participation. “The path from a Commission seat to an aisle seat inside Comcast’s private jet and vice versa has been wide open for years,” the Verge editor in chief Nilay Patel wrote in his 2016 interview of the former FCC head Tom Wheeler.

There is an argument to be made that the FCC overreaches, removing community agency and consolidating power. In October, a federal court of appeals upheld the commission’s wildly unpopular repeal of net neutrality, but shot down its claim that states were not allowed to pass net-neutrality laws of their own. The court also criticized the FCC for a “disregard of its duty,” in failing to assess the ways in which eroding an open internet might affect public safety and emergency services. There are also valid criticisms surrounding 5G technology, many of which have been made repeatedly by prominent politicians and mainstream journalists. Even Wheeler, one of 5G’s most prominent hype men only a few years ago, has come out against the current FCC administration’s handling of 5G cybersecurity.

There are scientists involved in this discussion who are genuinely scary, Geoffrey Kabat says. The ones who want to imagine they’re saving the world, and call anyone who disagrees with them an industry shill. “The answers aren’t simple, and the science certainly isn’t simple, but they want to know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are,” he says. They want to be heroes, and they convince people that they are.

Our 5G lifestyle will be expensive and it will be vulnerable. It will probably enable unprecedented surveillance of public and private space, and it may grossly exacerbate the digital divide, as rural areas get left even further behind. You don’t have to think that small cell towers will kill you to think that they will look terrible when dispersed every few blocks; you don’t have to believe in any fringe science to be annoyed that 5G may interfere with weather satellites. 5G will definitely generate a lot of economic activity, but it won’t change the average person’s life. The Internet of Things is an ungraspable future, particularly when the fact of a future for Earth at all sometimes sounds implausible. There is no explanation for disease in the way that a person might want one, especially in the moment that she needs one.

The fear of some generalized capitalist conspiracy comes up, too, in Eula Biss’s 2014 book, On Immunity, which discusses the anti-vaccine movement. Biss spent years talking to fellow parents about their suspicions and fears, concluding that while these feelings can be easily justified, what they are most of all is sad: “That so many of us find it entirely plausible that a vast network of researchers and health officials and doctors worldwide would willfully harm children for money is evidence of what capitalism is really taking from us,” she writes.

In the case of anti-wireless activism, the scope of the conspiracy widens to the point where it becomes a worldview: Connectivity for connectivity’s sake was a mistake. Why are we carrying it around on our bodies? We could dial back, or we could stop moving so fast—we could stop ruining the night sky with satellites that will do nothing but bring super-fast internet to more people who will soon regret what it does to them.

On an afternoon in December, I have lunch with Ellen Osuna, who attended the NYC 5G Wake-Up Call meeting in Low’s apartment, and who I also saw hovering at the back of Patti Wood’s speech. She uses a landline phone, has an EMF-shielding headset for her cellphone, and owns a Chromebook that connects to the internet only through an ethernet cable, but we meet at a coffee shop in Manhattan.

“I think there should be hardly any places with Wi-Fi,” she says, when I ask how she feels about the café we’re sitting in, the city we live in. “There should be public access to ethernet.” I meant less specifically. How does she feel about the fact that nobody in here seems to be the slightest bit concerned? “It’s a really heavy thing to carry,” she says. “It’s surreal.”

She bristles when I suggest that some of the evidence is compelling for brain cancer, but none of it is for things like autism and Alzheimer’s. But she nods emphatically when I ask if the words some activists use—apocalypse, Holocaust, death ray—are frustrating for her to hear. These words don’t help; she cringes when they come up.

“Wireless is not like the fossil-fuel industries,” she says. “There is so much more brilliance. Amazing things are being done with technology.” But it is like the fossil-fuel industry in that “we’re completely entrenched. We’re addicted to it because of what these companies hid.”

Osuna sees herself as just one person doing one person’s part, which is talking to as many other people who will listen, doing her best to live a moral life, one that is tinged by grief. In the 1980s, when she was in middle school, a surfeit of scientific evidence proved the reality of climate change, she says, and she remembers her teacher telling her so. “We could have pulled back then, but we didn’t.” The fight against wireless technology is at that point now, she thinks. “This is the beginning.”

She is optimistic, she says. Or, more so than she was a few years ago, when it was much harder to find information about the dangers of wireless technology. “We can’t see this with the eye, but we are literally covered in this,” she says. “We’re trying to make the invisible visible.”

She’s not exaggerating the challenge of her task. When the WHO declared electromagnetic fields a class 2B carcinogen in 2011, with one doctor stating in a press release that there “could be some risk” of cancer from EMF exposure, it was effectively publishing a Rorschach test. Anti-wireless activists are quick to point out that group 2B also includes such poisonous-sounding substances as chloroform and lead. You could just as easily point out that the list also includes aloe vera, pickled vegetables, talc-based body powders, and dry cleaning, things that sound innocuous—but then again, Wi-Fi sounds innocuous too.

The second time I see Stephanie Low, she greets me warmly and presses me to take a photo of her optometrist’s business card on my phone—I mention that I’m trying to get glasses; I’m going blind from looking at my computer all day. And this reminds her of a theory she read that our vision is a hologram, as is the entire universe. She recommends a book that changed the way she thinks about everything—Michael Talbot’s The Holographic Universe—and adds that my local library likely has a copy.

So I read it one morning, wondering what comfort there might possibly be in conceiving of the world in a completely different way than I have all my life. The book is confusing, and it is beautiful. “There is evidence to suggest that our world and everything in it—from snowflakes to maple trees to falling stars and spinning electrons—are also only ghostly images,” Talbot writes, “projections from a level of reality so beyond our own it is literally beyond both space and time.”

The theory that our memories are holographic, and that the world itself is holographic, is, he says, the one that explains such phenomena as near-death experiences, precognition, lucid dreams, the placebo effect, stigmata, miracles, psychics, psychokinetic powers, X-ray vision, and the paranormal. Every unanswered question. It explains the remarkable recovery of a 61-year-old throat-cancer patient, who “visualized his cancer cells as weaker and more confused than his normal cells,” and “his body’s white blood cells, the soldiers of the immune system, coming in, swarming over the dead and dying cancer cells.”

Talbot’s book is not a work of fiction, but extrapolates—wildly—from the real work of credible scientists. He died of chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 1992.

“In a holographic universe,” Talbot writes, “a universe in which separateness ceases to exist and the innermost processes of the psyche can spill over and become as much a part of the objective landscape as the flowers and the trees, reality itself becomes little more than a mass shared dream.”

The wholeness gets to me, as does the lowering of stakes. I see the appeal of a world that exists only as an illusion, yet knits our lives together into one shimmering image of continuity. We could be accountable to one another. We could have unlimited chances to erase pain. The theory comes from science—kind of, if you squint, and shove the puzzle pieces together slightly against their will. Imagine choosing to believe something impossible, over a reality that is also impossible: not hard.

In October, the WHO put out a call for systematic reviews of the relationship between electromagnetic fields and 10 different topics. This is a question that will be asked again and again and again. “By and large, the research is reassuring about there not being—certainly not a major problem, perhaps no problem at all in terms of adverse health effects,” David Savitz tells me.

But for a great number of the people asking, the concern isn’t about what holds true “by and large”—it’s about the way they’re living, what they’re feeling. They feel tired and sick; they sense that it is the result of modern life. All they’ve been asking for is some solid proof that it isn’t.

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