In 2016, U.S. officials stationed overseas started showing signs of a mysterious illness. The list of symptoms included headaches, sensitivity to light, sleep and cognitive problems, and nosebleeds. Many heard strange sounds that seemed to come from inside their heads.
Over the next two years, dozens of diplomats staying in U.S. embassies in Cuba and China all developed the same list of symptoms. Doctors summed it up as a type of brain trauma, but there's no official answer of the cause. The lead theory is that the diplomats were the target of an unusual weapon—one that emits a directed pulse of microwave radiation.
In an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes," Mark Lenzi, a State Department security officer who worked in the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China, said that he and his wife began to suffer after hearing strange sounds in their apartment. Lenzi seemed certain that they were the victims of an energy weapon.
“This was a directed standoff attack against my apartment,” Lenzi told "60 minutes." “I believe it's RF, radio frequency energy, in the microwave range.
The first scientist to suggest that microwaves were the cause of the illness was Dr. Beatrice Golomb, a professor of medicine at the University of California–San Diego, and a researcher who examines how drugs and environmental toxins harm health. When she heard about the diplomats’ symptoms, her first thought was microwave exposure.
“The profile of symptoms does not match anything else I'm familiar with,” Golomb said. “These are highly distinctive symptoms known to occur only in that setting. The likelihood that it could be anything else is very remote.”
Golomb wrote a paper outlining her case. Before it was even submitted for publication, it caught the attention of State Department officials eager for a meaningful explanation. She wrote that one major reason why the diplomats’ illness suggests a microwave cause is the auditory symptoms they experienced: hearing loss, tinnitus, and the presence of a chirping, ringing, hissing, or buzzing sound.
“The difference in the sound counts, in part, due to head dimensions,” Golomb said. “There were also reports that the sounds were tightly localized in space. When people moved, the sound’s source seemed to follow them. That's not the case for stationary sound forces, but it is the case for the micro-auditory effect because the sound is actually produced in the head.”
This microwave-induced phenomenon is known as the “Frey effect” or “radio frequency hearing,” and was proven by Dr. Alan Frey in 1965 when he was working for the U.S. Navy. A 1976 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report described how to stimulate it: “Sounds and possibly even words which appear to be originating intracranially can be induced by signal modulation at very low average power densities.”
The good news is that, whatever the cause, it no longer seems to be an issue. Since returning to the United States, diplomats have either totally or partially recovered from their symptoms.
But Golomb believes their story compels a larger question: If there is the reason to believe that microwave radiation can be used to sicken U.S. officials overseas, why aren’t we looking closer at the people with microwave sickness in the population back at home?
“I have heard from hundreds of people who have experienced severe health effects from wireless, and it is a frustration that most news outlets have steered clear of this topic,” Golomb said.
Understanding Microwave Sickness
Everyone agrees that microwave radiation exposure at thermal levels (think microwave oven) can cause harm. But industry and regulatory standards assume that sub-thermal levels are safe. Yet, scientists have documented evidence of an illness from sub-thermal microwave exposure for decades. The condition used to be known as “microwave sickness” or “radio frequency sickness,” but today, it’s usually called electromagnetic sensitivity (ES).
Symptoms of microwave sickness resemble those experienced by the U.S. diplomats mentioned above. The difference is that everyday citizens who develop the condition trace their illness not to a mysterious weapon, but to very common microwave-emitting devices, such as Wi-Fi routers, cellphone towers, and smart meters.
“This group is similar to the diplomats in that different people have different subsets of symptoms, but prominent on the list are sleep problems, cognitive problems, and ear associated problems, with tinnitus the most common,” Golomb said.
Microwave sickness causes a wide range of symptoms, and some can be very serious. For example, many people who develop the illness report feeling a band-like pressure in their head.
“There is a reason to think that this may actually be brain swelling as was occurring in some diplomats,” Golomb said. “One person was actually given social security disability for very severe electro-sensitivity. His brain swelling became so severe at one point that it actually pushed his eyeball out of its orbit.”
One obstacle to understanding microwave sickness is that it can be triggered by electronics that virtually everyone is exposed to. If Wi-Fi routers and cellphone towers really caused illness, why do only some people get sick and everybody else seems fine?
The answer can be found within the same pattern seen in other diseases: If the stress is high and your defenses are low, you’re more likely to develop it. For microwave radiation, exposure means oxidative stress and mitochondrial damage. Luckily, a healthy body can repair itself when hit with a small dose of this stress. However, if the exposure is chronic or becomes too intense, and our defenses are compromised, illness can result.
Golomb mentioned one study, an Italian-Russian collaboration, that showed people who had electromagnetic sensitivity (ES) were significantly more likely to have gene variants in the glutathione system—a major antioxidant system in the body that guards against oxidative stress injury.
“This adversely affects the balance of oxidative stress and antioxidant defense and makes any new oxidative stressor more likely to produce symptoms,” she said.
Sweden is the only country that recognizes ES as a functional impairment—this means it’s like a disability, but it has an environmental cause. In the rest of the world, however, the issue is generally unknown, ignored, or sometimes even ridiculed until a notable case goes to court.
Part of the confusion is that some researchers insist it doesn’t exist. Studies primarily connected with industry, for example, aim to show that the condition is merely psychosomatic and not a valid medical concern.
Golomb is familiar with such studies, but said they often come from researchers who make a career out of debunking environmental illness, not from scientists genuinely looking for answers.
“That's the angle they're coming in with and, not unexpectedly, the design of these studies does not take into account any of the known science on the variability and time course to onset, resolution, and that different people respond to different frequencies, etc.,” she said.
There is, however, strong physiological evidence for the condition. One study by Dr. Dominique Belpomme, a professor of medical oncology at Paris University, examined 700 ES sufferers. All showed decreased levels of another important antioxidant associated with sleep, melatonin. That explains why sleep problems are such a common problem with this condition.
More than a quarter of the ES sufferers in Belpomme’s study showed evidence of a broken blood-brain barrier—which is considered another hallmark of microwave exposure.
Microwave radiation can affect any cell in the body, but its impact on the brain is particularly worrisome. It often makes its way in through the ear because there is no skull there to protect against it.
A recently published pilot study revealed differences and abnormalities that signified brain injury within the brains of ES patients that were not present in the brains of those not suffering from ES. Researchers believe these MRI scans defy the widely held governmental and wireless industry claim that wireless devices and infrastructure have no consequences to human health and could affect the prevailing opinion that wireless radiation is safe.
Yet few know about such evidence. It’s not taught in medical school, so when symptoms develop, few doctors are prepared to connect the dots.
That’s why Angela Tsiang had so much trouble finding answers when her son started showing signs of a neurological disease when he was 9 years old. It began soon after he entered the fourth grade in August 2013. Tsiang said he had been a normal child up until that point, but he suddenly developed new problems: extreme agitation and nervousness, sleep problems, severe headaches, nosebleeds, a red, swollen rash that would make his hands crack and bleed, digestive problems, and a new fear: loud noises.
“He started becoming afraid of fire drills,” Tsiang remembers. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? You've been going through fire drills since kindergarten.’ He said, ‘I don't know why, mommy, but loud noises really scare me now.'"
The most concerning problem was that her son had also lost his ability to concentrate. Homework became a big ordeal. Assignments that were supposed to take 30 minutes took hours to complete. Even getting ready in the morning became unusually difficult. Tsiang said her son had become so forgetful that the basic routine he had performed for years was suddenly confusing to him.
Worried about what could be wrong, Tsiang took her son to several specialists, but they offered few answers. Everyone could see he had problems, but nobody could explain where they came from. Her son received the most relief from supplements prescribed by her integrative physician, Dr. Rita Ellithorpe. Ellithorpe wasn’t sure what was wrong, either, but Tsiang said the probiotics, vitamins, and essential fatty acids helped ease his symptoms.
“Everything became manageable and he was able to concentrate better, but he still wasn't quite right,” Tsiang said.
Ellithorpe also gave Tsiang some general lifestyle advice: have her son reduce his use of wireless devices. She also recommended shutting off the cordless phone and Wi-Fi at night. She said it might help him sleep and help his body repair.
Tsiang listened but said that back then, the advice sounded inconvenient, and she didn’t think it would make a huge difference. The devices Ellithorpe mentioned all emitted non-ionizing radiation, which Tsiang learned was harmless at low, non-thermal levels from her science and engineering classes.
Yet, it planted a seed in her mind that started to sprout in the spring of 2015. One morning, as Tsiang dropped her son off at school, she got her first flash of insight into what might be causing his problems.
“I happened to look up and see a construction worker on this really tall pole in the park next to my son's school. They were taking the cover off the cell tower. I didn't even know it was there,” she said. “It was about 300 feet from the school building.”
Following this new lead, Tsiang went to city hall and researched the records on the tower. That’s when she discovered a second cell tower 600 feet away from the school that had been upgraded to 4G from 3G in June 2013, right before her son started fourth grade and all his problems began.
She learned that the tower 300 feet away (where she had just seen the workmen) was now in the process of being upgraded to 4G. The network upgrade would mean better connectivity and bandwidth for wireless devices, but what did it mean for her son’s health?
“I started to panic,” Tsiang said. “Could that have been what caused my son to become sick?”
As she dove into the scientific literature, Ellithorpe’s advice started to make more sense. Despite what Tsiang had been taught, studies have shown that non-ionizing radiation could cause symptoms very similar to her son’s.
But Tsiang and her husband are both engineers who wanted their own evidence, so they purchased a meter and measured the radiation levels at their son’s school. Some of the readings Tsiang found were high enough to cause illness, according to the studies she had read.
“Even though they were below FCC limits, the radiation levels at school were 1,000 times higher than what they were in our home and most areas that do not have a cell tower close by,” Tsiang said. “That's why those meters are so great: because it objectively shows you how much radiation you're being exposed to.”
Tsiang learned all these details during spring break and worried about what would happen once her son went back to school with a second upgraded cell tower at even closer proximity. All she could do was wait and watch.
“We didn't say anything to my son, but when he went back to school, all the symptoms he had in 2013 came back, after they had been manageable for over a year,” Tsiang said. “It was terrifying. He had another month of school to go, and I didn’t know what we were going to do.”
As Tsiang and her husband watched the same pattern of their son’s symptoms returning each school year and fading over the summer break, they became convinced that microwave radiation was the cause.
Tsiang shared her findings with Ellithorpe, who diagnosed her son with ES, and wrote a letter requesting that he be transferred to a different school (one with considerable distance from a cellphone tower), and disability accommodations so that her son wouldn’t be near any Wi-Fi routers or other microwave-emitting devices that might exacerbate his condition.
Doctor support always adds validity to a disease. But Golomb said that, unlike Tsiang’s experience with Ellithorpe, most doctors are not so supportive when patients believe they have microwave sickness.
“In a survey that we did in electro-sensitive people a few years ago, we asked what their doctor's attitude was, and we asked if this was a traditional doctor or an alternative doctor,” Golomb said.
For alternative doctors, Golumb found that the vast majority of providers were supportive or accepting of the relationship between electromagnetics and symptoms. For traditional doctors, many were dismissive or hostile about the possibility.
“This is a serious problem with each of the conditions we study, whether it's adverse drug effects or adverse effects from pesticides,” she said. “I would say that traditional medical training is extremely poor on the adverse effects of anything.”
But Dafna Tachover sees a growing awareness among doctors in regard to microwave sickness. Tachover is an attorney and founder of We are the Evidence—an advocacy group dedicated to defending those who have been injured by wireless radiation. She said that, with so much microwave radiation exposure in our world today, doctors can’t help but see more cases of it.
“Unfortunately, most doctors in the U.S. are unfamiliar with the condition, but we definitely see a change,” Tachover said. “Doctors are being educated by their patients and once provided with the evidence realize that likely many of their other patients are sick and suffering from the condition as well.”
In some cases, doctors take the lead. Tachover mentioned several quality surveys conducted by European physicians that have helped educate the medical community. Over the past 20 years, more than 20 position papers and resolutions regarding the health effects of electromagnetic field radiation have been adopted by researchers and physicians worldwide.
Unfortunately, some doctors also learn about the condition the hard way. Tachover has met several physicians who have either developed the condition themselves or have children who have.
But you don’t have to develop the illness to be convinced. Tachover said the proof of health problems related to wireless is vast. The medical establishment just needs to learn to see it.
“There are actually very elaborate guidelines for doctors on how to diagnose the condition,” Tachover said.
In 2016, physicians from the European Academy for Environmental Medicine (EUROPAEM) put out their latest guidelines for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of EMF-related health problems and illnesses. The academy stated that studies, empirical observations, and patient reports clearly indicate interactions between EMF exposure and health problems, “raising new challenges for medicine and society.”
Tachover believes one big roadblock in the understanding of microwave sickness is the name people use most often to describe it: electromagnetic sensitivity or hypersensitivity. Not only does the term blame the victim rather than the cause, but it also creates a disconnect from all the evidence that had been known about the condition several decades before smartphones came along.
“This is not sensitivity. It's a serious injury caused by microwave-based technologies,” she said. “Microwave sickness was acknowledged by NASA and the Navy. Before we commercialized cellphones and wireless technology, there were occupational doctors who were dealing with soldiers, and radio and antenna workers, because they were the only ones who were exposed to the high levels of non-ionizing radiation. Now, the entire population is being exposed to it.”
Seeking a Safe Distance
There are a number of remedies that reportedly help with ES symptoms. According to Golumb, some patients benefit from melatonin, and ginkgo biloba, an herb known for improving blood flow to the brain. Other doctors familiar with microwave sickness recommend glutathione, magnesium, and acupuncture—a treatment that helps balance the body’s own electromagnetic field.
But treatments and supplements can only help so much, and Golomb stressed that these remedies come primarily from word of mouth, not published research. According to her, and the EUROPAEM guide, the primary treatment method should mainly focus on reducing exposure as much as possible.
“The only people who have really been successful in ameliorating their severe problems are those who have found a way to reduce exposure,” Golomb said.
It’s unclear how many people are affected by microwave sickness. The most comprehensive attempt to find a number comes from an Austrian survey which found that it affects about 10 percent of the population. But consider that this figure was documented in 2006, before the emergence of the smartphone and the massive wireless infrastructure that followed. By one estimate, we are subjected to 1 quintillion times (1,000,000,000,000,000,000) more electromagnetic radiation today compared to just a decade ago.
Golomb believes finding a good estimate of affected individuals today would be extremely difficult, given that people who develop the illness can be hard to reach.
“You're not going to find the people who end up living in their car. You are no longer going to find the people who no longer have the technology by which you can contact them. By definition, the most severely affected people are not going to be participating, and certainly not in an online survey,” she said.
Tachover developed microwave sickness when she was a telecommunications officer in 2009. Tachover was an early adapter of wireless, but her symptoms became so debilitating, she was forced to give up her devices and eventually retreat to the Catskill Mountains—the closest place the radiation was low enough for her body to recover.
“It is like a wound—it cannot heal if you keep scratching it,” she said.
Tachover believes, given that the background radiation in our lives is constantly on the rise, more people are bound to develop this illness. She regularly encounters individuals who show the first signs of the condition: hands tingle when holding a wireless device, pain in the head and ears while using it, memory problems, heart palpitations, and flu-like symptoms that won’t go away.
“Our body is electric, our brain is electric, our heart is electric, and our nervous system is electric. So radiation that is a quintillion times higher than what our body can tolerate will affect it,” she said.
But in a world where wireless technology is so thoroughly embedded into the fabric of life, finding distance is becoming increasingly difficult to do.
In 2016, soon after Tsiang was able to make disability accommodations for her son at his school in California, her husband’s employer wanted him to transfer to Minnesota. Tsiang managed to find a superintendent in a district who sympathized after hearing her son’s story. He personally expressed concerns over cellphone use in children because he had seen a study showing that cellphone radiation penetrated children’s skulls more deeply than adult skulls. He had even limited his own children's cellphone use as a result.
With the promise of help, the Tsiangs purchased a home. But once the family moved, the school board changed its tune.
“They had written a very insulting 504 report. It basically said that ES is not a valid medical condition, there are no legal precedents, and we're not going to accommodate for it, even though we had accommodations at our school in California. It said that it was my belief in this condition that was responsible for his symptoms,” Tsiang said. “But verbally they said the Wi-Fi router would be turned off in [my] son's classroom because they had determined they didn’t need it.”
The fact that the school would not provide accommodations in writing, but then verbally said the Wi-Fi would be off in his classrooms, didn't make sense to Tsiang. She interpreted this to mean that the school believed Wi-Fi does make her son sick, but they didn’t want it documented for liability concerns.
The problem was that since the school refused to document the accommodations, accidents occurred frequently. As a result, his symptoms would return, consistently validating that his environment was the cause.
“I contacted a disability advocate, explained this situation and the accidents that were happening,” Tsiang said. “At that point, the school hired an attorney for the second round of hearings. He downplayed all his symptoms. He said, ‘What's the big deal about having a rash. Just put some lotion on it. It's no different than having chapped lips.’”
But in some schools, the evidence can become impossible to dismiss. One recent example is at an elementary school in Ripon, California, where four students and three teachers were diagnosed with cancer after a cellphone tower had been installed on school grounds three years ago.
Several parents were wary of a cell tower so close to their kids’ school before it was ever built. But after the fourth child was diagnosed in March 2019, parents’ patience had disappeared, and many kids were pulled out of school. Although the school had another 15 years left on its lease agreement to keep the tower on its grounds, the owner (Sprint) agreed to remove the structure due to public pressure.
Sometimes, public pressure is the only way to create change because the law won’t allow it. One study found that some California firefighters were experiencing profound neurological symptoms following activation of cell towers near their stations. SPECT scans revealed brain abnormalities in all the firefighters suffering symptoms. They sued the wireless company that told them the towers were harmless, but since The Telecommunications Act of 1996 doesn't allow health to be taken into consideration when siting a tower, the judge dismissed the lawsuit.
As a result, the International Organization of Firefighters passed a resolution that prevents building cell towers on fire stations in California.
Today, Tsiang said she has no choice but to homeschool both her kids, but she would also like them to have some social interaction. So she filed a lawsuit with the school in 2017, not for damages, but to get the accommodations her son needs. The case is still waiting to go to trial. The school is trying to get the case dismissed, or at least dismiss the experts Tsiang wants to testify.
Tsiang is frustrated with the situation, but she said she has no choice but to educate people until they understand.
“No one is born with this,” Tsiang said. “We were using Wi-Fi and everything was fine for a while. We used to use a lot of these things. We were like everybody else. For some people, their tolerance level is at a lower threshold and when they hit it, the body can't deal with it anymore and it starts to react.”
Golomb said that, at a minimum, there should at least be some safe places available where people can live without electromagnetic radiation pulsing 24/7 in the background. Some need this distance simply to survive, but everyone could all benefit from such places.
“You may not be sensitive now, but that doesn't mean you won't be sensitive five or 10 years from now,” Golomb said.
Tachover agrees that there is a desperate need for wireless-free zones where injured individuals can recover, but doesn’t believe it’s a practical strategy. How do you create a space for so many people completely separate from the wireless world the rest of us inhabit?
“This is not a long-term solution. We cannot move 10 percent of the population and their children,” Tachover said.