'Allergic' to Electronics: Man Sues Neighbor Over Gadget Use

Santa Fe man said he is hypersensitive to consumer electronics.

March 29, 2010, 5:24 PM

March 30, 2010— -- Stepping into Arthur Firstenberg's New Mexico home is, in some ways, like stepping back in time.

No TV. No computer. No cell phone. Electronically speaking, he said, his home is more 1980 than 2010.

The Santa Fe man, 59, said, intellectually, he has no problem with technology. It's just that, physically, he can barely tolerate it, he said.

"I've been dealing with this for 30 years and I was in medical school at the time when this became a problem," he said. "I had completed three years of medical school and was unable to finish."

Firstenberg said he has been diagnosed with electromagnetic hypersensitivity, a controversial condition that makes him extremely sensitive to electromagnetic fields. In the presence of appliances, computers, wireless routers and other consumer electronics, he said, he experiences nausea, headaches, insomnia and heart arrhythmia.

The condition is so severe, he said, that he's now pleading his case in court, asking for an injunction to force his neighbor to turn her electronics off, despite a shortage of scientific studies establishing electromagnetic hypersensitivity as a medical disorder.

In a January lawsuit filed against Raphaela Monribot with the First Judicial District Court of Sante Fe, Firstenberg asked for an injunction prohibiting Monribot from operating equipment that might harm him, as well as $530,000 in damages. Monribot filed a motion to dismiss the suit and the case is under review.

According to his lawsuit, Firstenberg met Monribot in May 2008, when he hired her to cook for him in the home she rented. In June 2008, when Monribot was required to travel for family business, the complaint says, Firstenberg subleased her home. In September of that year, when the owner placed the house on the market, Firstenberg purchased the home for $430,000, he said.

Firstenberg said that the only real treatment for his condition is to avoid electronics and for, about a year, his home had been his sanctuary. But, in September 2009, when Monribot returned to Sante Fe and moved into a house about 25 from his own, his symptoms returned, he said.

Within days, he said, he started having cardiac problems, including heart arrhythmia.

He said he approached Monribot and asked for help in figuring out which appliances were behind the symptoms.

"I didn't want to go to court. I just wanted her to work with me," he said. "She basically refused. ? I felt like I had no choice but to give up my home."

Since moving out, he has stayed with a friend who shares his sensitivity to electronics and some nights, he said, he has slept in his car.

Monribot, a digital media artist and designer who is about 60-years-old, said the two were friends when she left the country to handle family matters, but after she moved into the house close by (at his suggestion, she said), their relationship became strained. She said that the lawsuit came after three months of back-and-forth with Firstenberg over her electronics usage.

"While I disabled the Wi-Fi for his sake - and took on the considerable inconvenience involved - he was relentlessly pursuing me regarding the iphone and the electric wiring in the house," she told ABCNews.com in an e-mail.

She said that while it was true that she did not agree to negotiate the use of her iPhone, as it's part of a family calling plan and an important means of communication, she said she did let his friends into her house to try to manipulate wiring and appliances to accommodate Firstenberg's request.

Monribot said that while their houses are close by and connected by electrical wirings, both houses are old-fashioned adobe houses with very thick walls. She also said that other condominiums with thinner walls and larger windows are closer to him than her house.

"It is clear from a superficial visit to the neighborhood where I live that there are many other Wi-Fi networks in the neighborhood, and no doubt most middle class mainstream people who live around here use cell phones and computers, TVs and other devices," she said. "If Mr. F feels that the technology is harmful he could take on the technology itself or those who regulate it. If what bothers him most is the fact that our houses are somehow connected via electric wirings, then he could address that problem."

Doctor: Extreme Cases of EMF Sensitivity Are 'Tragic'

Dr. Erica Elliott, Firstenberg's doctor, said that it's difficult to quantify the number of people who have electromagnetic sensitivity because many don't report it and symptoms can vary significantly. But in her practice, in the past 15 years, she has seen about 50 people who say they are affected by certain frequencies, she said.

Firstenberg, however, is one of the most sensitive patients she has seen and for him and others like him, she said, day to day living can be a challenge.

"Some have it more severe than others," she said. "Arthur is in the category of the more severe. Others, if they limit their time on the computer, their time on the phone, they can have somewhat of a normal life.

"Others who are in the extreme category ? it's really tragic. They almost have to drop out of regular society. It's just heartbreaking to see what their life has been reduced to."

Though some experts recognize the suffering of people who say they have electromagnetic sensitivity, many others in the scientific community question whether the phenomenon actually exists.

"EHS [electromagnetic sensitivity] has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF [electromagnetic field] exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem," according to the World Health Organization.

Kenneth Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, said that scientists have tried in several studies to establish a link between the symptoms people report and electromagnetic radiation.

In such "challenge studies," scientists will give people reporting electromagnetic sensitivity cell phones or other electronics and deliberately not tell them when the devices are on or off. But, Foster said, they're "universally unable to produce any kind of response from actual exposure."

People report symptoms when they think the devices are on but may not report symptoms when the devices are actually emitting electromagnetic waves, he said.

"There is no doubt that they have serious symptoms, but it's not a direct response to electromagnetic fields. It's something else," he said.

Expert: More Studies Needed to Evaluate EMF Sensitivity

But while scientific evidence supporting the condition's existence is weak, some scientists say, the studies may not be definitive.

Dr. David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany in New York, said that while science indicates that electromagnetic fields have a number of effects on the nervous system, the question surrounding electromagnetic hypersensitivity is debatable.

He said that because patients report such a wide range of symptoms, both in terms of how and when they manifest, more studies are needed that take that variation into account. Some people may respond immediately to electromagnetic waves, others may not experience the onset of symptoms until later.

"In my judgment, I think that there's so much anecdotal evidence for real human suffering in these people that have this EMF sensitivity," Carpenter said. "It seems unlikely to me that it is just a psychological thing. But I am also a scientist and expect that there should be good proof if it does exist."