Arthur Firstenberg moved from New York City to Mendocino, a quaint Victorian village on California's rugged Northern Coast, to escape the radio frequencies he believes were making him sick.
The 51-year-old says he is “electrically sensitive,” meaning he believes he can detect, and is harmed by, the electromagnetic fields emitted by everything from hair dryers to power lines.
Firstenberg is one of a growing number of people around the globe who claim they suffer from the same condition. And since wireless technology burst onto the scene in the mid '90s, they say, there are fewer and fewer places to hide from radio frequency pollution.
“The world is a minefield for people with electrical sensitivity,” said Firstenberg, the author of Microwaving Our Planet, a book that blames radio frequencies for everything from irritability to cancer.
Firstenberg is the president of The Cellular Task Force, a national organization of people who claim they are electrically sensitive, and a member of Wireless Free Mendocino, a local group that — you guessed it — wants to ban wireless services from Mendocino.
“I have people calling me, crying to me that they're in pain all the time, asking me where they can live,” Firstenberg said. “I tell them we're trying to save Mendocino as a refuge.”
The group has been highly successful in achieving its goal. Wireless Free Mendocino has been instrumental in defeating attempts to bring cell phone and a high-speed Internet service to the town's 1,000-odd residents. Now the group is trying to force the high school radio station to remove its antenna from the school roof — a move that could sound the death knell for the struggling student outfit.
But while Firstenberg says he's fighting to protect the health of the townspeople, his detractors say the group has created a brain drain of entrepreneurs to more connected locales, miring Mendocino in low-paying tourism industry jobs and reducing future opportunities.
“Basically what you have is a very small population and a lot of people who aren't technical,” said Lee Livezey, the chief technology officer of Elucit, a firm that builds Web-enabled temperature monitors. “He's convinced a vocal minority that wireless is bad for them.”
Elucit is planning to relocate up the road to Fort Bragg, where it can get a fatter Internet pipe than the unreliable ISDN line offered by the local ISP, Mendocino Community Network (MCN), Livezey said.
MCN, which is owned by the school district and operated out of Mendocino High School, fought hard to establish a high-speed wireless Internet service in the village last year before crying uncle a few weeks ago.
Wireless Free Mendocino vehemently opposed MCN's plan to offer wireless broadband from the moment it was announced as an item at a school board meeting last spring. A series of public forums were launched, in which technophiles argued in favor of the service, and the anti-wireless folks –- including a woman who appeared at one meeting wearing dark sunglasses and protective headgear to ward off stray signals –- insisted that the plan was dangerous.
More than 260 people signed a petition against the proposal, including 16 who said wireless made them sick. But the school board approved the plan, and the skirmish continued in the form of scathing letters published in the editorial section of the local newspaper, The Mendocino Beacon, and flyers posted around town.
After MCN installed a wireless transmitter on the high school roof, one woman yanked her daughter from class. English teacher Christy Wagner said her students suddenly became “irritable and easily distracted” and that she herself felt nauseous whenever she was at the school. In September, she took a medical leave.
“This overexposure to pulsed microwaves has been a personal tragedy for me,” Wagner said in an e-mail interview. “I'm left hypersensitive -– even my mouse burns my hand when I use my computer now.”
MCN cancelled the wireless broadband service in December, said manager Rennie Innis. Only 60 people signed up, despite market surveys reflecting a viable demand before the controversy arose.
Electrical sensitivity is not recognized by the U.S. medical establishment, and Firstenberg refused to disclose his diagnosis, which allows him to collect disability income. He also says he suffers from chemical sensitivity, a condition denounced by many doctors as quackery.
Firstenberg says he became electrically sensitive in 1982 as a pre-med student at the University of California at Irvine, after he received more than 40 dental X-rays. One day he collapsed on the hospital floor with heart pains and subsequently he lost 15 pounds in two weeks. He also grew short of breath around electrical equipment. Finally he dropped out of med school and moved to the “clean environment” of Mendocino.
Nowadays when Firstenberg travels, he lugs along a bevy of devices to detect radio frequencies, including a meter that gauges electrical, magnetic and microwave fields.
If he visits wireless-saturated San Francisco, three hours south of Mendocino, his devices go berserk and he experiences multiple symptoms, including an unquenchable thirst, a pressure in his chest and behind his eyeballs, and “buzzing sensations” in his lips.
“The reason I'm lobbying so hard to stop the expansion of wireless facilities all over the country is because I firmly believe this is affecting the health of the nation,” said Firstenberg, who graduated from Cornell University with a degree in mathematics and a minor in physics. “There has to be widespread recognition among scientists and the public that this is a problem.”
One of his targets has been the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which prohibits local governments from banning wireless facilities based on the “environmental effects” of the radio frequency emissions.
In 1997, a coalition of anti-wireless groups, including Firstenberg's Cellular Phone Taskforce, sued the FCC, alleging that the clause preempts local governments from protecting public health and therefore violated the 10th Amendment, which limits federal authority.
The case, which plaintiffs said represented over 2 million people, was thrown out by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and denied review by the Supreme Court earlier this month.
Because anti-wireless activists are unable to challenge cell tower sitings on health grounds, they resort to scouring municipal codes for rules that would preclude the towers for other reasons.
It worked in Mendocino. The village's Historical Review Board -– dubbed the Hysterical Review Board by locals since it controls everything from the color of housepaint to the number of lawn gnomes placed in yards — denied a height variance to U.S. Cellular to erect a tower in Mendocino, despite testimony from the Sheriff's Department that mobile phone service would increase public safety.
Now Wireless Free Mendocino has its sights set on a couple of radio antennas perched on the high school, which the group alleges also violate height restrictions. One of the antennas is a transmitter used by the student radio station, KAKX. If the station –- which scrapes by on funds collected from yard sales and donations –- is forced to take down the antenna, it may not have enough money to build a new one, said station manager Scott Southard.
Southard, who teaches an audio class at the high school, said the wireless controversy has torn his small community apart.
“There have been radio towers on the high school for 30 years and there were never complaints about them until Firstenberg started his campaign of misinformation and fear,” Southard said bitterly. “You can't argue with zealots.”
(courtesy Wired Magazine)