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'It's Definitely Real' Those With Electrical Sensitivity Defend The Diagnosis
The Union
Journalist: David Mirhadi

To many in the medical community, the electrical sensitivity that drove Downieville's Kaput family out of the suburbs is a mysterious and questionable malady.

Those who feel they are afflicted by the ailment say electromagnetic exposure - such as driving a car or watching television - leaves them nauseated, dizzy and disoriented.

The American Medical Association hasn't recognized electrical sensitivity, known as ES, as an established organic disease.

The Milwaukee-based American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology has issued no position statements nor conducted research on electrical sensitivity, academy spokeswoman Erin Hareng said.

That hasn't stopped a small band of doctors, authors and citizen activists from espousing the dangers of being exposed to microwave radiation, electromagnetic fields and electrical currents.

These vocal activists have established such groups as the Cellular Phone Task Force and published books on the perceived danger of cellular phone towers and power lines. Backers of the ES theory have opened electricity-free medical clinics in Dallas and researched the condition at the University of Washington.

Their mission to educate a skeptical public is a daunting one, and yet, they forge on.

Arthur Firstenberg, a Mendocino resident, has experienced electrical sensitivity since 1980, when he was a student in his third year of medical school at the University of California in Irvine.

After undergoing a series of X-rays, Firstenberg said he soon became sensitive to common appliances, such as dishwashers or televisions.

Firstenberg described the sensation as "a jangling of the nervous system."

"Imagine sticking your hand in a light socket every time you went by an appliance," he said.

Firstenberg distributes thousands of copies of an ES-centered newsletter all over the United States. A recent issue of the newsletter contained a profile of World Health Organization's former Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland and her sensitivity to cell phone and computer use.

Firstenberg, who has met ES sufferer Don Kaput and his family, said his own condition is such that he can drive a car, but he can't watch television or use a cell phone.

He questions those who believe electrical sensitivity is a psychosomatic problem.

"It's definitely real," he said. "If people are allergic to chocolate, milk and paint, why not one of the marvels of the 20th century?"

Firstenberg said Don Kaput's condition is far worse than his own. The father of seven outside Downieville lives so far from civilization, Firstenberg said, "because he doesn't have a choice."

Rand Malone, a Florida-based allergist and member of the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology, said the syndrome probably is an acute sensitivity to chemicals, smells, detergents or paints that is called vaso motor rhinitis.

Electrical sensitivity, Malone said, "is not a medical diagnosis that M.D.s recognize."

Malone, an allergist with 12 years of experience, serves as president of Florida's Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Society and sees many clients who avoid going to malls, church, restaurants that allow smoking, or the perfume aisle in a drugstore. In most cases, he works with them to overcome their sensitivity.

"I help them understand how intense their problem is," he said.

Research on syndromes like ES have proved inconclusive, because there haven't been any successful double-blind tests where the tester and the subject are unaware they're being exposed to the environment making them sick, he said.

There have been conflicting reports suggesting cell-phone users are at a greater risk for certain health problems. The federal General Accounting Office, in a May 2001 report, concluded that radio frequencies emitted from mobile phones did not prove to be a serious health risk, but there wasn't enough data to indicate they pose no risk to consumers.

A 45-year-old Rough and Ready receptionist is convinced her office environment contributes to her rash, frequent headaches, "brain fade" and bouts of sleepiness.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said that when her friends are confronted with this, they simply laugh. "They look at you and say, 'Yeah, right.' "

The symptoms have been present since the woman began her job earlier this year. Her previous job had her going outside often, thus minimizing the effect of the symptoms of electrical sensitivity, she said.

The condition causes her to pick up low sounds from Beale Air Force Base in neighboring Yuba County, she said, and she can hear garbled voices or sounds, "like a faint radio," when her house is quiet.

Medication doesn't always make the problem go away, she said.

"I'm not one to believe in any kind of medication that suppresses the symptoms," she said. "I need to find out what the problem is."

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