iphoned home

There's no app for EHS

Local artist Raphaela Monribot may be the first person to face a $530,000 lawsuit for using her iPhone.

Monribot was named in a lawsuit filed Jan. 4 in the 1st Judicial District Court in Santa Fe by her friend and neighbor, Arthur Firstenberg.

Firstenberg, 59, claims he is hypersensitive to the low-level electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell phones and Wi-Fi routers. He believes the waves from such devices—far weaker than the sun's rays—make his throat close and his heart skip. He thinks the gadgets also give him "nausea, vertigo, diarrhea, ringing in the ears, severe headaches and body aches, crippling joint pains, insomnia, impaired vision [and] impaired muscular control."

Firstenberg previously drew notice when he organized other "electrosensitive" citizens to campaign against Wi-Fi in public buildings. Last year, he added digital television to the list of offending technologies.

Now, he wants a judge to ban Monribot from using her phone or computer. Firstenberg's monetary demand includes $100,000 for pain and suffering; he writes that he has endured "great discomfort" by sleeping in his car this winter.

"I think you'll find the complaint of most iPhone users in Santa Fe is that they don't travel through adobe walls," Christopher Graeser, Monribot's attorney and an iPhone user as well, tells SFR.

"Fortunately, there is a legal process that requires rigorous scientific proof to support a claim," Graeser says. "Unfortunately, of all the cell phone users in town, my client was picked to be the one to prove this novel theory."

Firstenberg's beliefs about poisonous gadgets may lack scientific basis, but they do make for a good news story.

On Jan. 6, SFR first reported the case and published a copy of the lawsuit on its blog. The next day, when SFR stopped by Monribot's home to ask for an interview, a KOAT news van was parked outside. Then The Santa Fe New Mexican picked up the news of Firstenberg's suit; the Journal North, Associated Press and UPI followed.

These outlets reported Firstenberg's claims at face value. Unfortunately, such uncritical reporting can support "mass hysteria," according to Herman Staudenmayer, a clinical psychologist in Denver and author of Environmental Illness: Myth & Reality. "Typically the newspaper and TV stories take the advocates' role, and they present [electro- or chemically sensitive people] as victims. They really don't take on the science of it," Staudenmayer tells SFR.

Many "electrosensitive" individuals have multiple psychiatric disorders, Staudenmayer says. "They have a disorder of belief which, when extreme, is a delusion," he says. "They're very vocal. They're very advocate-oriented. There's a hotbed [of them] in Santa Fe."

Staudenmayer was among the 150 participants at a 2004 conference on EHS, or "electrical hypersensitivity," held in Prague by the United Nations World Health Organization. Although some "patients have real symptoms…there is no scientific evidence of causal link with EMF [electromagnetic fields] exposure," the conference summary reports. "Looking at the overall evidence it is clear that there is no support or need for an intense electrical sanitation of the home and workplaces of EHS patients."

According to his affidavits, Firstenberg requires that some guests "de-contaminate" for days before entering his home. He told one doctor he "sleeps on the floor with no mattress or pillow."

Firstenberg's medical history, included with his complaint, lists a rare enzyme disorder that turns his urine purple and is often associated with mental illness—of which there is a history on his mother's side. Firstenberg has found several doctors who will testify to his sensitivity to chemicals and radiation, including two in Santa Fe: Erica Elliott and Leah Morton.

In his WHO presentation, Staudenmayer lambasted a "medical cult" of so-called environmental physicians who "exploit" vulnerable patients.

As for the lawsuits, Staudenmayer says, many defendants settle. Firstenberg and his attorney, Lindsay Lovejoy Jr.—a graduate of Harvard and Yale—did not return messages.

Court papers show Monribot was sympathetic to Firstenberg's plight. "Why don't you go live in our house in France?" she wrote to him in Sept. 2008. "It is out in the country-side…and has no modern technological aspects to it at all."

Firstenberg, apparently, declined. Travel may have carried too many risks. "I know they use insecticides on airplanes," he wrote in Sept. 2009 email to her.

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