Also: Bridge for Sale

Entrepreneurs cash in on unproven Wi-Fi fears

Arthur Firstenberg is more than a litigious activist against wireless technology, having lobbied the Santa Fe City Council against Wi-Fi in public buildings and famously sued his neighbor over her iPhone use.

Firstenberg is also a writer, having published a magazine about electromagnetic fields and health (complete set available online for $75) as well as a book on the same subject.

Although his neighbor's attorneys do not deny Firstenberg's suffering, they did contend in a court hearing last week that Firstenberg stands to profit from the publicity surrounding his lawsuit.

"You hope to sell a lot of copies of that book, don't you?" Christopher Graeser, an attorney for Firstenberg's neighbor, asked during cross-examination.

Firstenberg seemed taken aback by the insinuation.

"I hope that it makes a difference," he replied.

Firstenberg, who receives Social Security disability benefits for his "electrical sensitivity," has repeatedly declined comment to SFR. ("You have to treat me better in the Reporter in order for me to say anything to you," he said last week.) That's probably because SFR has reported there is no solid evidence supporting Firstenberg's belief that Wi-Fi is poisoning people.

Despite the lack of scientific support, there is money to be made from the public apprehension of new technologies.

Firstenberg has been diagnosed as "electrosensitive" by at least nine doctors, according to his attorney, Lindsay Lovejoy. Lovejoy will get paid whether or not his client succeeds in court, just as Firstenberg's doctors will get paid whether or not his condition improves.

In an email following last week's hearing, Graeser tells SFR the parties "were unable to reach resolution" in mediation.

Although "electrical sensitivity" is not a universally recognized medical condition with common symptoms or scientifically reproducible causes, it at least provides an income for certain licensed professionals. In a written diagnostic entered into the court record, Santa Fe doctor Leah Morton notes that Firstenberg's lawyer was present during one of his medical visits.

"If patient decides to bring suit against his neighbor/former friend, I am willing to support with medical documentation," Morton wrote following one of Fistenberg's visits to her last year.

Doctors like Morton say industry influence has prevented the truth about electrosensitivity from getting out. However, they are part of a cottage industry themselves. In June, an organization called the American Environmental Health Foundation will hold a symposium in Dallas on "The Chemical Mechanisms Leading to EMF Sensitivity." Exhibitors will pay a $1,300 base rent for space to showcase their wares to sympathetic "physicians, scientists, and health professionals." AEHF also sells "more than 1,600 environmentally safe products."

Business is also booming for those selling devices that promise protection from cell phones, Wi-Fi and other sources of EMF, or electromagnetic fields.

In a warehouse off Rufina Street, not far from an industrial park, there is a showroom for what may be one of Santa Fe's most successful exporters, the Cutting Edge Catalog.

The company is not a manufacturer, but a re-seller of "state-of-the-art products for a healthier lifestyle." Founder Jules Klapper tells SFR he does "several hundred thousand dollars a year" in sales through an online store and 38-page print catalog.

Klapper, a former New York City real estate broker, says he got into the alternative medicine business after unorthodox treatments helped with his "irritable bowel" problems. He founded the catalog 19 years ago, eventually opening the Santa Fe showroom with his wife, Regina, "because we had so many customers here already," he tells SFR.

Their offerings for the Wi-Fi-phobic include wave-shielding pendants for you and your dog ($59.95), a tiny blue "Tecno Wi-Fi Protection" cone ("NEW!" $189.95) and various EMF meters.

One of his priciest items is the EMF "Total Shield," which Klapper says floods the surrounding area with the "natural earth resonances" that humans "evolved under" before they invented electrical gadgets. The catalog prices the Total Shield at $350 for the basic unit, up to $575 for a more powerful "four coil" model; it says the device "overcomes EMF fields" by "reversing" and "retransmitting them." From the outside, it looks like a 9-inch plastic cylinder with a couple of dials on the front and three small LED lights.

As with most of his product line, Klapper does not pretend to know exactly how the Total Shield works. He just knows some customers find it comforting.

"I've got people who can't survive the day without one, and I've got people who say it doesn't make a difference for them," he says.

Klapper's catalog contains an important disclaimer: "Nothing contained in this catalog should be construed as medical advice. The products offered in the catalog are for experimental uses only. None of these devices are medical devices…"

If one device doesn't help a customer, Klapper might suggest another.

"The biggest problem in America is that people want to look for silver bullets," he says. "Especially canaries—people who are sensitive—I tell them, 'You may have to do more than one thing.'"

Klapper says the recent publicity around Firstenberg's case has not directly increased sales of his anti-EMF products. However, he adds, "the awareness of radio frequency [illness] is growing monumentally."

Marketers of such "alternative" health products benefit from growing distrust of traditional institutions, including public health organizations and the news media. Magda Havas, a leading anti-EMF activist, writes on her website that the internet is providing "beacons of light that shine the truth" that would be suppressed by supposedly corrupt journalists.

"Governments can no longer quote the World Health Organization hoping to placate the public that questions the safety of cell phones, WIFI, cell towers, power lines and other sources of electromagnetic radiation," Havas writes. "We are witnessing a culture shift where the public no longer trusts their own doctors or Public Health Board—or local media providers that quote the WHO."

The WHO, a United Nations agency, has found no support for electrosensitivity. Neither has the European Commission, nor any government or university medical body in the US.

Klapper leaves the proselytizing to others. "We don't go out and preach to the non-converted," he says. "If you've come to understand what the dangers are, I've got some products that might help you."

And if they don't, keep the box—you'll need it to claim a refund.

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