Mad Science

Arthur Firstenberg's cell-phone lawsuit hinges on how doctors diagnosed him

Can the electromagnetic fields associated with cell phones cause physical pain and memory problems? Or is Arthur Firstenberg's claim that cell phones have caused him nausea, vertigo, diarrhea, insomnia and a host of other ailments merely the baseless complaint of a hypochondriac?

These questions lie at the heart of Firstenberg's $1.43 million lawsuit against his neighbor, Raphaela Monribot, whose cell phone use he claims has physically harmed him. At the center of the case—set for trial in September—is a handful of expert witnesses. Some of them support Firstenberg's claim that he suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or EHS. Others say it's bogus. And ultimately, the case's outcome may depend on which experts are allowed to testify.

"The heart of this case has been whether there has been reliable science to back up the assertion that these low-level electromagnetic fields can cause injury," Chris Graeser, the defense attorney representing Monribot, tells SFR. "We don't think the expert witnesses' methodology is reliable."

Lindsay Lovejoy, Firstenberg's attorney, calls his witnesses important "because they're experts giving opinions about Mr. Firstenberg's illness."

"Both of those doctors—one a psychologist and one a medical doctor—relied on a considerable number of medical works," Lovejoy says.

But during last week's hearings, Graeser and fellow defense attorney Joseph Romero pressed those witnesses not only on the science behind EHS, but also on their qualifications as medical professionals.

Raymond Singer, the psychologist, fidgeted uncomfortably on the stand in 1st Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton's courtroom as Romero pressed him on his credentials as a "neurobehavioral toxicologist."

Romero asked Singer if he had certification from any boards of toxicology. No, Singer replied. Nor is he a medical doctor or neurologist.

But he is a licensed psychologist who examined Firstenberg for purposes of the case. He concluded that Firstenberg's "emotional and mental distress are probably causally related to EMF exposures." Singer's conclusion is based on observations of Firstenberg's exposures to cellular devices that he apparently did not know were active.

Two of those observations occurred in September 2010, when an engineer had been at Firstenberg's house to test for radiation coming from Monribot's residence. In the morning, Firstenberg "had a temper tantrum concerning an unauthorized placement of a ladder," Singer wrote in his examination. Firstenberg became agitated and "reported that he thought someone was using an iPhone with broadband 900 range from the direction of his neighbor's house."

The engineer went to the neighbor's house, Singer wrote, and "confirmed that microwave wireless transmission was occurring from equipment in use at the neighbor's house."

"To me, this was an example of a serendipitous, accidental exposure," Singer testified last week.

But two isolated observations don't constitute a series of rigorous scientific tests, the defense argues, and Singer conceded on the stand that he can't rule out "anticipatory anxiety," or symptoms resulting from Firstenberg's anticipation of electromagnetic exposure.

The defense maintains that Firstenberg's diagnosis is based on correlation rather than causation: that while his self-reported symptoms might coincide with apparent exposure to cell phone radiation, that doesn't mean a cell phone caused the symptoms. The defense's own expert witness, Herman Staudenmayer, a psychologist and author of Environmental Illness: Myth and Reality, examined Firstenberg and concluded that the most appropriate diagnosis is undifferentiated somatoform disorder, which occurs when a person complains about physical distresses that cannot be attributed to medical disorders. Lovejoy filed a motion to prevent Staudenmayer from testifying at trial.

In his complaint, Firstenberg claims that electromagnetic exposure triggers an array of physical symptoms, including nausea, vertigo, diarrhea, ringing in the ears, severe headaches, difficulty with memory, crippling joint pains, insomnia and impaired vision. He also claims electromagnetic exposure causes alterations in his heart rhythm and closes his airway.

Yet the findings of a recent New Mexico Department of Health study, authorized in response to "public concerns about exposure related to cell phones," appear to counteract many of Firstenberg's claims. According to the study, most peer-reviewed articles find no evidence that electromagnetic frequencies impact physiological parameters such as heart rate; affect cognitive function such as memory; or cause headaches, dizziness or fatigue.

But Firstenberg's doctor, Erica Elliott, maintains that his exposure resulted in bruising and testicular pain, and stated in a sworn deposition that EHS is a valid medical condition, as evidenced by the "growing number" of patients she's seen about it. Elliott also cites a 2011 study in which a physician (and self-diagnosed EHS sufferer) had herself tested to determine whether EHS is caused by environmental or psychological factors. The study concluded that EHS is a "bona fide environmentally induced neurological syndrome," but the physician herself was the only test subject; typically, rigorous, peer-accepted medical studies use more than one test subject.

Elliott—a friend of Firstenberg who has given $200 to his EHS organization—claims that the basis of her EHS diagnoses is that Firstenberg is "clearly reacting to exposures" of electromagnetic frequencies, and that his various symptoms are not due to psychological factors. Once, before Firstenberg visited her office, she turned off devices that might trigger an EHS reaction. Yet after a few minutes, Firstenberg began to develop symptoms. "His chest was tight," she testified. "He said I left something on…And I said, 'No, I didn't.'"

It turns out she did. But Graeser pressed her on a point that his team has been arguing all along: Firstenberg's symptoms are self-reported.

He asked Elliot if she agrees that chest tightness "can be manipulated by an individual."

"Theoretically, yes," she replied.

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