Winifred Thomas and her cat, Toby, began experiencing mysterious ailments soon after a PG&E SmartMeter was installed on their home. (Photo by Felipe Buitrago)

Late last year, Winifred Thomas quit taking her weekly hike around the three-mile Stanford Dish loop. Her health had been deteriorating for months, she says, until shaky limbs, physical weakness and persistent headaches made her unfit for most activity beyond household tasks.

Then, in January, Thomas’ health crashed entirely, with insomnia, loss of leg mobility and chronic dehydration essentially crippling her. She says she began experiencing spontaneous burning and peeling of her skin and violent beating of her heart “so loud that other people could hear it.”

“I was pretty much bedridden for all but about two hours of the day,” Thomas recalls.

Thomas says she did not know at the time that a SmartMeter—one of PG&E’s new wireless power-reading devices—had been installed on her home by the energy provider in early 2010. As far as she is concerned, that is what sparked her symptoms. Only in February, after being struck, she says, by an invisible force field while walking across her front yard, did Thomas inspect her home and take full notice of the device, as well as the SmartMeter on her neighbor’s home.

“I started doing some research, and I found that other people were having similar problems,” says Thomas, who quickly packed her cat and a few of her belongings into a van. Thomas says she began living out of her vehicle, sleeping every night in neighborhoods free of SmartMeters, which PG&E is now installing statewide. Her symptoms, she notes, cleared up.

Thomas believes she suffers from a condition called electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS). This slightly understood disorder is generally associated with symptoms like headaches, ringing in the ears and insomnia, and its victims believe it is caused by exposure to electromagnetic radiation, the sort emitted by SmartMeters, cell phones and WiFi routers.

When Thomas first began experiencing symptoms, she saw a doctor who could not identify what was going on. She has never received an official diagnosis of electromagnetic hypersensitivity—which in fact is not recognized as a physical disorder by any established American medical body.

Many of the people who complain of EHS are widely believed to be hypochondriacs. In a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, psychologist Stacy Eltiti found “no evidence” that individuals suffering from EHS could detect the presence of radiofrequency-electromagnetic fields. The same report concluded that “exposure from mobile phone technology is not related to levels of well-being or physical symptoms in [electromagnetic hypersensitive] individuals.”

Nevertheless, worldwide, many people are increasingly reporting pain and irritation that they believe is traceable to the presence of wireless devices. Numerous agencies, groups and surveys dedicated to the issue seem to have settled on a number: They say that about 3 percent of all individuals are electro-hypersensitive.

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In recent months thinking on EHS has shifted slightly. In Sweden, sensitivity to electromagnetic radiation is now officially recognized as a functional impairment. And in May, the World Health Organization (WHO) determined that enough evidence exists linking brain cancer to the use of cell phones to officially classify “radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans.” This designation puts electromagnetic radiation in “Group 2B,” the category shared by such known toxins as DDT and leaded gasoline.

The WHO panel that made the classification, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, is by no means convinced that a cause-effect relationship exists between cell phones and cancer.

Jonathan Samet, the agency’s chair and a professor at the University of Southern California’s Department of Preventive Medicine, responds carefully when told that his agency’s conclusions are being cited as evidence that electromagnetic radiation is toxic.
“Our agency analyzed a lot of evidence and concluded that cell phones might possibly cause cancer,” he said. “But nothing is definite. The evidence may be adequate, or maybe there is no risk.”

Samet says more sophisticated studies must be conducted before any conclusion can be reached about possible hazards of wireless communication technology.

But for Karl Maret, a Santa Cruz MD who specializes in “energy medicine,” the correlation between EHS symptoms and the radiation emitted by increasingly ubiquitous wireless communication devices is clear enough to take seriously. “I know some of these people who report these symptoms, and they aren’t necessarily crazy people,” he says. “They have these symptoms, and they often coincide with the installation of their SmartMeters.” Maret lists the symptoms frequently described by EHS sufferers: ringing in the ears, headaches, anxiety and difficulty using one’s limbs.

Lloyd Morgan, a researcher with the Berkeley-based Environmental Health Trust, says EHS is a serious health issue for people who suffer from it.

“It’s like an allergy,” he says. “Most people don’t have it, but those that do can have really dire problems. The tragedy is that no officials are taking this seriously.”

Morgan, who says that he himself was once diagnosed with radiation-caused brain cancer, warns that all people—whether with or without EHS—are susceptible to brain and other tissue damage caused by electromagnetic radiation. He believes that few serious efforts have been made to better understand any health impacts of cell phone use and WiFi is a result of industry’s influence on the government agencies meant to protect the health of the public.

“Agencies are controlled by the corporations they regulate,” he says.

Joshua Hart, founder of the locally based organization Stop SmartMeters!, says he suffers from EHS. Hart does not use a cell phone and, when possible, stays out of proximity of wireless Internet routers. But while commuting on the Highway 17 Express, Hart says, he experiences headaches, ringing of the ears and fatigue. He blames these symptoms on the WiFi routers that the Santa Cruz Metro Transit District fitted on its fleet buses in 2007. 

In February, Hart sent a letter to the transit district asking that Internet routers be removed from the buses. But that’s unlikely to happen, according to Ciro Aguirre, the transit district’s manager of operations. The bus line’s WiFi service, he says, seems to have generated a sharp increase in ridership since the devices were installed, and many riders, he says, now work on open laptops as they commute over the hill.

Unlike Hart, Thomas says she isn’t particularly affected by WiFi routers and cell phones—both of which she uses regularly. A Los Gatos man, who requested anonymity, tells a similar tale. He says he and his wife both use cell phones but that, just weeks after a SmartMeter was installed on their home, they both began losing sleep and suffering from severe headaches.

Now, he says that he and his wife spend as much time as they can on the side of their house furthest from their SmartMeter, though the emissions of their neighbors’ WiFi sometimes become irritating. Recently, he bought a handheld device called a radiofrequency analyzer with which he has scouted his home carefully and managed to map out a network of radiation-free corridors.

Even medical professionals and others skeptical of electromagnetic hypersensitivity recognize that people who exhibit symptoms are actually suffering and need help, though the causes of the condition remain unclear. As university researcher Eltiti writes: “It is imperative to determine what factors other than low-level [electromagnetic field] exposure could be possible causes of the symptomsÉ” Almost certainly, the causes are invisible. Less certain is whether they’re real or imagined.