Illustrations by Sam D'Orazio
One fall day in the early 1990s, in the basement of an old Staten Island home, 8-year-old Ashley Portman was electrocuted. A combination of factors were to blame: the faulty wiring of an old house, the curiosity of a child left to her own devices, the intrigue of endless rooms, and the lure of unfamiliar odds and ends belonging to a distant family friend.
Portman had gone exploring. In the basement, she found a treadmill, and for fun, she began to walk in step. The machine faced a high bar top, upon which a small television set was perched. When she turned the knob, the screen filled with the gray fuzz of television snow, so she reached to adjust the metal rabbit ears. She managed to scream before her body went as rigid as a pole. Her hands burned, and she could not release her grasp on the antennae. Decades later, the memory of the electrocution is like swimming through a dream. It remains unlike anything she’s ever felt — “an indescribable, invasive pain.”
Portman suspects she would have died, if not for some inexplicable force — “a higher power” — that intervened, knocking the television set from the bar top. As the television fell, the plug was pulled from the socket, and the electrical connection cut. She collapsed onto the floor.
For hours that night, as she lay in a guest bed on the top floor of the house, she says she felt waves of electrical energy starting at the top of her head and running down through her legs. Two and a half decades later, she believes that her childhood electrocution caused a condition that plagues her to this day.
* * *
On another fall day, this one in 2018, a few dozen people gather in the basement of a Tucson, Arizona, public library. Portman, now a co-founder of the newly formed Pima County 5G Awareness Coalition, stands up front and addresses the audience. “Thank you so much for your presence,” she says. “Our intention is to educate and to inspire change, from a place of love and empowerment, not fear.”
Portman is green-eyed and pigtailed. She looks younger than her 34 years, yet she speaks with seriousness and urgency, as though she’s just emerged from a storm. She is wearing a pair of dangling earrings shaped like owls — “They see through the deception,” she replies to an audience member who compliments the earrings.
Portman’s collaborator today is Elizabeth Kelley, who has been on a two-decade mission to build awareness of issues surrounding the wireless technology revolution — and to “get the facts” about the health, environmental and constitutional consequences of the multibillion-dollar telecom industry. A former federal government public policy analyst, Kelley is now the executive director of the nonprofit Electromagnetic Safety Alliance and manages an international appeal brought by 244 scientists from 41 countries “urgently calling” for the international community to “address the global public health concerns related to exposure to cellphones, power lines, electrical appliances, wireless devices, wireless utility meters and wireless infrastructure.”
Kelley, 72 and soft-spoken, asks the attendees to turn off their phones, then she requests a show of hands from those suffering from electromagnetic field (EMF) hypersensitivity. Around the room is a flutter of hands.
Several attendees report having developed DIY methods for blocking frequencies, including abstaining from technology altogether. One mother says her family doesn’t have any wireless technology at home — no cellphones or even a computer. The kids use the school or library computer, or handwrite their homework. Someone else describes how he manufactured metal screening for his windows to block frequencies from neighbors’ Wi-Fi networks and smart meters. One woman holds up her Android phone, which she keeps wrapped in foil like a baked potato. Her kids foil their laptop, she says, and charge their electronics between two metal cake pans.
A man in a Hawaiian shirt speaks up, noting that “people go to such great lengths to try to protect themselves from their phones, instead of just turning the dang thing off.” He pulls out his own aging flip phone. He feels fortunate not to be able to afford a smartphone, he says, because he doesn’t want one. “I feel threatened enough with my flip phone.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) is characterized by nonspecific symptoms that vary depending on the individual, running the gamut from fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and dizziness to heart palpitations, nausea, and tingling or burning sensations on the skin. While the WHO maintains that “the symptoms are certainly real and can vary widely in their severity,” and that “whatever its cause, EHS can be a disabling problem for the affected individual,” the organization also states that “EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem.”
Portman and Kelley say they’re used to people discounting EHS, and sufferers are often told it’s all in their heads. In “The Hidden Marginalization of Persons With Environmental Sensitivities,” Pamela Reed Gibson, a professor of psychology at James Madison University, writes that although “substantial numbers of persons report having ES [electric sensitivities] in several developed countries, many persons, and particularly health-care providers, remain ignorant regarding the conditions. Thus persons with ES are marginalized and extruded from access to modern resources in their own communities.” Patients, writes Gibson, often report “highly negative” contact with mental-health practitioners, who often assume the root cause of the disorder to be psychological in nature.
But increasingly, and in correlation with the rise of new technologies, there are no shortage of people like Portman and Kelley who remain steadfastly convinced that their symptoms stem from exposure to electromagnetic frequencies. And they believe that things are only going to get worse.
“I spend a lot of time analyzing how this industry behaves,” says Kelley. “This is just huge coming at us, like a big train.”
Curiously, Kelley has inherited a 100-year family legacy built on the advancements of the electrical industry. Her maternal great-grandfather worked for Thomas Edison. Her great-uncle sold electricity throughout China, and her grandfather sold electricity by steamship up and down the West Coast. In the 1930s, Kelley’s father spent summers as a lineman in the Mojave Desert, repairing the high-power transmission lines that brought electricity from the Boulder Dam to the city of Los Angeles. He would eventually spend 45 years working for the L.A. Department of Water and Power as the chief electrical engineer and acting general manager. As a child, Kelley was fascinated by her father’s work.
Kelley, who describes herself as “moderately electrically sensitive,” says she began experiencing symptoms after buying her first mobile phone in 1993. She had recently left her job as a policy analyst with the Department of Health and Human Services and was selling real estate in Washington, D.C. Immediately after beginning to use the phone, she says her brain became foggy, and she couldn’t complete her thoughts. Her heart raced, and headaches came on so intensely that she had to pull over while driving. When she got rid of the phone, her symptoms disappeared.
Three years later, Kelley and her family were living in the San Francisco Bay Area when the pastor of their church — where Kelley’s 3-year-old son attended preschool full-time — announced that the church had signed a contract with Sprint to install wireless antennas in the church cupola. Kelley was concerned that the antennas would emit radio waves above the heads of the churchgoers, and that the preschool children, with their still-developing brains and bodies, would be exposed for hours each day.
Months earlier, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had been signed into law by President Clinton. The federal legislation made it easier for corporations to consolidate the media and digital landscapes, and it also limited oversight in the development and deployment of new broadband technology.
As a former policy analyst, Kelley was used to reading the fine print of policies. Curious, she pored through the new law, and was shocked by Section 704, which effectively barred municipalities from denying an antenna permit based on health concerns. “I’d never seen a law like that,” Kelley says. “A federal law that would preempt the responsibility of states and local municipalities to look after our health. If there’s a problem and it’s about our health, then this is a rapid and massive deployment of technology that could be very harmful.”
Kelley investigated further and began attending industry conferences. “They were selling the idea of speed and connectivity and interoperability and all of the wonderful magic of wireless technology,” she explains. “So I went.” She listened to presentations, spoke with scientists, studied industry PowerPoint slides and reading material — and then she went back to her church pastor, who convened a meeting of church leaders to discuss the contract. The church invited Sprint, who brought in a team of experts. “We had a lot of questions about technology and health, and we were not satisfied by their answers,” remembers Kelley. “We all left that meeting feeling: No, this is wrong.”
The church leaders voted to cancel the contract with Sprint, and Kelley became an EMF activist. Five years later, in part seeking a smaller town that would be slower to adapt to new technology, Kelley and her family moved to Tucson.
* * *
Ashley Portman stands in the kitchen of her Tucson apartment, gently running her fingers through her 3-year-old daughter’s curly mop of hair and rattling off a list of daily herbs and supplements she takes to counter what she describes as the “degenerative nature of radiation.” She wears a shungite mineral pendant around her neck, which she believes helps shield her from EMFs. She practices dance and meditation. She works with crystals. Beneath her mattress is a wooden board with three hand-sized magnets, meant to ground electrical frequencies.
The living room window is covered with a layer of shiny tinfoil to block EMFs. If she were wealthy, she says she would “deck out her house” with EMF-resistant paint and screens, wear shielded clothing, hire a professional to read exposure levels, and invest in various EMF-blocking devices. But for now, she’s broke, and tinfoil is her best option. “It really does work,” she says, though she jokes that it probably makes her look crazy.
Portman says her symptoms began while in graduate school in 2007 in Pennsylvania, during the time that wireless technology began to be deployed at a more rapid pace. She experienced frequent headaches and panic attacks, heart palpitations, vertigo, brain fog, and a tingling sensation all over her body.
Propelled by what she calls a “gut feeling” that she needed to leave the city, she moved with her young son to the woods of Vermont, where they lived off the grid in a solar-powered house. Her symptoms dissipated, but when she ventured into town, they would return. She remembers feeling like a human antenna. She could touch electrical appliances — a refrigerator or a toaster — and feel a spark. It was in Vermont that she first met someone who was actively shielding their house from EMFs.
By the time her daughter was born in 2015, Portman was living in Virginia and was overwhelmed by health issues. She was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which she likely contracted in Vermont. She lived near an electrical power station and says she would feel sick when she passed by on walks with her dog.
She hired a “geopathic stress expert,” who measured various energy levels around her home and told her she was being exposed to significant levels of EMF. Portman came to the conclusion that she was sensitive to electricity — and that this hypersensitivity had likely been triggered by her electrocution as a child.
“For years, I just wasn’t putting it together,” says Portman. “I went to doctors, had blood work. I thought I was dying. But then I started to connect the dots — and looking back, Wi-Fi is what really started to shake the hornet’s nest for me and for many others.”
Kelley, Portman and others believe that the rapid approach of 5G is the most serious and terrifying development in wireless technology yet. First generation (1G) wireless technology appeared in the 1980s, along with with the first mobile phones. 2G allowed the introduction of mobile texting, 3G brought data capabilities and smartphones, and 4G brought it all to us faster. Today, we’re on the precipice of 5G, which promises to supercharge the internet of things: self-driving cars, toothbrushes, pet feeders, and millions of other smart devices designed to communicate with each other, gather user data, and personalize their functionality.
“This is coming to your neighborhood at some point. They’re going to be putting up poles, up to 50 feet high with boxes on top, and they’re going to put them in the right-of-way right on your property, right in your front yard,” says Kelley, “They are forcing the installation of this technology.”
* * *
Ninety miles east of Tucson, the Dragoon Mountains bisect the desert. Rocky outcrops line Interstate 10, and the hillsides are dotted with the sporadic green of grasses and cacti, as well as tall plumes of white yucca flowers. The area is sparsely populated with small rural towns and agricultural operations, and the pace of life is quiet and slow. Out here, it’s easy enough to find pockets without cellphone reception, and Wi-Fi is still relatively uncommon.
Portman had intended to move to the Dragoon Mountains with her children. She planned to stay with a friend on his farm, or work-trade for lodging at a retreat center. Anything, she thought, to get away from the electrical assault she experienced in the city. But her teenage son didn’t want to leave his friends. And her 3-year-old daughter lives part-time with her father, who doesn’t want her to move out of town. For now, Portman says, she’s stuck in the fight.
Kelley, meanwhile, did significant research before moving into her current Tucson home, evaluating its proximity to cell towers and neighbors’ homes, “to ensure that whatever came through the air would be as minimal as possible.”
For years now, Kelley has received phone calls from all over the world, often from those too sensitive to work or leave their homes. “They can’t participate in normal life activities,” she says. They may have difficulty working or living in grid-connected neighborhoods. Some seek out communities made up of others with similar electrical, environmental or chemical sensitivities. The town of Snowflake, Arizona — four hours north of Tucson — has become one such haven, due to its isolated geography. Others have flocked to Green Bank, West Virginia, which is located inside the National Radio Quiet Zone, an area protected by law from cellphone and Wi-Fi signals, for astronomical purposes.
But Kelley says, “Moving out to the middle of nowhere isn’t necessarily the solution.” She notes that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently working on infrastructure for rural broadband deployment. Essentially, she says, even if you move, it’s likely to follow you.
With the further saturation of cell towers, smart meters, high-voltage train tracks, high-frequency radio stations, and above all, the deployment of 5G wireless technology, Portman and Kelley believe that the number of EHS sufferers will skyrocket. And they maintain that those already experiencing EHS symptoms are the canaries in the coalmine, being overlooked by the rest of us.
In October, the FCC voted to limit the control of local municipalities over public rights-of-way, in order to allow tech companies to deploy the infrastructure necessary for 5G deployment. On October 31, several municipalities and organizations, including the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, sued the FCC for the “unlawful pre-emption of local and state government authority.” The U.S. Conference of Mayors and dozens of cities and counties across the United States are also challenging the FCC’s decision.
“With the advent of 5G, it is clearer than ever before [that] since the start of the wireless revolution in the 1990s, the FCC and telecommunications industry [are] promoting wireless tech at the expense of public health and safety,” Kelley says. “The public is not protected.”
Back at Portman’s apartment, sunlight streams through the side door, bouncing off the tinfoiled window and making shapes on the wall. Portman perches on a living room chair, and her daughter clings to her like a tiny koala. It’s nearing naptime, and like most children in 2018, her daughter has begun whining for the phone. “You don’t need that. It’s not good for you,” says Portman, gently wrapping her in a hug. “Let’s get you some tea.”
When I ask about her biggest fears, Portman glances down at her daughter. “One of my greatest fears is that we are marching toward a future that’s really dangerous. And my fear is that I have no power or control over the choices we’re making collectively as humanity.”
She pauses and looks me in the eye. “But we don’t have to choose this path.”
Debbie Weingarten is a writer based in Tucson, Arizona.