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.