Wi-Fi anxiety: Man sues neighbor to shut off electronics

Arthur Firstenberg, who says he is hypersensitive to certain frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, saw the house at the end of a narrow lane as a refuge from physical and neurological symptoms that have plagued him for three decades.

“It’s been difficult because of my electromagnetic sensitivities,” he said. “I had a lot of difficulty finding a house that I could be comfortable in.”

So in September 2008, he bought the home on Barela Street, a few blocks from the newly redeveloped downtown rail yard here.

But last October, when a friend of his rented a house on the next block that backed up to Firstenberg’s property, the familiar waves of nausea, vertigo, body aches, dizziness, heart arrhythmia and insomnia returned -- all, he says, because she was using an iPhone, a laptop computer, a wireless router and dimmer switches.

Firstenberg, 59, wanted Raphaela Monribot to limit her use of the devices. “I asked her to work with me,” he said. “Basically, she refused.”

So he sued Monribot in state district court, seeking $530,000 in damages and an injunction to force her to turn off the electronics.

“Being the target of this lawsuit has affected me very adversely,” Monribot said Friday in response to e-mailed questions. “I feel as if my life and liberty are under attack for no valid reason, and it has forced me to have to defend my very basic human rights.”

Firstenberg’s claim has occasioned plenty of only-in-Santa-Fe eye-rolling. This is, after all, a town as known for its abundance of New Age healers, anti-nuclear activists and wealthy, turquoise-wearing expatriates as it is for spectacular sunsets and centuries-old adobe architecture.

“It makes me miss living in Santa Fe more than I have in a long time,” one former resident wrote on a local newspaper blog. “When my brother sent me this link I wanted to cry from laughing so hard. I wonder if Blu-Ray players send him into convulsions? Would Bluetooth give him nosebleeds?”

Not everyone was laughing.

Nearly 400 people signed an online petition that Firstenberg helped organize against plans to add Wi-Fi antennas around town. The City Council postponed the project last month.

Dr. Erica Elliott, who treated Firstenberg and testified at a hearing on a preliminary injunction, said she signed the wireless petition because she’s convinced electromagnetic hypersensitivity is a real disorder that may affect the nervous system.

Mainstream scientists object to the notion that microwaves and radio waves emitted by consumer electronics could cause the reported health problems.

Bob Park, a University of Maryland physics professor who has published a book on the subject, says that although such radiation can heat tissue, it lacks the energy to knock loose electrons and alter human DNA or otherwise cause the reported symptoms.

“It’s totally implausible,” Park said. The varied complaints, he said, are likely psychological in origin.

District Judge Sarah Singleton is expected to rule soon on a defense motion to dismiss the case, as well as the preliminary injunction sought by Firstenberg. She already dismissed a claim involving Monribot’s iPhone because federal law prevents state courts from taking up cellphone issues.

On Friday, Monribot declined to step outside her home -- barely 30 feet from Firstenberg’s house -- but agreed in a phone call to answer questions via e-mail.

She keeps in touch, she said, with relatives in the U.S., Asia, Europe and the Middle East. “Because my family members live in different time zones, I have always made myself available to them at all hours,” she said. “We communicate often through Skype, Gmail chat, video and audio sessions.”

Firstenberg knew this when he mentioned to her that the Casados Street house was for rent, but after Monribot moved in, he and a friend insisted that she turn off her Wi-Fi router and other equipment. She tried to comply, but felt harassed.

“I decided to bring it all to an end, stop trying to accommodate a neighbor and attempted to start concentrating on my own life again,” she wrote.

Firstenberg said he was staying with friends and occasionally sleeping in his car. He finds the attention surrounding the lawsuit embarrassing, he said.

“I’m not after publicity,” he said. “I just want to live. I want my home.”

Haederle writes for The Times.