Nancy Van Dover says she is a prisoner in her own home. Since January, it has become too physically painful to be around electromagnetic fields, like those emitted by high voltage power lines, cellphones and cell towers, she said.
“Now, I cannot step outside my door. I can’t even go out of my house,” Van Dover said. “I’m in prison, and I’m getting sicker.”
Van Dover and others in Durango are leading an effort to move the city to safer technology, but they face big industry, slow government and an unaware, at times disbelieving, public.
There has been an “unprecedented” increase in the number and diversity of electromagnetic field (EMF) sources, according to the World Health Organization. People around the world say they experience electromagnetic sensitivity (EMS), often attributing physical symptoms to their proximity to technology. State, federal and international agencies have recognized EMS symptoms, but like the scientific research, are slow to definitively connect them to technology.
For Van Dover, a Durango resident of 33 years, her condition is terrifying. Durango’s response, however, is mixed.
“Had anyone told me that I would be susceptible to this wireless radiation, then I would have been more careful,” she said.
What is it?People have experienced EMS, at times called EHS for electromagnetic hypersensitivity, for more than a decade.
They say new technologies, like 5G mobile networks, emit electromagnetic field radiation that harm electric connections within the body.
EMS is not a medical diagnosis. People who experience EMS list common symptoms, like fatigue, rashes, migraines, insomnia and more.
Ingrid Iversen, another Durango resident with EMS, said she experienced short-term memory loss. Another Durango resident felt painful prickling sensations on the skin.
When Iversen talks about EMS, others say they have other things to worry about and aren’t experiencing symptoms.
Ben Zimmerman, a Bayfield EMS supporter with no symptoms, sees disbelief.
“People kind of do the eye-roll thing,” he said.
Van Dover, a doctor of veterinary and Oriental medicine, said her symptoms started in June. When electromagnetic activity spiked in her home in January, based on her EMF meter readings, her life changed completely.
She stopped leaving her property off East Animas Road (County Road 250) north of Durango. Then she stopped leaving her house, even to go to the mailbox. She asks friends to bring her groceries and mostly depends on Social Security and savings. Since her EMF meter readings were higher on the west side, a friend covered the side of her house with metal shielding.
In February, she felt sick enough to call Durango Fire Protection District paramedics.
She requested they leave their truck and radios on the neighbor’s property and bring in low-tech equipment. But the responders didn’t know what EMS was, she said.
“They thought I was sort of a kook because I was hiding behind a metal door, trying to shield myself from them,” she said.
Weeks later, Van Dover still almost cried talking about the event. Durango Fire Battalion Chief Scott Sholes started doing research on EMS.
“This disabled group has been invisible in most communities, and we are being discriminated against everywhere, many isolated in our homes,” Van Dover wrote in an email to The Durango Herald, using an Ethernet connection.
Clear as mudGovernments, businesses and other organizations do not have clear guidance on how to address EMS.
In 2005, the U.S. Access Board, a compliance board for the Americans with Disabilities Act, said EMS could be considered a disability under the ADA. However, the board did not recommend accessibility guidelines for buildings and facilities.
A 2006 World Health Organization report said national governments should take the condition seriously since 2% to 3% of the population experienced sensitivity symptoms.
But research did not prove that electromagnetic fields cause the symptoms. In some cases, symptoms could be caused by psychiatric conditions, the WHO report said.
A California Department of Health Services survey found 3% of people interviewed reported they are unusually sensitive to electric appliances or power lines, according to a 2005 National Institute of Building Sciences report.
In Colorado, former Gov. Bill Ritter declared May 2009 as “Electromagnetic Sensitivity (EMS) Awareness Month.”
“Usually my guidelines are pretty clear,” said Sholes, who also works in emergency medical services with the fire department. “This has been a very unique thing where it’s really not (clear).”
He said Durango Fire has responded to only one patient with EMS. The patient wanted at-home care, not emergency transport – which is the primary service provided by the paramedic units. Also, it is a safety concern for responders to enter a home without radio communication at the request of an EMS patient, he said.
The district’s lawyer is reviewing legal requirements and possible accommodations for EMS patients.
“We’re in a position to make some accommodations; we just need to figure out what those are,” Sholes said.
Van Dover and others have also reached out to the Durango City Council to push for fewer cell towers and raise awareness about EMS. Van Dover said city staff didn’t know what EMS was and did not respond to information and accommodation requests.
She is in the second round of complaints about the cell tower near her home.
Durango has cell infrastructure on Smelter Mountain and several water towers around town, wrote Amber Blake, interim city manager, in an email to the Herald.
The structures are more than 30 feet above ground and meet Federal Communications Commission requirements for safety and exposure levels, she said.
Safe technology advocates argue the last FCC requirements were established in 1996, and billion-dollar telecom companies might have financial influence over the commission.
Blake did not respond to requests for more information about specific locations of cell towers or whether the city sees EMS as a health issue.
Taking on the systemIn Durango, Van Dover has gathered at least five other people who have experienced similar symptoms and are pushing for safer technology.
Groups in Durango, Boulder and Denver joined over 100 organizations around the country supporting Americans for Responsible Technology, which lobbies in Washington, D.C.
La Plata for Safe Technology, an affiliate of Coloradans for Safe Technology, wants to see the city use fiber-optic cable instead of wireless infrastructure, like Longmont and Chattanooga, Tennessee. They want businesses to have accommodations, like no Wi-Fi days, for people with the condition.
In the Colorado Legislature, several groups aim to repeal or replace House Bill 17-1193, which allowed small cell facilities in public rights of way.
“I want everybody to know what this disability is, so that people with this are not going to be injured like I was,” Van Dover said.