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ANYTHING ELECTRICAL GIVES HER SEARING HEADACHES, SHE CAN'T TOUCH United Kingdom
Contamination level: Severe illness! Forced to abandon a home.
Author: Petra Schmidt Created: 22 Mar 2006 Updated: 22 Mar 2006 Viewed: 3737 time(s)
She is one of a growing number of people reporting an acute, debilitating sensitivity to electricity.

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'Perhaps, by leading a healthy, happy life in her new environment, Petra will improve. Created: 22 Mar 2006
HER INSTRUCTIONS have been followed to the letter: avoid soap or hair products, don't wear fresh clothes and don't even think about carrying a mobile phone.

But Petra Schmidt is still suspicious. 'I can smell something,' she says, sniffing me from ten feet away like a wary animal sizing up a stranger. 'I sense some sort of detergent on you.' So there is no possibility of conducting this interview indoors, even though it is starting to rain, and we sit, well apart, under some plastic sheeting in the Welsh clearing which she has not left since May.

If this all seems fairly unreal, it is hardly surprising. Petra Schmidt, 37, is allergic to the real world - or certainly a large part of it. She is one of a growing number of people reporting an acute, debilitating sensitivity to electricity.

In her case, though, the problem is so extreme that proximity to a mobile phone or television will give her searing head pains, insomnia and panic attacks. This, in turn, has also triggered chronic fatigue and knock-on intolerances to almost everything the rest of us take for granted - from magazines to central heating.

Last month, she even became allergic to her guitar, because a new-found sensitivity to stainless steel prevents her from touching some of the strings.

The result is that this former potter has turned back the clock by a century to live a hermit's existence in a tworoom static caravan, in a wood in an unpronounceable bit of wild West Wales.

Her only company is Pixie the cat (who has to live in a hutch outside) and her only power is a torch (she is now allergic to candles).

She used to manage the occasional trip to the shops, provided that the staff either turned out the lights or came outside - 'it was a bit funny buying trousers on the pavement'. Now, even a short car trip to the local doctor is too onerous to contemplate.

OFFICIALDOM has no answers and, since the health establishment has yet to recognise electrical hypersensitivity, there are unlikely to be any.

I have arrived with my own doubts.

After all, electricity has been around for years. Given Petra's bohemian past, I am half-expecting to find a New Age neurotic lurking in these woods.

Instead, I find a slender, rather striking woman who projects both a profound sadness and a dignified resolve. Her long, auburn hair is tied up in a scarf above darting eyes, which light up whenever she manages a smile.

And she is adamant that she does not want to be here and that she is not bonkers.

'I simply have no choice. I would love to live and work with other people, but I can't.' It must be lonely. 'Of course it's lonely. I might treasure my own company, but I don't treasure it that much.' Petra's routine is stultifying for someone who, not long ago, was leading a vivacious life organising carnivals in Swansea and playing guitar in an all-girl rock band called Fireweb.

These days, she wakes at about 8am and does not do very much until 11am, when she might feel like eating a little porridge for breakfast. 'Before then, I feel too nauseous.' She might try reading from one of the magazines hanging on the washing line (each page must be aired in case she reacts to the print). But even reading is hard.

'I can't do more than four paragraphs before it sets my brain on fire.' So how does she stay sane?

'I talk to the cat,' she says with a shy laugh, 'and I try a bit of meditation. I'm not religious. I don't believe in a particular god, but I do find praying helps me stay positive.' At about 1.30pm, she will prepare a small meal of rice with a little organic meat or fish. 'I rotate the courses every day to see if I am sensitive to one in particular. It's funny - I used to be a vegetarian, but meat is good for chronic fatigue.' In the afternoon, Petra will have another sleep and, sometimes, a short walk. In the evening, after a little soup, she indulges in her one addiction: 'I love The Archers.'

There is one electricity socket in the room at the back of the caravan and she has discovered that she can listen to the radio for short spells if she is in the other room.

By 8pm she is asleep on her futon on the floor of the caravan and another listless day is over.

It is a frugal existence, supported by GBP79 a week in benefits and half a dozen close friends nearby. They include her landlords, who live in the farm up the track. She has her supplies delivered there, and access to a hot shower. 'I couldn't live without them,' she says.

Winter is a grim prospect. Last year, she had a wood stove and candles in the caravan, but they have had to go. 'I have what they call MCS, multiple chemical sensitivities, and I have learned that these are very bad for MCS.'

So the gas cooker has been shifted to a wooden platform outside. A friend has lent her some money to buy a basic gas heating system using allergy-free copper tubes, but it has yet to be installed.

SHE HAS also covered the outside of the caravan with timbers, although the effect is more shanty town than log cabin.

But the strangest sight is the telephone. It looks like a set of bagpipes.

She cannot use a conventional phone because the electrics in the earpiece 'fry' her brain.

So she has the receiver wrapped in a cloth with a long plastic tube attached to the earpiece and a funnel connected to the mouthpiece. Even then, she says she is unable to speak for more than a few minutes.

I cannot help wondering if some of this is not, simply, in the mind.

Can a healthy human being really become so sickened by modernity in the space of a few years?

'To start with, I thought it might be psychosomatic, but it didn't matter whether I was happy or sad. It just got worse.' And she still has no idea how it has come to this. The youngest of three girls, Petra had a happy childhood in Germany and did not even suffer from hay fever.

It was at art college that she first felt uncomfortable around strip lighting and power lines. She came to Britain to study pottery ten years ago, worked hard at it and made a life for herself in an artistic community near Swansea.

But the sensitivity grew worse, particularly when she moved in to a house near a mobile phone mast. 'I couldn't sleep. My skin was itching. My nerves were tingling. And then I had this complete breakdown.' It also followed the end of a yearlong relationship, although she says this had nothing to do with her illness. After a few vain attempts at continuing a normal life, she decided the only answer was to abandon everything and retreat to this caravan.

Beyond offering treatment for depression, her doctor has been unable to suggest a solution. The Department of Health says that clinical immunology and allergy research has now been recognised as a speciality and that knowledge of the subject will improve.

For now, though, Petra gleans what she can from charities like ElectroSensitivity-UK, although her inability to go anywhere near a computer to look on the internet is something of a hindrance.

'Petra's condition is extreme, but up to 35 per cent of the population have some sort of reaction to things like computers and mobile phones,' says Charmaine Yabsley, editor of Allergy, a new magazine and website dedicated to the rising number of sufferers who have lifted Britain to third place in the world allergy league (after America and Australia).

'Perhaps, by leading a healthy, happy life in her new environment, Petra will improve.' 'I am being positive. I will get better,' Petra says firmly.

For now, though, as she sits alone in her damp caravan far from her worried family, both health and happiness seem a long way off.
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