BEAUMUGNE – Here on the edges of the Vercors plateau range, in southeastern France, two women live tucked away in a cave high in the hills. Anne Cautain and Bernadette Touloumond say they are "electro-hypersensitive," physically allergic to electro-magnetic waves (EMWs).
On the hillside, a sign reading "Mobile Phones Prohibited" warns visitors to turn off their mobile devices. "I can't take any sort of electro-magnetic waves, whatever they may be: wi-fi, mobile phones or high-tension wires," says Anne Cautain, 52. "It causes burning that is unbearable."
To gain access to the refuge outside the small town of Beaumugne, one must climb a ladder while clinging to a rope – a rather risky endeavor on a wet and slick winter day. It is here where Anne and Bernadette feel best. And yet, deep inside the cave, they are far away from actual fresh air. "Now, with so many antennas going up, we have a hard time even outside here," Cautain says. The inside of their cave quarters is dark and damp, with planks on the floor, allowing them to move around and keep their feet dry. On the ceiling of the would-be living room, plastic sheets keep the humidity out. The furnishings are basic: two beds, a table to drink tea, candles. There is no electricity.
"It began with the burns," says Cautain. "I could no longer stand being at work or in my apartment." A former employee at the University of Nice, Cautain is spending her third winter in the cave. She became allergic to the waves in January 2009 just after the installation of wi-fi at the university. From then, like "a hunted animal," she began to search for escapes from the modern world, looking for "white zones," devoid of all GSM antennas, high-tension wires and wi-fi boxes.
"I was sleeping in my car wrapped up in covers to stay alive. I found a parking lot in the suburbs of Nice, where I was more or less fine. But at night, I was afraid," she says. But soon, the parking lot wasn't enough. The problem was the wi-fi boxes installed throughout the neighborhood, in addition to the proliferation of antennas.
My mother is not insane
So is electro-hypersensibility (EHS) a real syndrome or an imaginary illness? Cautain's daughter Laure, 23, says : "People think my mother is crazy, but her symptoms are real. Are telecom companies so powerful as to make the law themselves?"
Electro-magnetic hypersensibility is no longer considered a crank illness in France, ever since Roselyne Bachelot, then health minister, sought in 2009 to "take into account the suffering of people hypersensitive to electro-magnetic fields."
Though a public study was launched, and the suffering of EHS is officially recognized, its causes are less clearly defined. A report by the National Agency for Health Security noted in 2009: "No scientific proof of causality exists between exposure to radio frequencies and electro-magnetic hypersensitivity."
The oncologist and founder of the Association for Anti-Cancer Research Therapy, Dr. Dominique Belpomme is leading the charge against skeptics of the condition. It was while returning from a consultation in Paris that Anne Cautain made a stop in Burgundy, to a cave explored by spelunkers. There, miraculously, she felt better. A gathering for EHS sufferers took place shortly thereafter in Beaumugne, where she went with her daughter.
Since Cautain set her sights on this rocky opening, she has not left, even quitting her job. "I had been on leave from my job for more than a year because of the illness," she says. "Doctors came to visit me in the cave and put me in the Invalid 2 category." Since then, she receives a monthly pension of 700 euros. "It is fine because we have very few needs. What I miss is not being out in the sun enough," she said.
The cave has become something of a sanctuary for people such as Anne and Bernadette, 66, so much so that they are rarely alone. Laurence came from Grenoble to pay them a visit. "I could no longer take the awful migraines," she said. "A few days here and I was able to sleep." She leaves for her apartment, which is covered with sheets of aluminum, a metal shield of sorts to protect from the waves. The town's mayor hopes the two woman also find a more suitable place to live. But for now, the cave is the only refuge.
"I don't say I enjoy the conditions of my life," sighs Cautain. "But I have no choice. Everywhere else, it is hell."
Read the original article in French
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