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EMF Studies

07 December 2015

Welcome to the Home of the Electrosensitive

"No one took me seriously."  This building saved the life of
Christian Schifferle.  Photo:  Jean Revillard/Rezo
Welcome to the home of the electrosensitive
by Patrick Baumann, illustre.ch, 
1st December 2015

In Zurich, an apartment building, the first of its kind in Europe, accommodates persons suffering from electromagnetic or chemical allergies. Report on a true five-story Faraday cage.

At first sight, nothing distinguishes this apartment building with a sable-colored exterior, located in a rural neighborhood, from another building. We are on the heights of Leimbach, 15 minutes from downtown Zurich. Christian Schifferle awaits us in front of the first anti-allergy building in Europe, reserved for persons suffering multiple chemical hypersensitivity (MCS) and electrosensitivity. "Come dressed in the most natural clothing possible, no perfume and of course, switch off your cell phone," he tells us. He keeps his mask on, even inside the building. Our odors are disturbing, he explains, even the battery of the Jean Revillard's camera emits a slight electromagnetic field. A strange object of plastic and steel placed on the table confirms it. "The guardian", he smiles. A dosimeter, a sort of Big Brother of waves which tracks the least suspect volt. Very useful to all the residents of this very special building.

Permanently tired
At 59, Christian Schifferle is president of the foundation at the origin of the building of this unique place in Switzerland. He does not recall a single day when he did not suffer from allergies. Everything assaulted this man with fine features: paint, perfume, cleaning products, cigarettes. Spending half an hour in a department store rife with Wi-Fi terminals is for him hell on earth. "I even thought of suicide", he confessed, unfolding his long legs. Being electrosensitive, or MCS, in a modern world saturated with waves that are more and more powerful and invasive, is like being permanently dead. And misunderstood by his entourage. "This building symbolizes our release from invisibility", he says. This true five-story Faraday cage completed in December 2013 cost 6 million. The quality of the air, the absence of antennas and the proximity of Uetilberg Mountain played a key role in the selection of its location.

Rough concrete
Chronic fatigue, headaches, trouble concentraing, severe depression, food intolerance, the list of ailments from which the 15 residents of the building suffer make your head spin. Most of these people are on sick leave or drawing a disability allowance, even if, in Switzerland, electrosensitivity and MCS are not recognized as diseases. In France, a court in Toulouse has just recognized the electrosensitivity of a former journalist as a disability. It is estimated that around 2% of the population suffer from these ailments to varying degrees.

Here there is no paint but instead, white-washed walls, floors of rough concrete, each apartment is equipped with an air filtering system and an air-locked entrance which allows one to take off clothes that have too much of an odor. Of course, no Wi-Fi. Computer wires and outlets are shielded. All during construction, architects worked with a chemist. The greatest difficulty? The plaster used for the walls. Additives had to be reduced to a level tolerable to the residents.

"All my symptoms have disappeared"
We join Jaes, 49; this former Bernese lab assistant fought, medical file in hand and photos of her face deformed from allergies, to have her disability recognized. "My state worsened constantly, I could not even tolerate water-based paint and I had to have my titanium dental alloys removed in the hopes of feeling better." Jaes lives in a 60 m2 apartment with her daughter who has renounced Wi-Fi. Her new companion has accepted not to wear perfume. "The most difficult thing, the most humiliating thing, is to have to consult a psychiatrist; if one is accepted for disability allowance, it is for the wrong reasons," she exclaims. Moreover, persons afflicted with electrosensitivity or MCS often suffer severe depression. "Whatever the cause of our allergies, this is not the primary one", Jaes insists.

Luc (alias), 32, the only French-speaking Swiss in the building, has experienced the same thing. This former Fribourg student abandoned, with heavy heart, his studies ten years ago. "My cognitive capacities were affected, I lost memory, it was horrible. I had trouble even finding a word as easy as 'table'!" Passionate about video games and computer science since very young, "a true geek", he never made the connection (nor did his doctors) between electrosensitivity, his state of chronic exhaustion and his food allergies which ruined his youth. "We isolate ourselves, we can no longer do anything with our friends. I spent three weeks of vacation in a village in the African bush, without Wi-Fi or antennas. All my symptoms disappeared!" On his return, a stay on a farm in the Jura would confirm that his troubles were linked to electrosensitivity. "I was no longer stressed or had the impression of being shattered. When I learned about the existence of this building, I immediately applied for an apartment." Luc has met other persons in their thirties here fortunately, but he sometimes suffers from living in this modern world which has become inaccessible to him. "I have not renounced work but how to find a job without a cell phone?" Each outing is a trial in itself. "One hour of shopping at FNAC leaves me exhausted for the rest of the day."

Subsidized housing
Heidi, 63, has chosen to work nights at an EMS [nursing home]. To each his strategy to preserve a more or less normal life. "At least, most of the computers are switched off and no one phones at 4 in the morning", she says. This elegant retiree lived for years in the city center, in a building surrounded by antennas. "I experienced tingling in my body, migraine headaches, it took a long time for me to understand why."

In order to obtain an apartment in Leimbach, one must produce a medical certificate as well as meet various social criteria to benefit from housing where rent is between 1300 and 1700 francs, in part subsidized by the city. "And one must have a positive attitude," adds Christian, very seriously. "We do not wish to live with negative people who complain all the time, our life is already difficult as it is." When his state of health allows, Christian advocates actively to see buildings similar to the one in Zurich being built in other cantons. He has already identified land in the Ticino, is exploring French-speaking Switzerland, France, and even the Côte d'Azur. The Côte d'Azur, really? He smiles. "It would be great if we could also have a change of air from time to time. People like us also have the right to take vacations!"

Christian Schifferle was a child when the first allergy symptoms appeared. "At 17, I had to quit school, I was so ill!" With his illness not being recognized officially, he was often mistaken for a dreamer, even lazy. "No one took me seriously," he explains. "They considered I was a profiteer!" The man from Zurich, who receives a disability allowance, has lived a nomad existence for a long time, searching for places free of all electromagnetic and chemical pollution. "I slept for years in a caravan covered with aluminium or in the middle of the forest on a camp bed when I wasn't sleeping in my car." Not to mention a nearly non-existent social life. "I have never been able to have a lasting romantic relationship for the last 40 years", he sighs. He is living better since he is in Leimbach, but he still suffers when breathing a tiny amount of perfume which makes him feel great pain for hours afterward. Nevertheless, Christian considers himself a survivor. The building at 100 Rebenweg in Leimbach is his refuge and also his "noble cause". He hopes that a great benefactor - "why not Ernesto Bertarelli?" - will finance a building for electrosensitive persons in French-speaking Switzerland. "In order that you don't have to exile yourself to Zurich."

For more information: www.stiftung-glw.com, www.gesundes-wohnen-mcs.ch

Original article in French:

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