DALLAS — Several times a day, Barbara Lewis slips off her organic cotton slippers and relaxes on her tidy twin-sized bed. She slides a mask onto her face and turns on a steady stream of oxygen from a nearby tank.
“I have cast iron tanks — not aluminum,” she’s careful to point out.
For entertainment, she stuffs a book inside a cellophane bag. (Plastic is strictly forbidden in her small apartment.)
“It blocks out the volatile organic compounds from the ink,” she offers as an explanation for the bag covering her book.
It’s a tedious exercise Lewis repeats daily in her ongoing battle to lead a "clean" life — convinced that nearly everything in the modern world is making her sick.
“It’s a hard life,” she admits. “It’s challenging.”
Aluminum foil covers part of her living room wall to block a cable box inside. She has no reservation about wearing a gas mask on the rare occasion she steps outside to get groceries.
“Some people call me courageous,” she said. “I get a lot of stares from children.”
Lewis says all are necessary steps to shield herself from the fumes and wireless signals constantly assaulting our bodies from modern devices.
Nearly every technological convenience so many Americans treasure are dangerous to her. Cell phones, televisions, computers, cars — all are off-limits because of a condition known as chemical and electrical sensitivity. Lewis is convinced the emissions of countless objects are damaging her body... and her mind.
“It’s actually a full-time job,” she says about her plan to stay healthy. Insurance rarely covers her expenses, so she’s relying on savings.
“Which is why I’m currently applying for disability,” she said, “because there’s no way I can work in my previous career.”
Indeed, it wasn’t always so for Lewis, who is 53. Years ago, she worked as a speech pathologist in Miami until, she says, a bicycle accident triggered her current condition.
“I was taken away from something that I really helped the world with,” she said. “I’d like to be able to work again and contribute to society.”
She now lives with a handful of other people who share her condition in a modified wing of a motel off Central Expressway in Dallas.
She and her neighbors gave News 8 rare access inside their homes to discuss fears about a new device rapidly spreading across Texas.
“I am very concerned about the smart meter,” said Griselda Oliver, 59, who lives a few doors away from Lewis in the motel.
The Dallas-based utility, Oncor, is nearly done installing 3.4 million of the advanced meters across North Texas. Unlike the old analog meters, the new meters rely on wireless technology to transmit customer data to the company.
When the rollout began in 2008, the meters ignited a firestorm of controversy ranging from concerns about bills spiking to igniting fires — all of which the utility disproved.
Oliver and others are now raising a new concern — what they perceive to be a health risk.
“This must go — totally,” Oliver said while pointing to the smart meter on the side of her Rockwall home. She recently bought the house hoping to soon move out of the small apartment in the motel.
“I’m almost 60 and I’ve never owned a home,” she said. Yet the house stands empty. Oliver said even from inside her home she can feel the radio frequencies constantly emitted by the digital meter.
“I do feel it,” she said from the master bedroom of the residence.
“I feel dizzy. The floor feels unsteady, like I’m on a ship. This is not a good place for me to be,” she said as she rushed out of the room.
Many scientists doubt the claims of sensitivity to radio waves. Some question whether the symptoms are more psychological.
Yet there are doctors who back up their concerns, including Dr. William Rea, who treats hundreds of people for chemical and electrical sensitivity at his clinic, the Environmental Health Center.
“I do know this,” he said. "It’s a real phenomenon, and people are going to have to look into it more and more as time goes on.”
Real or not, the Public Utility Commission of Texas is again reviewing the smart meters. At the urging of lawmakers, the agency is now considering whether homeowners should be permitted to refuse the new meters, for whatever reason — including health concerns.
“It was always my understanding that customers would have a choice in whether to implement this technology at their homes,” Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) wrote in a letter to commissioners. He authored the legislation encouraging the smart meter deployment.
“I am greatly concerned that certain providers are acting beyond the purview of HB 2129 by forcing smart meters on customers,” he wrote. “My constituents are being forced to install and pay for these advanced meters.”
Hundreds of Texans have written the PUC asking to opt out. The agency is currently weighing that idea, and may make a decision later this year.
Oncor and other power companies, however, have been resistant to the concept of letting people choose whether or not they want a new meter on their home.
“It’s mandatory,” said Oncor spokeswoman Jeamy Molina. “There would be more cost associated to keeping an older meter on your home. For one, we would have to have people come out to read your old meter every month. With the new advanced meters, we can read it remotely.”
Plus, Molina said the meters conserve electricity and let the company respond to outages faster. She strongly denies any health concerns.
“Our smart meters are safe,” she said. “We've done investigations. The PUC has done investigations. Our smart meters are safe.”
Either way, Griselda Oliver would prefer to choose what is allowed on her home. As long as the smart meter remains, she fears she’ll never be able to move in.
“We have no choice,” she said. “We have no control over it. I’m trying to have a normal life.”