Beth Sturdivant isn’t in the business of telling people what to do. She isn’t in any business anymore. But she doesn’t mind telling people why.
Sturdivant, 44, a former bail bondsman and operator of multiple Subway franchises, now receives disability as she recovers from an unusual ailment. It’s something set off by a laptop, a cellphone – the wrong type of light. Something she’d like to see others avoid, one small step at a time.
“If you try to promote fear, you’re going to get fear back,” Sturdivant said. “All I’m trying to do is bring it to them to where they realize that’s what’s going on.”
Sturdivant took years and a cross-country trek to understand what was going on with her. It began with a 2009 traffic stop and DWI, which Sturdivant claims she hadn’t consumed nearly enough to warrant. Symptoms such as unexplained dizziness, nausea, confusion and sensitivity to light and sound began – then worsened.
Her search for answers took the Fort Mill resident, who since relocated to Pineville, N.C., to local and regional doctors, an autism specialist in Pineville, a 12-week biodetox facility in Charleston, a brain specialist in Idaho and an environmental health center in Dallas, Texas. It was Dallas where Sturdivant got her diagnosis of electromagnetic field sensitivity.
“I had swollen really big, like a monster,” she said. “I’m better now, but I really went through it.”
The disorder is a disruption of the body’s natural electric functions. Symptoms are myriad. So too are triggers. Nick Callas, a Columbia attorney who won Sturdivant her disability status, recalls the client who couldn’t consult with him if lights or his computer stayed on during the meeting.
“She even said my fish tank was bothering her,” Callas said.
Though he’s won two similar cases since, Callas said he hadn’t seen anything like Sturdivant’s condition. Neither did it seem the judge had. Callas had to educate himself on what comes on like an allergy or reaction, rather than disease.
“Most lawyers don’t have a case like this in their careers, and if they do, they only have one,” he said.
What caused it?
Sturdivant moved from Pineville to Fort Mill in 2000. Her home on Oxford Place Drive sat in front of power lines, just off from the backyard pool. Sturdivant spent hours landscaping out back, a reprieve from long days running two restaurants. She began showing symptoms.
In 2009, Duke Energy bought Sturdivant’s home and county records show, still owns it. Sturdivant signed a three-year lease to remain there just weeks before learning her disorder is electromagnetic.
The former resident has concerns the power lines were too close to the home.
“They purchased our house,” she said. “They didn’t purchase anybody else’s house (nearby). They purchased our house.”
Valerie Patterson, a spokeswoman for Duke, said the power company purchased Sturdivant for a right of way. She said she wasn’t sure if anyone had occupied the house since Sturdivant moved out or what, if anything, will be done with the property off South Dobys Bridge Road.
Duke provides information on electromagnetic fields and their impact for consumers. As for adverse human health effects, particularly whether fields increase cancer risks, the information, published on the utility’s website at duke-energy.com/about-energy, gives an inconclusive finding.
“The consensus among health professionals and scientists studying the issue is that no firm conclusions can be drawn,” it reads.
Duke contributes to the Electric Power Research Institute, which funds about 40 percent of research worldwide on electromagnetic fields, according to the company. Extensive studies over more than four decades were done on the impact of magnetic field impact from power lines.
“To date,” reads a company brochure, “none of these studies have shown a cause and effect relationship between (electromagnetic fields) and human health.”
For her part, Sturdivant isn’t blaming the power company. She isn’t suing. Sturdivant couldn’t say how much came from power lines compared to the constant microwaves at her restaurant, the cellphone she tied herself to for more than 20 years or the WiFi box in her office that served an entire strip mall.
“This really isn’t about power lines to me, anymore,” Sturdivant said. “When I start putting all this together, I can’t just blame the power company. I did everything everybody else does.”
The first breakthrough clue as to what was happening came from a laptop. Sturdivant and a relative saw her stomach swell as she sat with it.
“I have not touched that laptop since,” she said. “That was six years ago, almost.”
Daughter Brandi, 24, was diagnosed with breast cancer and reproductive issues. Son Brandon, 20, lost pigment in his skin.
“I had issues with my skin,” Brandi said. “My digestion shut down. When I’d come home (from college), they would get worse.”
The family lived in the home 11 years and left almost four years ago. Symptoms have improved, but so have daily choices to limit other electromagnetic exposure.
“It’s just my job to share what I’ve been through,” Brandi said.
Beth Sturdivant details her experience in the book, “Backyard Secret Exposed: A journal of my healing path back to life.” She and Brandi started a nonprofit called The Academy for Environmental Sickness. They hope to open a Charlotte storefront soon.
The academy seeks to educate people on environmental factors that can lead to problems like theirs. They don’t want to spread fear. But there are steps, they say, people can take.
“I definitely don’t use the microwave anymore,” Brandi said.
Neither does she use alarm clocks, or sleep with her cellphone on.
When the Sturdivants use their cellphones, they put them on speaker and attach diodes to disrupt harmful waves. They turn off WiFi at night, and have grounders they can take anywhere.
Their most pressing concern is for children. Hers were 6 and 9 years old when Beth Sturdivant moved to Fort Mill. Now, she said, children are born into a world where electrical devices are everywhere, and on constantly.
“The kids of today have less of a chance at being healthy for a long period of time,” she said.
Electromagnetic field exposure happens to everyone, Beth Sturdivant said, and she can’t explain why it impacted her so severely compared to others.
She doesn’t know whether she’ll fully recover. All she knows is the steps she is taking, those she won’t force on but will share with anyone, are making a difference.
“I don’t know yet,” Beth Sturdivant said. “I know I am improving.”