Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: Real or Imagined?
Some claim to be hypersensitive to electromagnetism. Science has already solved what's really going on.
by Brian Dunning
October 30, 2007
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You've seen them on the TV news and on the Internet: Thousands of people worldwide, though mostly concentrated in the United Kingdom and Sweden, who believe that their bodies are being afflicted by the electromagnetic radiation put out by computers, wireless data networks, cell phone networks, radio and television broadcasting, power lines, and virtually anything that uses electricity. Mass media trumpet the alarmist headlines, like one article that proclaims "For years, opponents of cell towers and wireless technology have voiced concerns about potential health effects of electromagnetic fields. Once ridiculed as crackpots, they're starting to get backup from the scientific community."
Generally called electrosensitivity or ES for short, the condition manifests itself in sufferers as skin sensitivity and blemishing, light sensitivity, fatigue, high blood pressure, headaches, joint pain, dizziness, and a whole array of associated symptoms. Interestingly, these are also the exact same symptoms caused by simple stress. We'll come back to that later.
There is no cure that is broadly accepted among ES advocates, but they do agree on one point: shielding or complete removal from the environment is the only sure-fire way to alleviate the symptoms. Breakspear Hospital, located in Hertfordshire, UK, advertises itself as the world's leading facility for the treatment of ES, among other things. On its list of treatments for ES, unfortunately, is chelation therapy, a dangerous and tedious drug-based treatment for removing heavy metal contamination from the body. People who choose this option should be aware that the drugs used in chelation therapy are approved only for use in cases where a blood test has proven acute heavy metal contamination. This is because chelation therapy ravages the body and can produce side effects as dangerous as liver failure. Any doctors or alternative practitioners who prescribe such therapy in the absence of its prescribed condition should be approached with extreme caution, and probably also reported to the relevant medical board. Other practitioners who claim to treat ES prescribe holistic treatments such as acupuncture, vitamin megadosing, chiropractic, exposure to energized crystals, reflexology, shiatsu, clay baths, and avoidance of genetically modified foods. The Environmental Health Center in Dallas, Texas, will even rent you their "safe vacation home" in Jamaica where you can be free of the causes of ES, although the pictures they post on their website show it to apparently be as full of electrical appliances as any other home, including a TV and VCR, which are alleged to be among the worst causes of ES.
What does the medical establishment have to say about ES? Well, that depends on whom you ask. Electrosensitivity.org, a website set up by Troy Knight, a young man suffering from ES, blames "great opposition from medical establishments and governments" for the lack of a definitive diagnosis of ES in mainstream science. I'm not sure how he defines "great opposition", or what form he believes such opposition might take, but quite to the contrary a number of studies have been done. Nobody doubts that a large number of people wordwide report this condition, and nobody doubts the reality of their symptoms or the suffering they endure. What falls under skepticism is their self-diagnosis that their condition is caused by the proximity of electrically powered devices.
Quite obviously, people in many countries around the world have been using electricity for over a century. And, in poorer regions like parts of Asia, Africa, and South America, there are populations who (even today) use no electricity at all. If normal levels of electromagnetic radiation were indeed harmful to the body, then we would see correlation on a massive scale between such physiological damage and geography. There is no such correlation, and no cases of observed physiological damage caused by electromagnetic radiation even in the most industrialized regions. Thus, there is very good reason for science to not simply accept this self-diagnosis without inquiry.
But the symptoms and suffering are still real, so what do we do? Well, we do science. One of the first steps in doing science is to throw out the anecdotal evidence of personal testimonials — with apologies to the people wearing tinfoil helmets — and design randomized controlled trials to test for the true causes of the ailment, and to test the efficacy of potential treatments. So, if it's not too politically incorrect to do so, let's take a look at some of these trials and see what's been learned.
Well-performed trials always have a number of features in common. First, they do include subjects who objectively report themselves to be electrosensitive, and they also include people who do not. Second, all subjects are usually surveyed to gauge their own perceived sensitivity to various electromagnetic phenomena, whether they claim to suffer from ES or not. Third, the trials are blinded wherever possible. Test administrators never know anything about a given subject's claimed sensitivity. All subjects are randomly assigned to different test groups. Subjects typically do not know what is being tested. And finally, the statisticians who evaluate the results do not know the identity of any of the subjects, or about the procedures performed on each group. Statistical methods are employed to cancel out any bias wherever possible.
The first study we'll look at is one from 2005, by the UK Health Protection Agency, which found that a disproportionately large segment of self-reported ES sufferers also report suffering from other idiopathic symptom-based conditions. Now this doesn't tell us anything about ES, of course, but it does tell us that ES sufferers are more likely to also report other conditions that are commonly classified as psychosomatic, or as it's more politically correct to say, psychophysiologic illnesses. It's fair to note that some psychosomatic cases are people simply faking symptoms, and while some ES sufferers might be faking, probably the great majority are not, and are experiencing real symptoms; and now we know that many of these people also report conditions known to be psychosomatic in nature. Read between my lines at your own peril.
This finding is certainly consistent with the findings of other studies, which have tested various treatments for ES. What these studies have found is that the only successful treatment has been psychotherapy. A trial at Sweden's University of Uppsala's Department of Clinical Psychology took blood samples from subjects and analyzed them for indicators of stress, both before and after the test. Some subjects were secretly exposed to electromagnetic radiation, but there were neither any differences between ES sufferers and control subjects in how they reacted to it, nor were there any differences in stress among those who received radiation and those who did not. When subjects received psychotherapy, the patients who reported themselves as ES sufferers had a greater reduction in stress levels following psychotherapy than did subjects who did not report themselves as hypersensitive.
Another such trial was performed at the Environmental Illness Research Center in Huddinge, Sweden. Half the subjects reported themselves as hypersensitive, half did not. Half received cognitive behavioral therapy, half did not. All were evaluated for stress before the study, after the study, and six months later. Just like in the other trial, subjects with perceived hypersensitivity benefitted more from cognitive behavioral therapy than did those who were not hypersensitive. There were no other significant differences among any groups.
So before all of you ES sufferers band together and have me tarred and feathered for proclaiming that yours is not a physical condition, allow me to remind you that I'm not saying that. Psychological conditions do cause physical symptoms — like I said at the beginning of the episode, stress is a psychological condition, and it causes all the same symptoms that ES does. These conditions can be very traumatic, and at their most severe, even life threatening. So it's not to be taken lightly. But every reasonable person should agree that it's best to understand the condition's true nature.
A 2005 trial at the Psychiatric University Hospital in Germany found further support for the hypothesis that ES sufferers are not having a physiological response to electromagnetic radiation:
The major study endpoint was the ability of the subjects to differentiate between real magnetic stimulation and a sham condition. There were no significant differences between groups in the thresholds, neither of detecting the real magnetic stimulus nor in motor response. But the three groups differed significantly in differentiating between stimulation and sham condition, with the subjectively electrosensitive people having the lowest ability to differentiate and the control group with high level of EMF-related complaints having the best ability to differentiate. Differences between groups were mostly due to false alarm reactions in the sham condition reported by subjectively electrosensitives (SES). We found no objective correlate of the self perception of being "electrosensitive."
These results represent the preponderance of evidence from well-performed trials seeking to find whether ES sufferers can actually detect the presence of electromagnetic fields and react to them. Going back to Sweden again, a 2000 study at the Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the Center for Public Health Sciences found that ES sufferers were no better than the control group at deciding whether or not they were exposed to electric and magnetic fields. In this test, subjects were exposed to four provocations at irregular and unknown intervals over several days, with at least several days of recovery time between each provocation. Each subject received two real provocations of actual electromagnetic radiation, and two sham provocations. The study concluded that exposure to electromagnetic fields is not a sufficient cause of the symptoms experienced by ES sufferers.
Some researchers have turned their attention to causes that would correlate to the presence of common environmental EM sources like computers or offices, most notably flickering lights. In the United States, televisions flicker at 30 Hz, fluorescent lights at 60 Hz, and computer monitors at a variety of frequencies in the same approximate range. This flickering is usually imperceptible unless you look for it specifically, for example by waving your hand in front of a CRT monitor. Generally, if your brain can detect flickering light sources, it knows that there are probably electromagnetic sources nearby. Thus, an ES sufferer can correctly conclude that electromagnetic sources are irradiating them, and logically (if incorrectly) associate that with their symptoms.
This was evidenced by another study from Sweden in 1997, from the University of Umeå's Department of Environmental Medicine:
An increasing number of people in Sweden are claiming that they are hypersensitive to electricity. These patients suffer from skin as well as neurological symptoms when they are near computer monitors, fluorescent tubes, or other electrical appliances. Provocation studies with electromagnetic fields emitted from these appliances have, with only one exception, all been negative, indicating that there are other factors in the office environment that can effect the autonomic and/or central nervous system, resulting in the symptoms reported. Flickering light is one such factor and was therefore chosen as the exposure parameter in this study. Ten patients complaining of electrical hypersensitivity and the same number of healthy voluntary control subjects were exposed to amplitude-modulated light. A higher amplitude of brain cortical responses at all frequencies of stimulation was found when comparing patients with the control subjects.
The ability of a human brain to convince itself of just about anything is not to be underestimated. If you are experiencing stress (and just about everyone is experiencing some stress), whatever you attribute it to will inevitably create more stress whenever you encounter it. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe yourself to be electrosensitive, then you will be, quite literally, whenever you perceive the presence of electromagnetism. This doesn't mean that you have a paranormal ability to detect electromagnetic fields. You don't. But you might be able to hear the high-frequency ring of your neighbor's television set, or see the 60-Hz flickering of a fluorescent light bulb, or you might see that your computer has found a WiFi network or that your cell phone has four bars of signal. There are many ways that a person can detect the probable presence of electromagnetic radiation without the ability to directly sense it. And, if you've fallen into the self-fulfilling syndrome of believing yourself to be electrosensitive, you will actually suffer measurable physical symptoms and can potentially become acutely ill. By the same token, if you believe strongly enough that acupuncture or vitamins will cure your electrosensitivity, they probably will.
But all this strategy accomplishes is to reinforce faulty assumptions, and leave you equally vulnerable to a recurrence in the future. A better strategy is to understand the true cause of your stress, possibly through psychotherapy or possibly on your own, and either solve it or simply find a way to relax and blow off some steam.
I'll close with an experience related by a listener who wrote in, that aptly illustrates this phenomenon:
We had an interesting incident near Humboldt State University. A new cell tower went up and the local newspaper asked a number of people what they thought of it. Some said they noticed their cell phone reception was better. Some said they noticed the tower was affecting their health. To paraphrase the bottom line: "think about how much more pronounced these effects will be once the tower is actually operational."
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: Real or Imagined?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
30 Oct 2007. Web.
25 Jul 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4072>
References & Further Reading
Andersson, B, Berg, M, Arnetz, BB, Melin, L, Langlet, I, Lidén, S. "A cognitive-behavioral treatment of patients suffering from "electric hypersensitivity". Subjective effects and reactions in a double-blind provocation study." J Occup Environ Med. 1 Aug. 1996, Volume 38, Number 8: 752-758.
Flodin, U, Seneby, A, Tegenfeldt, C. "Provocation of electric hypersensitivity under everyday conditions." Scand J Work Environ Health. 1 Apr. 2000, Volume 26, Number 2: 93-98.
Frick, U., Kharraz, A., Hauser, S., Wiegand, R., Rehm, J., Kovatsits, U., Eichhammer, P. "Comparison perception of singular transcranial magnetic stimuli by subjectively electrosensitive subjects and general population controls." Bioelectromagnetics. 1 May 2005, Volume 26, Number 4: 287-298.
Hillert, L, Kolmodin Hedman, B, Dölling, BF, Arnetz, BB. "Cognitive behavioural therapy for patients with electric sensitivity - a multidisciplinary approach in a controlled study." Psychother Psychosom. 1 Jan. 1998, Volume 67, Number 6: 302-310.
Sandström, M, Lyskov, E, Berglund, A, Medvedev, S, Mild, KH. "Neurophysiological effects of flickering light in patients with perceived electrical hypersensitivity." J Occup Environ Med. 1 Jan. 1997, Volume 39, Number 1: 15-22.
WHO. "Electromagnetic Fields and Public Health." World Health Organization. World Health Organization, 1 Dec. 2005. Web. 30 Oct. 2007. <http://www.who.int/peh-emf/publications/facts/fs296/en/>
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