Is Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity a Real Illness?

By Alison Nastasi on at

The National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) is a 13,000–square-mile area in West Virginia, Virginia, and part of Maryland that heavily restricts radio transmissions and other electromagnetic radiation on the same spectrum. Since 1958, the ban minimises interference with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, home to the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope.

In recent years, however, the NRQZ has been a safe haven for sufferers of electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), which is not currently recognised as a medical diagnosis according to the World Health Organization. Folks claiming to suffer from EHS reports a variety of symptoms, which include dermatological issues, like redness or burning sensations, and other symptoms, such as fatigue, heart palpitations, and nausea.

Fans of the television series Better Call Saul experienced the strange and exasperating malady through the unravelling of Michael McKean’s Chuck McGill—a hard-nosed lawyer and former bright star of his profession who wrapped himself in space blankets, lit his home with lanterns, and made guests leave their mobile phones in the mailbox outside.

So far, results of EHF studies have been inconsistent. In fact, subjects experienced symptoms whether or not they were exposed to real electromagnetic fields. Double-blind experiments (where neither the subject nor the researcher know if the subject is being exposed to real or sham electromagnetic fields) showed no evidence of EHF of symptoms being caused by electromagnetic fields.

In this week’s Giz Asks, we talk to doctors, researchers, and medical field workers with a variety of opinions, from mainstream to fringe. Is EHS ever a valid medical diagnosis? Does it even matter if EHS is a real disease since people say they feel legitimate pain? Is it possible to overcome EHS if you come to realise you don’t actually have a problem and it’s simply the culmination of some kind of obsession or paranoia?

Dr. Jonathan Pham

Doctor and medical researcher working on COSMOS (an international study investigating whether long term mobile phone and RF-EMF technologies cause adverse health outcomes), Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics (a unit that specialises in environmental EMF research) at Imperial College London

In the past decade, the use of mobile phones and other wireless technologies has become widespread in our everyday lives, not only in our homes but also at workplaces and schools. These technologies emit electromagnetic fields (EMF) in the radiofrequency range.

A small number of individuals have reported a range of symptoms which they attribute to EMF exposure. This has been referred to as electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS). For some individuals these symptoms can be mild and for others it can be severely disabling, precluding them from being able to work or do simple daily tasks like cooking or self-care.

Unfortunately, very little is known about the physiological mechanism by which EHS causes symptoms. Despite its name, a number of studies have shown no correlation between EHS symptoms and RF-EMF exposure.

Given the lack of evidence linking EMF exposure and EHS, other triggers for this illness have been proposed. These include other environmental factors like noise and lighting as well as psychological factors such as stress and mental illness. Studies in this regard are, unfortunately, limited.

As to the question whether this is a real disease: despite the unlikely link between EMF and symptoms of EHS, I would say that individuals suffering from this subset of symptoms warrant medical care and relief of discomfort, just as individuals suffering from any other condition. What makes this difficult is our current lack of understanding of this condition: whether it represents one condition or a collection, what the real triggers are, and whether it is physiological, environmental or psychological in nature. Therefore, further research is needed in this field, which will be essential in guiding quality medical care for these individuals.

James Hamblin, MD

Host of the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk, Senior Editor for The Atlantic

I love Better Call Saul and thought it did a good job showing the complexity of a disorder like this. It would be inappropriate to say it isn’t real. I think that’s pretty straightforward as a thing in life, don’t deny the reality of other people’s suffering

The question is, are the symptoms caused by electromagnetic fields, and in what sense? That’s where it gets tricky in terms of people arguing fake-or-real. I think of it as something analogous to a phobia—and I know this isn’t a perfect comparison, but—think about a really extreme “fear of heights,” acrophobia. If you take him to the observation deck of a skyscraper and make him look down, even if he’s behind glass or whatever other barrier that makes it impossible for him to fall, and he knows he can’t fall, he can still have every symptom of a person whose body is in real crisis—racing heart, surging blood pressure, stress hormones pumping. If he already had cardiovascular disease, he could be brought to the point of having a heart attack, and that could kill him. You killed him. And if you sit there and yell “fake!” that’s not insensitive, it’s ignorant, possibly legally tenuous. So that’s real, even though if that same person were brought to the edge blindfolded, he’d have no symptoms. The mechanism of the reaction works via perception of height, not height itself. And I think it can be helpful to think of electromagnetic “hypersensitivity” in the same way.

We have no reason, to my knowledge, to believe that the electromagnetic radiation from a light bulb can directly cause a severe reaction in the same way peanut can imperil an allergic person. The mechanism is different and needs to be treated accordingly, but there’s no reason to think of one as real and another not, or to compare how valid either person’s suffering is at all.

Jeffrey Mogil, Ph.D.

Head of Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University, E.P. Taylor Professor of Pain Studies, Canada Research Chair in the Genetics of Pain (Tier I), Director of the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain

I don’t think people can create pain in their minds. Real diseases produce real pain, and just because EHS has no current medical explanation doesn’t mean it’s not real. Fibromyalgia was thought not to be “real” until imaging studies showed cortical activation in the same brain areas as “real” pain, and now we know that some reasonable percentage of fibromyalgics actually have small fibre polyneuropathy, which is only diagnosable with specialised biopsy staining.

That being said, it is far from credible that electromagnetic radiation of the frequencies and intensities in current use could produce any actual pathology, so I remain extremely sceptical of this particular “disorder.”

Harriet A. Hall, MD

Retired family physician and former Air Force flight surgeon, Skeptic magazine columnist, contributing editor to Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, medical adviser and author at Quackwatch

It is not real. When sufferers have been tested, they have not been able to tell whether the electronic devices are turned on. They are indeed suffering, and blaming their symptoms on EHS only distracts from seeking the real cause of their symptoms and helping them. Of course it matters whether it is real or not: contact with reality is much more effective than imaginary beliefs in solving problems.

David O. Carpenter, MD

Director of Institute for Health and the Environment, a Collaborating Centre of the World Health Organisation at the University at Albany

Electromagnetic hypersensitivity is a real disease. And it does matter if it is real or not. Clearly some people suffer from chronic ills and would like to blame EMFs, when in fact they are not electrosensitive. There are likely many more people who are electrosensitive but have not identified the cause of their symptoms. The reason that it does matter is that if one is really sensitive to EMFs you can reduce your symptoms by avoiding excessive exposure. This is especially important for those who are electrosensitive but haven’t identified the cause. There are other causes of similar non-specific symptoms as well, such as chemical exposures, so not all of the symptoms of those who are not electrosensitive are due to psychological problems, even though some are.

Wendell Wallach

A scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics and senior adviser to The Hastings Center, author of “A Dangerous Master: How to Keep Technology from Slipping Beyond Our Control”

A distinction should be made between electromagnetic sensitivity, and symptoms an individual labels as such. Researchers have failed in proving that those claiming sensitivity to electromagnetism can accurately determine the presence of a strong electromagnetic field. Nevertheless, the perceived symptoms are real for the patient, and should be honoured as such, or until it can be demonstrated that they are psychosomatic or have some other physical source. Many people who meditate, for example, perceive energy movements in their body and learn to work with these. But a second distinction must be made between those who successfully work with unusual psychological states and these who find them debilitating. For the later, either drugs or meditative practice may or may not be helpful. Overcoming, defusing, or sublimating debilitating mental states is never easy.

More Giz asks Posts: