As if we didn’t have enough things to worry about already, now we are being told to fear our toasters. A typical headline trumpets “The Effects of Invisible Waves.” We are increasingly exposed to electromagnetic radiation from cell phones, cell phone towers, wireless Internet routers, cordless phones, and power lines. Other sources 1,2 are our household appliances: TVs, hairdryers, light bulbs, and yes, your trusty toaster. These invisible villains are said to lead to a variety of symptoms, including poor sleep, fatigue, heart palpitations, headache, nausea, dizziness, memory impairment, prickling and burning sensations, along with skin rashes. They’ve even been blamed for depression, anxiety, colds, digestive disorders, and chronic pain. It’s called electromagnetic hypersensitivity or EHS.
Is EHS physical or psychological? Research is problematic because there is no universally accepted definition of the condition. The array of symptoms is reminiscent of the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War syndrome, fibromyalgia, somatization disorder, anxiety, and simple stress.
One sufferer claims to be so sensitive that if he is in the front yard and someone in the house hangs up from a cell phone call, he can immediately feel an energy shift.4 (What would happen to his brain in a stadium full of people on cell phone calls?) I’d love to see him submit to rigorous controlled testing— I’m guessing he has little chance of winning Randi’s million dollars.
Another says, “If I walk into a room or building that has Wi-Fi, my most immediate sign is that the front of my right thigh goes numb; if I don’t leave, I’ll get short of breath, chest pains and the numbness will spread.” (Numbness, shortness of breath, and chest pains are classic signs of hyperventilation due to anxiety.)
It has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF can trigger these symptoms. This suggests that “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” is unrelated to the presence of EMF.
Such claims don’t hold up under scrutiny. A 2005 review in the Psychosomatic Medicine journal identified 31 blinded provocation experiments done on “electromagnetically hypersensitive” subjects. Twenty-four studies found no evidence of sensitivity. Seven studies did report some supporting evidence, but in two of them the same research group tried to replicate their own findings and failed; in three others, the positive findings could be attributed to statistical artifacts; and in the remaining two the results were mutually incompatible (one showed improved mood; the other showed worse mood). Studies that were not blinded all found that the patients reported symptoms only when they were aware that the EMF (electromagnetic field) source was switched on. The implication is obvious. The researchers noted:
The symptoms described by “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” sufferers can be severe and are sometimes disabling. However, it has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF can trigger these symptoms. This suggests that “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” is unrelated to the presence of EMF.
A follow up review included 15 experiments done after the initial review: it confirmed the initial findings. At least one systematic review by other authors has also confirmed those findings.
The World Health Organization reviewed 25,000 articles. They concluded that current evidence does not show any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.
Health Canada says “there is no scientific evidence that the symptoms attributed to EHS are actually caused by exposure to EMFs.”
The Skeptic’s Dictionary comes right out and calls EHS a psychosomatic disorder.
Brian Dunning (www.briandunning.com) offers this revealing anecdote:
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.”
Nevertheless, up to 5% of people in surveys claim to have EHS. Sweden pays disability benefits to people who believe they have the condition. A man in New Mexico sued his neighbor for $530,000 in damages and sought an injunction to force her to turn off her electronic devices. A Roman Catholic cardinal and priest were convicted of polluting the atmosphere with powerful electromagnetic waves from a Vatican Radio antenna. There have been campaigns to turn off Wi-Fi networks in schools. One activist said “Until such time as we know that these technologies are absolutely safe, Wi-Fi has no place in elementary schools, and maybe not even in high schools.” There are over 30 support groups and a number of activist organizations. One group even blamed Wi-Fi for causing autism.
And there’s no lack of bogus remedies. For only $298 you can buy the EarthCalm Home EMF Protection System. They know it works because a quantum biofeedback machine showed changes in the body’s biofield and the energy and chemical imbalance of the body. There are other devices for personal, home and cell phone protection including some that plug into the wall. Patients have tried orgonite and orgonium products, scalar energy pendants, a zero point energy wand, crystal healing, and even a BioDisk from a quantum physicist. They seem less willing to try the one thing that evidence says really does help: psychotherapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy.
Sufferers have resorted to living in a Faraday cage or moving to the U.S. Radio Quiet Zone on the border between Virginia and West Virginia, where mountain topography and FCC restrictions collaborate to shield the radio telescopes located there from interference.
Dr. William Rea believes he has EHS and that his neurologic symptoms were due to electromagnetic fields in the operating room. He gave up surgery and re-invented himself as a guru of “environmental medicine.” The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) is listed on Quackwatch as a questionable organization, and its certifying board, the American Board of Environmental Medicine, is listed as a dubious certifying board. It is not recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. Their website says:
A quickly growing body of scientific evidence has revealed how many important inflammatory and autoimmune diseases are caused by man’s interaction with the environment, both internally and externally. At the AAEM, we understand this interaction. We can provide you with the answers you need and new insights that will open the door to newer and more effective, specific, cause-oriented, and preventive treatment for most of these conditions.
Patients are persuaded that the world has made them sick. Symptoms are blamed on everything from the wood in the walls to additives in food. While one chemical might not be a problem, multiple chemicals and substances supposedly overwhelm the body’s ability to cope.
Rea blames mold, yeast, EMF, allergies, and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) for his patients’ vague subjective complaints. His diagnostic tests are questionable. His treatments include avoidance, immunotherapy, detoxification, nutritional supplements, restricted diets, and drugs. His clinic has nonreactive ceramic walls, detoxification saunas, and exercise machines cleaned of lubricants that might put fumes into the air.
His immunotherapy treatments are non-standard; he was even accused of injecting jet fuel into patients. He made excuses, first saying that he was injecting jet fuel “antigens” as a skin test for allergy. (Jet fuel is a skin irritant, but is not considered to be an allergen.) Then he argued that he doesn’t actually inject chemicals, but only the “electromagnetic imprint” of the chemicals in the form of homeopathic remedies!
The Texas medical board charged him with six counts, including using pseudoscientific test methods, failing to make accurate diagnoses, and providing “nonsensical” treatments. They didn’t suspend his license, but they required him to use written consent forms with clear disclaimers that his skin tests and treatments are nonstandard, unproven, and don’t contain any active ingredients.
An episode of ABC’s Nightline news show about Dr. Rea’s controversial diagnoses and treatments aired in 2009. I was appalled by the interviews with a patient diagnosed by Dr. Rea as sensitive to almost everything in her environment. She can’t work or leave home; her whole life revolves around her treatments. She moved to an island and created a pollutant free home. She won’t use her telephone because the magnets in it give her headaches. She spends two hours a day inhaling oxygen. She injects herself daily with a variety of unconventional “allergy” shots, including mercury! Curiously, she has no sensitivities to her dogs, her horses, or the dust kicked up as she rides in a dirt arena. Nightline also interviewed a real allergy specialist who said these people are reacting to stress, have underlying psychiatric issues, and have developed a conditioned response to experience symptoms when they encounter an odor or anything else they think they are sensitive to.
Rea has done research to support his work. I looked at some of his published studies: they range from the seriously flawed to the uncontrolled and outright laughable. MCS has not been meaningfully defined, diagnosis is based on unblinded, unvalidated tests whose findings vanish when blinding is used, and the treatment is a mishmash of everything but the kitchen sink.
The modern world is portrayed as a dangerous place where everything is out to get you, from the ink in your newsprint to the fluoride in your toothpaste, from the air you breathe to the food you eat, from your smart phone to your computer, from the emissions of your toaster (even when turned off!) to the very walls of your home.
People who believe they suffer from these disorders have very real symptoms; they deserve our sympathy and efforts to reduce their suffering. Their symptoms are not imaginary, but it’s their imagination that blames electromagnetic and chemical sensitivities. To quote Brian Dunning, “The ability of a human brain to convince itself of just about anything is not to be underestimated.”
This article was originally published as a SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine.