A recent article in The Star tells of “One Woman’s Battle with Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity,” without a hint critical thinking, skepticism, or actual investigative journalism anywhere in evidence. This is one of those issues that does not appear to be going away anytime soon, despite a fairly solid scientific consensus that there is no such thing as electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS).
The claim is that certain people are especially sensitive to electromagnetic radiation in the frequency range used by modern technology (EMF) – wifi, cell phones, and radio. Exposure, they claim, causes a variety of symptoms. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) review:
“It comprises nervous system symptoms like headache, fatigue, stress, sleep disturbances, skin symptoms like prickling, burning sensations and rashes, pain and ache in muscles and many other health problems.”
It is important to note up front, and the WHO document reflects this, that no one doubts that people who identify themselves as EHS sufferers are having the symptoms they claim. The question is about the identified cause – electromagnetic radiation. There are very good reasons to doubt that this is the cause.
The plausibility of EHS is very low, although skeptics argue about whether or not it is truly zero. EMF is non-ionizing radiation, meaning that it is too low energy to break chemical bonds. It is therefore not clear how it could have a significant effect on biological function. Our nervous systems do not appear to have receptors sensitive enough to pick up ambient radio signals. If we are being conservative, however, we can take the approach that plausibility is low, but there is a physical phenomenon present in EMF, and so perhaps it is having a biological effect through some unknown mechanism.
What, then, is the evidence for and against EHS? Self-identified EHS suffers claim that they can detect the presence of EMF because it causes symptoms. This leads to a very testable hypothesis – are EHS sufferers better able to detect the presence of EMF than healthy controls?
A number of studies have been performed to test this hypothesis, with a very clear outcome. When EHS sufferers are blinded to the presence of EMF they are unable to detect whether or not it is present. A 2005 review of such studies concluded:
The symptoms described by "electromagnetichypersensitivity" 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 "electromagnetichypersensitivity" is unrelated to the presence of EMF, although more research into this phenomenon is required.
A 2011 review concluded:
In summary, recent research did not indicate health-related quality of life to be affected by RF-EMF exposure in our everyday environment. Furthermore, none of the studies showed that individuals with self-reportedelectromagnetichypersensitivity(EHS) were more susceptible to RF-EMF than the rest of the population.
And a 2012 study conducted after these reviews, using smart phones, found that blinded EHS subjects could not perceive RF-EMF better than non-EHS subjects.
Other research has looked at whether or not there are any physiological changes in the presence of EMF. A 2011 systematic review of such studies concluded:
At present, there is no reliable evidence to suggest that people with IEI-EMF experience unusual physiological reactions as a result of exposure to EMF. This supports suggestions that EMF is not the main cause of their ill health.
There are often outliers with such research. One researcher, Madga Havas, has been arguing that “dirty electricity” is causing a wide variety of ills. Her studies have not been rigorous enough to convince the scientific community and they are clearly at odds with the bulk of the research. Generally speaking, if one researcher or one lab is the only one able to detect a phenomenon which cannot be replicated by others, be suspicious.
None of this information is available in the recent article in The Star. The reporter, Noor Javed, does not appear to be a science journalist, and seems unaware that there is even any controversy over EHS. There is a single line in the entire article expressing any doubt:
Health Canada believes the causes of EHS symptoms are unclear and can’t be attributed to radiofrequency radiation.
That’s it. There is no mention of the multiple studies showing that those who believe they have EHS cannot detect the EMF they claim they can.
Credulous article like this one perpetuate popular myths like that of EHS. We do scientific research for a reason – to find out if things like EHS are real entities. What’s the use of such research if the results are going to be ignored.
Further, if people who believe they have EHS do not, they likely have some other condition – another condition which will go undiagnosed and untreated because they falsely believe EHS is the cause.
In understand that newspapers are under financial stress and that as a result generalist reporters and editors are taking on science news reporting, but that does not excuse the failure of this article. Reporters should have some sense of the topic they are covering, and whether or not they have sufficient background knowledge to know they are telling the true story.
Or – they need to spend an hour researching the topic online. With the internet and applications such as Google there is simply no excuse anymore. If you do a Google search for “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” the first hit is for Wikipedia, which includes a decent discussion of the lack of scientific legitimacy in the fourth paragraph. The second hit is for a published review (linked to above) showing that EHS sufferers cannot detect EMF. The third hit is to Skeptoid’s debunking of EHS, and the fourth is to the WHO review. The reporter clearly knew of the WHO report but apparently did not read it, or didn’t care what it actually had to say beyond the quotes pulled out for the article.
(Note: I understand that the results of my Google searches are someone personalized and may not be the same for others, but is likely not very different.)
While people who believe they have EHS are really having symptoms, EHS is a distraction from what is really going on. There is sufficient evidence to conclude that EHS is not a genuine distinct clinical syndrome, or at the very least that it is not caused by exposure to EMF. Continuing to promote EHS as if it is a real medical condition is irresponsible, in inexcusable given the easy access to information that is currently available.
Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.