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electro-sensitives & electrohypersensitivity

Sarah Dacre with her EMF protective headdressElectro-sensitives are people who suffer from various physical and psychological ailments that they say are caused by electro-magnetic radiation (EMR) from ordinary household appliances, radios, televisions, cell phones, Wi-Fi, computer monitors, overhead power lines, and many other sources. The term is self-descriptive and not a medical term.

Double-blind, controlled studies have repeatedly shown that electro-sensitives can't tell the difference between genuine and sham electro-magnetic fields (EMFs).1, 2 For example, a research team in Norway (2007) conducted tests using sixty-five pairs of sham and mobile phone radio frequency (RF) exposures. "The increase in pain or discomfort in RF sessions was 10.1 and in sham sessions 12.6 (P = 0.30). Changes in heart rate or blood pressure were not related to the type of exposure (P: 0.30–0.88). The study gave no evidence that RF fields from mobile phones cause head pain or discomfort or influence physiological variables. The most likely reason for the symptoms is a nocebo effect."

A systematic review of 31 experiments testing 725 "electromagnetically hypersensitive" participants concluded:

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, although more research into this phenomenon is required.

Twenty-four of these studies found no evidence supporting biophysical hypersensitivity. Seven reported some supporting evidence. "For 2 of these 7, the same research groups subsequently tried and failed to replicate their findings. In 3 more, the positive results appear to be statistical artefacts. The final 2 studies gave mutually incompatible results....metaanalyses found no evidence of an improved ability to detect EMF in 'hypersensitive' participants.1 A 2012 study using smart phones and dummy phones got the same kind of result: people self-diagnosed with electrohypersensitivity could not detect RF-EMFs better than controls.

Some electro-sensitives believe their cancer was caused by EMR. It is very unlikely that the kinds of things that electro-sensitives fear actually cause cancer. All electromagnetic radiation comes from photons. The energy of a photon depends on its frequency. "Roughly one million photons in a power line together have the same energy as a single photon in a microwave oven, and a thousand microwave photons have the energy equal to one photon of visible light" (Lakshmikumar 2009). Ionizing radiation is known to cause health effects; "it can break the electron bonds that hold molecules like DNA together" (Trottier 2009). "The photon energy of a cell phone EMF is more than 10 million times weaker than the lowest energy ionizing radiation" (Trottier 2009). Thus, the likelihood that our cell phones, microwave ovens, computers, and other electronic devices are carcinogenic is miniscule.

Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence against the view that our electronic gadgets are causing our headaches, nausea, Alzheimer's, or stress, there are organized movements in several countries to enlighten the world about the dangers of EMR. In the USA, there is The EMR Policy Institute. There is also something called Bioinitiative 2012, a website registered to Cindy Sage of Sage Associates, an environmental consulting firm located in Santa Barbara, California. The Bioinitiative Report is collecting signatures for a petition that reads:

We, the undersigned, find that current government limits do not protect the public from adverse health effects from electromagnetic radiation (EMR) emanating from devices such as power lines, cell phones and wireless internet devices and their associated antenna sites, TV and FM broadcast towers and radar.

Most of the existing limits on this form of radiation are 1 to 4 thousand times too lenient to prudently protect humans from adverse health effects ranging from Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases, reproduction problems, sleep reduction, learning, memory, slowed ability of the body to repair damage, interference with immune function, cancer and electrohypersensitivity.

The petition concludes by claiming there is scientific evidence to support their view that many non-specific symptoms are attributable to EMFs. It then lists what, in the opinion of Sage and her associates, the limits of exposure should be. According to Sage, the "most rapidly growing environmental pollutant in today's environment is probably electromagnetic fields (EMF) including radiofrequency radiation." She makes many other scary claims that are not consistent with the preponderance of the evidence, including the claim that "cell phone exposures can be intense enough to cause DNA damage." Maybe she saw the video on YouTube of some characters appearing to pop popcorn with their cell phones. (If you're wondering how it's done click here.)

In the UK, Powerwatch has been around since 1988 to sell EMF-measuring devices and to promote the idea that EMFs are hazardous to our health. In France, there are several communities that have repeatedly protested against mobile phone masts and campaigned against wireless internet.* A group of self-identified electro-sensitives have taken up residence in the Drôme valley in southern France to escape the ubiquitous radio waves of the cities. They claim their trailer park (caravan park) is an electromagnetic "refuge zone." They wrap their trailers (caravans) in metal to shield them from deadly EMFs. The women wear metal-fiber shawls and aluminum capes. There is, of course, no evidence that metal shields (or tinfoil caps, for that matter) provide protection against any particular physical or psychological ailments caused by cell phones or power lines and the like.

The National Research Council (NRC) spent more than three years reviewing more than 500 scientific studies that had been conducted over a 20-year period and found "no conclusive and consistent evidence" that electromagnetic fields harm humans. The chairman of the NRC panel, neurobiologist Dr. Charles F. Stevens, said that "Research has not shown in any convincing way that electromagnetic fields common in homes can cause health problems, and extensive laboratory tests have not shown that EMFs can damage the cell in a way that is harmful to human health."*

The Swedish Association for the Electrosensitive runs a website that lists support groups in thirteen countries.

In 1997, The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of the largest, most detailed study of the relationship between EMFs and cancer ever done. Dr. Martha S. Linet, director of the study, said: "We found no evidence that magnetic field levels in the home increased the risk for childhood leukemia." The study took eight years and involved measuring the exposure to magnetic fields generated by nearby power lines. A group of 638 children under age 15 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia were compared to a group of 620 healthy children. "The researchers measured magnetic fields in all the houses where the children had lived for five years before the discovery of their cancer, as well as in the homes where their mothers lived while pregnant."

Such evidence apparently is of little interest to those who are convinced that EMFs are hazardous to our health.

If one looks at enough studies, of course, one is bound to find some that seem to support one's viewpoint, no matter how wrong it is. Since there is a strong contingent of folks hell-bent on proving a link between EMFs and ill health, it is likely that studies will continue to be done that support their position. For example, a research team in Sweden found an increased risk for brain tumors in people who used cellular or cordless phones (2006). The study was a small one and assessed exposure by self-administered questionnaires. On the other hand, a large Danish study (420,000 mobile phone users) found neither long nor short-term mobile phone use to be associated with an increased risk of cancer (2006). The Danish study did not use the memories of the subjects to assess exposure; they analyzed data from mobile phone company records. Another small Swedish study found no increased risk of acoustic neuroma related to short-term mobile phone use (2004). The researchers thought that their data suggest an increased risk of acoustic neuroma associated with mobile phone use of at least 10 years duration. They don't say how they measured exposure, but they note that "detailed information about mobile phone use and other environmental exposures was collected." Other studies on laboratory animals have found effects from microwave exposure (2003; 2006; 2007). Some studies have collected data suggestive of possible harmful effects from cell phone microwave exposure, but they are too small to have ruled out chance or other causal agents (2006) or they have not been tested on in vivo cells (2004; 2006a; 2006b).

At this time, it looks as if electrohypersensitivity (aka electrical sensitivity and electromagnetic hypersensitivity) is a psychosomatic disorder. Electrohypersensitivity is not a medical diagnostic term, in any case, and is identified solely by self-reporting. Many electro-sensitives may be misdiagnosing themselves, however. For example, the insomniac who also suffers from headaches might consider cutting down from two pots of coffee a day to a cup or two instead of blaming his neighbor's Wi-Fi for his health problems. It would not surprise me to read about research that finds electro-sensitives respond well to acupuncture, homeopathy, therapeutic touch and other forms of placebo medicine.

It is not known how many electro-sensitives there are, but a telephone survey in California found about 3% of the population self-reported as "allergic or very sensitive" to being near electrical devices.* A Swiss study found about 5% reporting sleep disorders, headaches, and other non-specific symptoms that the respondents attributed to electrohypersensitivity.*

See also Woo Even Oprah Couldn't Sell: shocking news about electrohypersensitivity, Cellphones, brain cancer, and other cheery thoughts, Warning: Your Magazine May Be Hazardous to Your Health, and The Paralyzing Precautionary Principle by R. T. Carroll

further reading

reader comments

books and articles

Edwards, Diane D. "Cells Haywire in Electromagnetic Field?," Science News, v. 133, n. 14 (April 2, 1988).

Lakshmikumar, S. T. 2009. "Power Line Panic and Mobile Mania." Skeptical Inquirer. September/October.

Livingston, James D. Driving Force: The Natural Magic of Magnets (Harvard University Press, 1997).

Moulder. J. E. et al. "Cell Phones and Cancer: What Is the Evidence for a Connection?" Radiation Research, Volume 151, Number 5, May 1999.

Muscat, Joshua E. et al. "Handheld Cellular Telephone Use and Risk of Brain Cancer," JAMA / volume:284 (page: 3001) December 20, 2000.

Park,  Robert L. Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Pool, Robert. "EMF-Cancer Link Still Murky," Nature, v. 349, n. 6310 (Feb 14, 1991).

Pool, Robert. "Is there an EMF-cancer connection?," Science, v. 249, n. 4973 (Sept 7, 1990), pp. 1096-1099.

Richards, Bill.  "Elusive Threat: Electric Utilities Brace for Cancer Lawsuits Through Risk is Unclear/ Companies Spend on Cutting Electromagnetic Fields as Lawyers Smell Blood," The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 1993, p. 1.

Röösli M. 2008. "Radiofrequency electromagnetic field exposure and non-specific symptoms of ill health: a systematic review". Environmental Research. June. pp.  277–87.

Rubin, James et al. 2005. "Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: a systematic review of provocation studies." Psychosomatic Medicine March/April, pp. 224–32.

Sagan, Leonard A. "EMF Danger: Fact or Fiction?," Safety & Health, v. 145, n. 1 (Jan, 1992), pp. 46-49.

Trottier, Lorne. 2009. "EMF and health: A Growing Hysteria. Skeptical Inquirer. September/October.


The Bio-Initiative Report 2007 Edition Ollie Johansson, another author of the Bio-Initiative Report, suggested in a paper (see P 255) that lung cancer is not caused by smoking alone. He actually suggested that lung cancer only started to increase after the introduction of FM radio broadcasting in the 1950's. In 2004, Ollie Johansson was awarded the "Misleader of the Year" award by the Swedish Skeptics Society. Here is a quote from the award citation: "Olle Johansson receives the award as one of the most prominent representatives of the far too many scientists who, to draw attention to themselves and funding for their own activities, disseminate worry among the public in mass media by presenting unsubstantiated hypotheses as established facts. According to VoF, Johansson's own research pertaining to electromagnetic fields is of low quality."

DECT scares by Effort Sisyphus

"Cellular Telephones and Cancer: How Should Science Respond?" by Robert L. Park. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Vol. 93, No. 3, 166-167, February 7, 2001.

Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: Real or Imagined? by Brian Dunning

Death in Your Kitchen: Microwave Ovens (and the Microwave Militia) by Brian Dunning

Mobiles 'don't raise cancer risk' Jan. 20, 2006

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences report on Electrical and Magnetic Fields

The Truth About My Cancer Studies by Robert Liburdy (His scientific work, which established a strong correlation between electromagnetic radiation and cancer, was based on faked data.)

Study: no clear proof electromagnetic fields pose health risk

Study: Leukemia risk no higher near power lines

Power lines and Cancer - Nothing to Fear by John W. Farley, Ph.D.

Power lines and Cancer FAQs (last update Oct. 8, 2004, but still contains some valuable information)

Rats Dive into Cell Phone Debate by Kristen Philipkoski 

Mobile Phone (Cell Phone) Base Stations and Human Health (last update June 2004 but still contains some valuable information)

Mobile phone 'brain risk' 

Microwave News

Cell phone: A Convenience, a Hazard or Both? By JANE E. BRODY New York Times, Oct 1, 2002

Wi-Fi & Autism?

news stories

Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Still Dubious by Dr. Steven Novella "... 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."

Electrosensitivity: is technology killing us? "The fact is, everyone who suffers from EHS is self-diagnosed – and each has their own story to explain the cause of their problems."

Maine Voices: Smart-meter worries can cause symptoms all by themselves Physician and science writer Ben Goldacre says that "Science stories usually fall into three families: wacky stories, scare stories and 'breakthrough' stories." Staff Writer John Richardson's March 6 article, "Foes of smart meters resist and insist: Health effects are real," falls decidedly into the "scare" category.

How Arthur Firstenberg Made His Neighbor’s Life A Living Hell Raphaela Monribot had the misfortune of renting a home next to Arthur Firstenberg.   Miss Monribot, a graphic artist, didn’t do anything to cause conflict with her new neighbor other than daring to own a cell phone and a laptop computer.

Electrosensitive refugees from wireless technology head for Drôme

Electromagnetic fields from incubators: Italian researchers find no hard evidence of any actual health damage

Watch out for that blob of radiation! Ben Goldacre June

Wi-Fi Wants To Kill Your Children

Wi-fi health fears are 'unproven'

Mobiles 'cleared' of cancer risk

Factors that risk being left out of the equation by Ben Goldacre

A Roman Catholic cardinal and a priest in charge of Vatican Radio have been convicted of polluting the atmosphere with powerful electromagnetic waves

The woman who needs a veil of protection from modern life By Victoria Moore Last updated 25-Mar-2014

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