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EMFs: sense and sensitivity

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It’s called ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’ (EHS) – a collection of symptoms that range from headaches, concentration problems and insomnia to skin irritation and fatigue. Yet despite the name, the World Health Organization (WHO) and most of the world’s major governments don’t accept that it’s caused by electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from electrical appliances, computers, cell phones and towers, and power lines.

And there’s only a grudging acceptance that EHS is even a genuine health problem. If it does exist, it affects only around 1 percent of a population, while the general view is that it’s a problem more in the mind of the sufferer. Skeptics point to studies where EHS sufferers responded more strongly to devices that weren’t emitting EMFs than those that were. Some psychologists have even classified it as an escape from the tensions and pace of the modern world.

So what’s the official line on the causes of EHS? According to the WHO, doctors who have an EHS patient should first order full psychiatric or psychological tests. If the patient isn’t mentally unstable, the EHS could be the result of indoor pollution, excessive noise, poor lighting or flickering fluorescent tubes.

But countering this are the thousands of case studies of people who suddenly suffered fatigue or concentration problems without ever knowing they were in an environment of high EMF levels. In Sweden alone, which has some of the highest reported rates in Europe, along with Germany and Denmark, around 250,000 people were identified as EHS sufferers in 2004, while it’s less prevalent in the UK, Austria and France.

Independent research studies are also starting to come down on the side that EHS is very real. One report – titled ‘Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: fact or fiction?’ – decided that it is, indeed, a fact. And more tellingly, the lead author, Professor Stephen Genuis at the University of Alberta in Canada, concluded that “many scientists now recognize that hypersensitivity to EMR (electromagnetic radiation) can be a debilitating medical condition that is affecting increasing numbers of people throughout the world.”1

Follow the money

The cynic might suggest that the reluctance to recognize EHS as a genuine health concern – and EMFs as the cause – boils down to one simple issue: money. Aside from the vast amounts that would have to be paid out in compensation to EHS victims, governments have received enormous sums from the telecommunications industry, which has also happened to fund the majority of research that has failed to identify EMFs as a health hazard. The UK government, for instance, garnered £2.3 billion (US$3.1 billion) from the auction of the new 4G mobile phone licenses in 2013.

But despite the financial pressures, some countries are recognizing EHS as a genuine medical condition. The Swedish government has described it as a “functional impairment,” while Spain has classified it as a “permanent disability” and the Canadian Human Rights Commission includes EHS among a list of environmental sensitivities.

French authorities have gone further and declared EMFs as the cause not only of EHS, but also of various cancers, and small children are especially vulnerable. Last year, they banned the use of Wi-Fi in nursery schools and ordered that networks be switched off when there are no lessons in schools catering to children up to age 11. A French court also recognized EHS as a real condition and awarded the 39-year-old claimant, Marine Richard, an $860-a-month disability grant after she described her “allergy” to electronic devices, such as her cell phone, Wi-Fi router and TV set. Her reactions included heart palpitations, nausea and headaches, and she now lives in a converted barn with no electricity.

Despite its reticence, the WHO has recognized EHS as a “non-specific, multisystem illness,” and has also classified EMFs as possible carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents – although it has stopped short of linking one as a cause of the other.

EHS has even achieved cult status. One of the characters in Better Call Saul, a TV series spin-off of Breaking Bad, is a sufferer who wears a tin-foil sheet when he’s at home.

Do the right thing

Estimates vary for the number of people affected by EHS. Researchers have reckoned that anything from 1 to 8 percent of the population may be so sensitive that they can’t function properly, while many more could have symptoms, such as insomnia or occasional memory lapses, but never associate them with ‘electrosmog,’ as it’s called.

With this build-up of evidence and recognition of EHS by some governments, one group of scientists now wants every major country to accept the dangers of EMFs and limit the exposure of people – and especially children. In 2015, 24 scientists issued a declaration to have EHS “officially recognized” and included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). They also want government health agencies to adopt simple precautionary measures and warn the public about the potential dangers of EMFs.

In the UK, British doctor Erica Mallery-Blythe has created the grassroots organization PHIRE (Physicians’ Health Initiative for Radiation and Environment), which she hopes will bypass government bodies, and get patients, doctors, schools and parents educated about these dangers and working together.

This bottom-up approach is the way to go, as the UK’s policy on EMFs is being shaped by the influential Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation (AGNIR). The group has attracted international criticism for its conflicts of interest, and “inappropriate omissions and unjustified report conclusions,” says Dr Mallery-Blythe.

The group also includes members of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which set safety guidelines in 1998, to which countries like the UK still adhere. But, argues Dr Mallery-Blythe, those standards are obsolete and based on science that has been undermined by thousands of more recent studies. Other countries, and most other members of the EU, have abandoned the ICNIRP guidelines for far lower safety levels of
EMF radiation.

So what’s safe?

We’re surrounded by EMFs and always have been. The light from the sun and the earth’s magnetic field are two sources, but from the beginning of the previous century – with the introduction of the electric light bulb and electrical appliances in the home – our exposure started to increase. Today, we live in the electrosmog coming from TVs, power lines, PCs and laptops, Wi-Fi and routers, and cell phones and towers.

Cases similar to EHS symptoms were reported as early as 1932, and they’ve been given a range of labels over the years, such as microwave sickness or syndrome, radio-wave syndrome, EMF intolerance syndrome and rapid aging syndrome. In the 1960s, workers in the former USSR and Poland who were exposed to EMR reported a range of debilitating symptoms, and similar patterns were seen among military personnel in 1974.

The science supports the idea that these symptoms are not just ‘all in the head.’ Studies have found that EMFs can
affect brain activity, while others have noted changes in the body’s cells, reactions that have been objectively measured by scientists.

Although we all react differently to EMFs, scientists believe that EMF exposure reduces the body’s melatonin levels while raising nitric oxide (NO).2 These changes affect the body’s ability to fight cancer, and can lead to sleeping disorders, increased cholesterol levels and raised blood pressure.

Brain-wave patterns are also altered by EMF exposures. One study found that 45 minutes of exposure to pulsed microwaves affected choline levels in the brains of laboratory rats. Choline is a building block of
acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that affects memory, intelligence and mood.3 Cell phones have similar effects. Researchers in Finland found that just 33 minutes of mobile phone use suppressed glucose metabolism in the brain, which suggests that the brain’s neurons become starved of sugar, leading to concentration, learning and memory problems.4

These physiological changes are also reflected in population studies. One review discovered that eight out of 10 studies of communities living less than 500 meters from a cell-phone base station reported an increase in neurobehavioral symptoms and in cancer. Yet, the exposure to EMF radiation in each case was well within the current safety levels.5

Symptoms like headaches, poor concentration and irritability also got worse the closer a person was to a base station.6 And one Austrian study found an association between levels of high-frequency EMFs (like those used in cell phones) in bedrooms and symptoms like headaches and concentration difficulties.7

Dr Mallery-Blythe describes the rise of EMFs as “the largest change to the earth’s electromagnetic environment that has ever taken place in human history.” Unless we act, she echoes the fears of experts who predict that this could become “the greatest public health disaster in planetary history.”

Paying the piper

Health agencies have pretty much relied on the 13-country Interphone Study results as a gauge of health hazards with cell-phone use. Its various studies have consistently found no risk, and one even suggested that the devices can protect against brain cancer.

The study was partly funded by the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF) and the Global System for Mobile Communication Association (GSMA), two groups that stand to benefit from positive results.

But funding seems to have skewed the results, as a team of independent researchers from the Republic of Korea found when they took another look at the findings. On analyzing only the independent studies – and putting to one side the Interphone trials, which the researchers said were of very poor quality – they discovered that continual use of a mobile phone for 10 years or longer increased the chances of developing a brain tumor by up to 34 percent.1

This funding effect was also identified by researchers from the University of Bern, Switzerland, who found that studies paid for by the telecommunications industry were the least likely to report any significant effect of exposure compared with those paid for by charities or other independent agencies.2

Useful resources

• Dr Mallery-Blythe’s PHIRE website:

• Powerwatch, an independent research and advocacy group:

• Radiation Research Trust, a research group exploring the dangers of EMFs:



Sci Total Environ, 2012; 414: 103–12


Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg, 2005; 132: 713–6


Pharmacol Biochem Behav, 1989; 33: 131–8


J Cereb Blood Flow Metab, 2011; 31: 2293–301


Int J Occup Environ Health, 2010; 16: 263–7


Pathol Biol [Paris], 2002; 50: 369–73


Occup Environ Med, 2006; 63: 307–13

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Article Topics: Mobile phone
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