You can't see them, hear or feel them, but we are bathed in them 24 hours a day. Apart from the air itself, electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are the most pervasive things in our environment. And yet, few of us give them a second thought.
But there is a group of people who think of little else. These are the so-called 'electrosensitives' - people who find the fields generated by everyday electrical appliances so disabling that they cannot easily live a normal life. Their symptoms range from headaches to chronic fatigue.
How common is the problem? Because there's very little publicity given to it, you would be forgiven for thinking that electrohypersensitivity (ES) is rare. But it's possible that as much as 3 per cent of the population suffer from extreme adverse reactions to EMFs, according to a Swedish survey carried out by the prestigious Karolinska Institute (Johansson O, Liu P-Y. 'Electrosensitivity', 'electrosupersensitivity' and 'screen dermatitis': preliminary observations from ongoing studies in the human skin. In Simunic D, ed, Proceedings of the COST 244: Biomedical Effects of Electromagnetic Fields. Workshop on Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity EU (DG XIII). Brussels/Graz, 1995: 52-7).
Sweden is unusual in taking the problem seriously as, in most other countries, the medical establishment often denies the issue, dismissing electrosensitives as mere hypochondriacs. So, is the problem of ES really imaginary, or are sufferers like canaries down mines - a warning to the rest of us of the hazards we all face in an increasingly electromagnetic world?
Humanity has had millions of years of evolution but, in the space of just 50 years, we have rapidly become exposed to huge amounts of artificial electromagnetic radiation. While it is true that we evolved in an EM environment - primarily radiation from the sun and the earth's magnetic field - these natural fields are very different from the EMFs produced by electric power.
The first 'canaries' warning us all of the hidden dangers in EMFs have been workers in electricity-related industries. To the authorities' great surprise and discomfiture, it turns out that there are significant occupational risks from being regularly exposed to high levels of electromagnetic radiation.
Here again, Sweden has taken the lead in researching the link between EMF exposure and sickness. Over a decade ago, researchers at the Swedish National Institute of Occupational Health concluded a 19-year-long study of the increased risk of various diseases among electrical workers, and a clear pattern emerged. Consistently, these workers were found to have an increased risk of two types of cancer - brain tumours and leukaemia, a virulent cancer of the blood. There was a relatively consistent dose-response, too: by and large, the greater the EMF exposure, the higher the risk of cancer. Among electronics engineers and technicians, for example, the leukaemia risk rose by 30 per cent but, for people working on high-tension power lines, their risk was up to twice the usual. Welders were found to have a 30 per cent increase in brain tumours, but television and radio assemblers, being more continuously exposed, suffered nearly three times the normal risk of developing these tumours (Br J Indust Med, 1991; 48: 597-603).
After the same two cancers showed up in electric-train drivers, the Swedish occupational-health doctors decided to find out why. What they saw was profoundly disturbing. They discovered that four out of five drivers had significant aberrations in their chromosomes. But more alarming still was the fact that these were occurring at relatively modest levels of EMF exposure - as low as 2 microteslas (see box above). Clearly, they concluded, even low levels of EMFs can have genotoxic potential (Bioelectromagnetics, 2001; 22: 306-15).
This has since been confirmed by American scientists at the University of Washington, in Seattle, who have reported finding magnetic-field-induced DNA strand breaks in the cells of laboratory rats subjected to EMFs (Environ Health Perspect, 2004; 112: 687-94).
But it's not just workers in the electricity industries who have been found at risk. Late last year in the UK, an Oxford University team announced the results of a study of the effects of electricity power lines on the general population, particularly children. After studying over 35,000 medical records, they concluded that children living within 100 metres of overhead power lines had almost twice the risk of developing leukaemia (unpublished report by Draper G et al., 'Childhood cancer and electromagnetic field exposures from powerlines', reported in The Times, 30 October 2004).
The bioelectromagnetic man
Results like these have come as no surprise to scientists in the relatively new field of bioelectromagnetics. Forty years ago, US scientist Robert Becker was among the vanguard showing that the human body has its own very-low-level natural EMFs, and that these fields are used by the body in many self-healing processes. Becker's discoveries were later reinforced by the work of German physicist Fritz-Albert Popp and the late French biologist Jacques Benveniste, who both independently showed that all the cells of the body communicate through subtle electromagnetic and quantum frequencies.
Their findings suggest that we are fundamentally electromagnetic beings, thus making it even more plausible that we should be adversely affected by external EMFs. However, thus far, the assault does not appear to be obvious, which means that few of us are tempted to abandon the 21st century.
Nevertheless, the cancers caused by certain levels of electromagnetic exposure do indicate that EMFs are basically toxic, so they must be doing some damage to all of us, even when it may be too small to measure and perhaps lost in the 'noise' of all the other insults to our immune systems.
That is why the 3 per cent of people who are especially sensitive even to low levels of EMFs are so important. For them, the 21st century could be likened to living in a near-constant "electromagnetic smog (Saunders T. The Boiled Frog Syndrome. Chichester: Wiley-Academy, 2002). The symptoms, particularly in the milder or earlier stages of the condition, are difficult to separate from feelings of being just 'run-down'. ES sufferer Alasdair Philips describes the onset of ES as a generalised feeling of impending influenza that never quite breaks out (Philips A, Philips J. Electrical Hypersensitivity: A Modern illness. Powerwatch, 2004).
In 1998, a Swedish trade union carried out a survey of the major ES symptoms (Swedish Union of Clerical and Technical Employees. Hypersensitivity in IT Environments. Stockholm, 1998). Top of the list were eye problems - described as a smarting, irritating, 'grit in the eye' sensation, which may be accompanied by photophobia (an aversion to light). These were followed by skin conditions - feelings of irritation, warmth, itching, dryness and tingling; also, there is often a reddening of the skin, leading to rash or even pustules (Med Hypoth, 2000; 54: 663-71). The primary sites affected are the nose, mouth and face, but they can arise anywhere on the body.
Other problems on the list included headache, fatigue, loss of concentration and short-term memory, depression, breathlessness, excessive thirst, numbness and a 'prickling' or weakness of the joints, leading to chronic severe pain such as in fibromyalgia.
Dr Robert Becker sees a remarkable parallel between ES and the symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), another increasingly prevalent environmental illness, caused by exposure to toxic chemicals such as pesticides. Both have the same characteristics peculiar to immune-system disorders caused by a toxic overload (Becker RO. Cross Currents: The Perils of Electropollution. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1990).
Indeed, Dr William Rea, a doctor who himself suffers from both MCS and ES, and who has treated thousands of people suffering from environmental illnesses, says that the patients often cannot tell the difference between the symptoms of ES and MCS. The link becomes even more compelling with the evidence that many sufferers report that their ES began after a toxic chemical assault.
Is ES 'all in the head'?
Of course, none of this cuts any ice with conventional medicine, which tends to downplay both MCS and ES as imaginary illnesses that are 'all in the mind'. But this attitude is contradicted by evidence collected over the last 25 years.
Swedish scientists recently showed that ES sufferers have significant physiological differences compared with non-sufferers - for example, in their heart rate and galvanic skin response (GSR). ES patients have a rather distinctive physiological predisposition to sensitivity to physical and psychosocial environmental stressors, say the researchers (Bioelectromagnetics, 2001; 22: 457-62).
Two teams of investigators have tested ES sufferers in blinded trials, randomly subjecting them to real or fake EMFs. In the 1980s, allergy specialist Dr Jean Monro and physicist Dr Cyril Smith collaborated on a series of provocation tests. Their results showed that ES patients reacted when EMF equipment was switched on, and not when it was switched off (Clin Ecol, 1990; 6: 119-28).
In the early 1990s, the aforementioned Dr Rea, a pioneer of treatments for environmental illness, obtained the same results in double-blind trials in which neither the doctors nor the patients knew when the EMFs were being generated. In these tests, out of a total of 100 ES patients, 16 reacted to the presence of EMFs (J Bioelectr, 1991; 10: 241-56).
More recently, scientists in the US have shown that exposing even non-ES sufferers to EMFs at night, while they are sleeping, has significant effects on heart-rate variability (HRV), a measure used to predict heart problems. The HRV caused by EMFs is now believed to indicate long-term damage to the heart (Bioelectromagnetics, 1998; 19: 98-106).
In tests with animals, rats that have learned to negotiate mazes performed significantly worse after being exposed to even relatively low-level EMFs (Bioelectromagnetics, 1996; 17: 494-6).
A further confirmation that ES is a genuine condition is the discovery that some ES sufferers are themselves emitting EMFs strong enough to cause electrical equipment to malfunction. Typically, appliances like television sets and toasters break down in the presence of such people, and light bulbs tend to 'blow out' more often than expected (Philips A, Philips J. Electrical Hypersensitivity: A Modern illness. Powerwatch, 2004).
One of the problems bedevilling official acceptance of EMF-related problems is the lack of a coherent medical explanation for EMF damage, particularly in cases of ES. One theory has been that the key is melatonin, a hormone known to be a powerful, natural anti-cancer agent. Early German experiments on laboratory animals showed that even modest levels of EMFs could appreciably suppress melatonin, thus offering a plausible explanation for an EMF-cancer connection.
However, human studies have not been so clear-cut, and a recent review of the evidence now downplays the theory, having determined that the data are inconsistent (Cook M, Wood A. Clinical Studies and Electro-magnetic Hypersensitivity. EMFRAPID Symposium 3: Epidemiology Findings, April 1998).
Recently, however, Swedish scientists have made an interesting discovery. EMFs, they find, can produce a kind of allergic response in that they trigger the same changes in body cells as do allergens like pollen, resulting in a release of histamine (Med Hypoth, 2000; 54: 663-71).
Be that as it may, for some experts, the exact mechanism is not of any great relevance, as the basic biology of the problem is self-evident. The human brain has an electric field, so if you put sources of EMFs nearby, it's not surprising that you get interference, interaction with systems, and damage to cells and molecules, says Professor Olle Johansson, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, a world authority on ES for over 20 years.
Scientists like Johansson, however, are still relatively lone voices. Nevertheless, in the last 10 years, there have been significant shifts in the official attitude towards EMF risks. There is now a growing recognition that, although the scientific evidence may be imperfect, there are enough straws in the wind to cause concern. All over the world, governments are now revising their recommended maximum EMF-exposure levels downwards (see box, page 4). Levels that were once considered safe have now become officially hazardous.
It's an exact parallel with X-rays. Fifty years ago, they were thought to be benign enough to allow shoe shops to measure children's feet with them. But now we know that no X-ray exposure - however small - is completely safe.
A decade ago, in 1995, officials of the US National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) wrote a report on the dangers of EMFs, and concluded with a measured but firm warning. A significant proportion of the world's population may be subjected to a low level of risk, they wrote, but [this is] a risk factor with significant societal consequences by reason of its pervasive nature and serious consequences for affected individuals.
That statement, however, was never officially published. You are only reading it here because it was leaked to the campaigning American publication Microwave News.
More significantly still, another piece of information suppressed by the US government authorities was the NRCP's recommendation to reduce the maximum permitted EMF exposure level by a factor of 500 - from 100 microteslas down to just 0.2.