People who have electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) get symptoms from exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF). These fields surround all electrical wires and electrical equipment, such as computers, televisions, electrical stoves, telephones, transformers, electric heaters, cell phones, fluorescent lights, all types of wireless devices, and more. The illness goes by several different names and acronyms, such as electrical sensitivity (ES), EMF, and EHS. EHS is the term used by researchers and the World Health Organization (WHO); and it appears to be the most accurate term, though ES is commonly used in North America. Most people with EHS also have multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) and allergies, often severely so. Some are also bothered by noises, light, and other stimuli.
Symptoms of EHS
The symptoms of EHS vary and may include flushing of the skin, tingling and burning sensations, joint pains and stiffness, headaches, a feeling of being "wired," and sometimes personality changes, such as mental confusion, restlessness, and irritability. Various other neurological symptoms are also possible.
The level of sensitivity varies greatly with the person, just as it does with pollen and food allergies. Some people may just have minor symptoms, like flushing when working on a computer, while extremely sensitive people may need a modified vehicle and house in a remote area, away from transmission towers and power lines.
A person who is frequently exposed to EMF tends to become more sensitive over time once the path of illness has started. It is thus a very bad idea to try to tough it out, as that can very well have lasting, maybe permanent, effects. Some people get symptoms several hours after the exposure. Some are stronger and able to tolerate more exposures at certain times, such as early in the day or after a meal, or simply for no known reason. A person who is also very sensitive to mold may be able to tolerate more EMF if moving away from a moldy house, perhaps to a dry climate. Stronger exposures generally can be tolerated for a brief moment. With longer exposures, the symptoms may go away, as the body tries to adapt, but the damage, and possibly increased sensitivity, may continue.
The History and Status of EHS
EHS is a new illness. The first case the author is aware of was a Swedish telecommunications engineer, who became ill in 1979. Dr. William Rea, a prominent environmental doctor in Texas, saw his first case in the early 1980s, though he said there might have been earlier cases he did not recognize. Research into the illness is sparse, as it is only in the last decade that enough cases have surfaced. Most research has been done in Europe, especially Russia and Sweden. A few medical conferences have been held in Europe; only one in the US. The World Health Organization started getting interested when its own director-general, Gro Harlem Brundtland, announced that she had EHS shortly before she retired. Dr. Brundtland is well known in Europe for many good works and acted as prime minister of Norway for over ten years.
Until EHS has been proven and accepted, patients not only have to struggle with a debilitating illness, they are also routinely denied reasonable accommodation and are subjected to suspicion and often hostility and ridicule from the medical system. This follows the pattern of many emerging illnesses, where the medical system finds it much more convenient to write off patients as mental cases – sometimes aided by special interests, as was done against people with asbestosis (asbestos lungs). Only a couple of decades ago, people with asthma were told by their doctors that they just needed to learn to relax; and when AIDS became an epidemic, it took 10,000 dead in the US before the country's officials took it seriously – mostly prompted by the death of the Hollywood actor Rock Hudson. People with Lyme disease were also often ignored by doctors, until reliable blood tests became available. The list goes on. … Even today, patients with fibromyalgia and endometriosis are still met with suspicion from some doctors. Yet despite the fact that mainstream medicine does not accept that low levels of electricity affect humans, it is now common to use weak electrical currents to help heal complicated bone fractures.
Aid to People with EHS
There is no known cure for EHS. The most effective treatment remains avoiding exposures to EMF. Some relief may be found by taking care of other health problems – in particular, allergies and chemical sensitivities, if these exist.
Avoidance is central to keeping a patient well. The extent needed depends on the individual. At the least, it is important to keep the sleeping area as safe as possible by removing all electrical equipment from the vicinity. Keep in mind that EMF are not blocked by walls. A patient should not sleep near a refrigerator, electrical meter, water heater, or other appliances, even with a wall in between.
A gaussmeter is essential for measuring EMF levels. Gaussmeters are available from several vendors that serve people with environmental sensitivities. It is important to realize that such a meter only shows a limited range of possible types of radiation present. Several instruments may be required for full coverage. In the end, the EHS patient is the best judge of whether a place is acceptable or not. The current radiation standards are highly misleading, as they are purely based on the heating of human tissues from exposures to EMF – the microwave oven effect.
Very little help is available to the EHS patient today. The exception is in Sweden, which has taken the lead from the very start. The Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO) had already started publishing standards for low-radiation computer screens in the 1980s. These standards have been improved since that time and are adhered to by most manufacturers today.
Swedish social services now often pay to electrically "sanitize" the homes of people with EHS and even rent out remote homes to the severest cases, who cannot live near populated areas. Four Swedish hospitals now have specially outfitted operating rooms and facilities to accommodate people with EHS. There has also been discussion of creating cell-phone-free zones in public areas, such as sections of the Stockholm subway.
Some interesting results have been documented in lab tests, but these need to be verified and enhanced to be scientifically valid. There is still no theory to explain the phenomenon of EHS. A theory needs to be found that explains the illness, and then it must be validated before the medical community will accept it. So far, some theories have been floated that attempt to explain parts, but not the whole. There is very little funding available, and it is not a field that promises fame and fortune at this time. Thus, it is not attractive to much research talent.
There have been some studies on rats, mostly at the University of Lund in Sweden. These demonstrate the effects of cell-phone radiation on the rat brain, such as damage to the cell DNA. The blood-brain barrier has also been demonstrated to become leaky, which means that a person who is exposed to chemicals and a cell phone at the same time has a much higher risk of the chemical affecting the brain. This may explain why there seems to be a link between EHS and multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS).
There have been human studies as well. A French study of workers showed that their levels of white blood cells were lower when they worked near a building transformer and higher once they were moved away. Once they were moved back near the transformer, their levels dropped again. A Swedish professor of dermatology discovered that he could see microscopic changes in skin cells on people who used computers, compared to when they had not used them for several hours. This may help explain why some EHS sufferers have skin problems, such as flushing, tingling, and burning. A researcher at CalTech discovered that human brains contain microscopic magnets (magnetite crystals), just as many animals do. Migrating birds are known to rely on these magnets to navigate using the earth's magnetic field. The existence of these magnetic receptors in humans may be another clue to the puzzle. And a psychiatrist in Boston noted that people who are depressed get a mood lift when exposed to the electromagnetic field of an MRI machine. He is now experimenting with using it as a therapy device. There have been a number of experiments wherein EHS patients have been exposed to EMF and their symptoms recorded. Some of these experiments have shown effects, others have not, casting doubt on the validity of EHS sufferers' claims.
It is very difficult to set up well-designed experiments that really produce clear-cut results. The most common problem is that the experiments do not remove all unintended exposures of EMF, which may interfere with the results. That is like trying to compare the effects of cigarette smoking on someone while the subject is sitting in a smoky room. In many of the experiments, for instance, a computer is used in the same room occupied by the test subject.
Another problem is that some people tend to be more sensitive to certain frequencies than others. If the experiment does not use a frequency that is bothersome, the patient may not have a reaction – at least not at low levels. Delayed reactions are another problem. The participant may first be in pain after being led out of the test room, or the reaction may first show up later when a placebo is given, thus "proving" that the sensitivity is not real. A well-designed study also needs to allow the participant to acclimatize to the test location, so symptoms caused by the place itself can be noted. Finally, many of the most sensitive people would not be able to participate in studies, as the effects from the exposures could be severe and long-lasting.
A notable experiment was done in 1991 in Texas, involving 100 people. It showed that some people can be more sensitive to certain frequencies than others. Sixteen people were able to correctly identify the 32 active challenges and the 160 placebos in a random double-blind test.
One cleverly conducted experiment (though with computers present) was done in Holland. A mini-cell-tower was installed in a shielded room, and a group of EHS sufferers and controls were exposed. The surprising result was that the control group was affected by the radiation as well. The radiation was found to have a stimulatory effect, which supports the observation that some EHS sufferers become restless when exposed to EMF.
Other experiments have shown that EMF may affect a person's ability to pay attention and may change brain patterns in humans. The ability of a person to sense a low current has also been shown to vary much more than was previously thought. A couple of studies have tried to estimate how many people suffer from EHS or are bothered by EMF to some degree. A telephone survey of 2,072 Californians in 1998 showed that 3.2% reported being sensitive to electronic devices, while 0.5% reported being bothered so much that they had to change jobs or stop working entirely. A much larger survey of 15,000 people in Stockholm, Sweden, showed that 1.5% believed they were sensitive to EMF.
Steen Hviid holds two engineering degrees and lives in rural Arizona.
Nordstrom G. The Invisible Disease. O-Books; 2004.
Granlund-Lind R, Lind J. Black on White: Voices and Witnesses About Electro-Hypersensitivity. Mimers Brunn; 2004. Available for free at: www.feb.se/feb/blackonwhite-complete-book.pdf.
Grant L. The Electrical Sensitivity Handbook. Weldon Publishing; 1995.
Becker RO, Selden G. The Body Electric – Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life. New York: William Morrow; 1985.
Aron E. The Highly Sensitive Person. New York: Broadway Books; 1997.
Selected Scientific Studies
Bell G, Marino AA, Chesson AL. Frequency-specific responses in the human brain caused by electromagnetic fields. J Neurol Sci. 1994;123:26-32. [0120-BeLL-94-007].
Bonhomme-Faivre L et al. Study of human neurovegetative and hematologic effects of environmental low-frequency (50 Hz) electromagnetic fields produced by transformers. Arch Environ Health. March/April 1998; 53(2):87-92. [0120-BONH-98-006].
Hillert L, Berglind N, Arnetz BB, Bellander T. Prevalence of self-reported hypersensitivity to electric or magnetic fields in a population-based questionnaire survey. Scand J Work Environ Health. 2002;28(1):33-42. [0120-HILL-02-009].
Gangi S, Johansson O. A theoretical model based upon mast cells and histamine to explain the recently proclaimed sensitivity to electric and/or magnetic fields in humans. Med Hypotheses. 2000;54(4):663-671. [0120-GANG-99-009].
Goodman EM, Greenebaum B, Marron MT. Effects of electromagnetic fields on molecules and cells. Int Rev Cytol. 1995;158:279-339.
Johansson O et al. Cutaneous mast cells are altered in normal healthy volunteers sitting in front of ordinary TVs/PCs – results from open-field provocation experiments. J Cutan Pathol. 2001;28:513-519. [0120-JOHA-01-007].
Lai H, Singh NP. Magnetic-field-induced DNA strand breaks in brain cells of the rat. Environ Health Perspect. 2004;112(6):687-694.
Kirschvink JL, Kobayashi-Kirschvink A, Woodford BJ. Magnetic biomineralization in the human brain. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. Aug. 1992;89:7683-7687.
Lebedeva NN, Kotrovskaya TI. Electromagnetic perception and individual features of human beings. Crit Rev Biomed Eng. 2001;29(3):440-449. (Originally published in Millimetrovye volny v biologij I meditsine. 1997;7 [Russia].) [0120-LEBE-01-010].
Leitgeb N, Schrottner J. Electrosensibility and electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Bioelectromagnetics. 2003; 24: 387-394.
Levallois P et al. Prevalence and risk factors of self-perceived hypersensitivity to electromagnetic fields in California. Environ Health Perspect [suppl]. August 2002;110(S4).
Persson BRR, Salford LG, Brun A. Blood-brain barrier permeability in rats exposed to electromagnetic fields used in wireless communication. Wireless Networks. 1997; e: 455-461.
Rea WJ, et al. Electromagnetic field sensitivity. J Bioelectricity. 1991;10(1,2):241-256. Available at: www.aehf.com.
Rohan M, et al. Low-Field magnetic stimulation in bipolar depression using an MRI-based stimulator. Am J Psychiatry. 2004;161:93-98.
Salford LG, et al. Nerve cell damage in mammalian brain after exposure to microwaves from GSM mobile phones. Environ Health Perspect. 2003;111:881-883. [0120-SALF-03-003].
Trimmel M, Schweiger E. Effects of an ELF (50 Hz, 1 mT) electromagnetic field (EMF) on concentration in visual attention, perception and memory including effects of EMF sensitivity. Toxicol Letters. 1998;96/97:377-382. [0120-TRIM-98-006].
Zwamborn APM et al. Effects of global communication system radio-frequency fields on well being and cognitive functions of human subjects with or without subjective complaints. Report FEL-03-C148, Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO). 2003. Available at: www.tno.nl.
All listed articles should be obtainable through a major university library. Some are available online. The articles flagged with a square bracket are also available through the Chemical Injury Information Network: CIIN, PO Box 301, White Sulphur Springs, MT 59645.
Permission to reprint this article is granted by the author for educational, noncommercial purposes.