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Microwave Sickness

[Home Page] [Leukaemia] [Brain Tumours] [Electromagnetic Sensitivity] [Microwave Sickness] [Other Health Effects]


Man-made radiofrequency (RF) radiation was first used in the 20th century by the military in radar and, to a degree, as a weapon. Radar transmitters in peace-time are situated mainly at airports and seaports, and some Ministry of Defence establishments.

Microwaves are used as non-lethal weapons, both in the military and for civil purposes, such as crowd control, though most of these uses are in the realm of official secrets, and are not in our area of expertise.

The major exposure to the general public from pulsed microwaves comes now from mobile phones, the transmitting infrastructure (mobile phone base stations or masts), wireless appliances and 'blue tooth' equipment, wireless computing, and the expanding roll-out of wireless communication.

The technology is novel in human experience and biological effects as a result of exposure to RF were not anticipated when it first began to be used, and are only now beginning to be suspected as information becomes available. What is still uncertain is whether biological reactions occur at once or whether they take some time to develop. The important thing to bear in mind with regard to exposure is not the level compared with the allowed guidelines, but the level compared with what we have been exposed to in human evolutionary terms.


Most early health research work focused on occupational exposure of military personnel and some on the effects of weaponry. The first significant report (Sadcikova) describing occupational 'microwave sickness' appeared in 1974. The symptoms included fatigue, headaches, palpitations, insomnia, skin symptoms, impotence and altered blood pressure. Further occupational research [Forman 1982, Wayne 1984, Graham 1985, Marchiori 1995] added the following symptoms resulting from acute exposure; warming sensations, nausea, neuropathy (numbness, tingling, even paralysis in toes and fingers), stomach cramps, dyasthesia (a crushing sensation) and irritability.

In many cases, medical tests carried out on those people suffering from the symptoms (including blood pictures and biochemistry) showed no significant abnormalities [Graham 1985, Hocking 1988, Schilling 1997]. The symptoms often persisted for several months, even years, after the exposure, and some of the people who had been exposed were never able to regain the level of good health they had experienced beforehand. Some exposures resulted in severe anxiety necessitating short term sedation and even admission to hospital. Psychological problems and emotional instability persisted for up to a year.

Although many of the occupational studies were investigating accidental exposures to higher levels of radiofrequency radiation than were usual, and much higher than the current levels that the general public are allowed to be exposed to, it is interesting (and concerning) to note:

  • The similarity of symptoms in these studies, compared to the studies looking at much lower levels of microwave radiation in the environment, such as the sort of levels near mobile phone base stations;
  • the difficulty of finding any biological markers that can account for the reported health effects, which adds to the problem of diagnosis;
  • the often long-term persistence of the symptoms, including psychological ones;
  • the fact that full health is often not recovered after exposure

Roger Santini produced the following graph of symptoms reported by people living within 300 metres of mobile phone base stations [Santini 2002]:

Navarro (2003) and, in a further re-analysis of Navarro's research, Oberfeld (2004) Bortkiewicz (2004) Hutter (2006) and Abdel-Rassoul (2007) all found significant numbers of people reporting very similar collections of symptoms. The effects began in many cases at 0.05 V/m and often, where measured, the higher the exposure, the more the symptoms were reported [Navarro 2003, Oberfeld 2004, Bortkiewicz 2004, Hutter 2006, Abdel-Rassoul 2007].

Here are the graphs that accompanied the German Doctors' letter to Edmund Stoiber, president of the federal state of Bavaria, Germany:

Group 1 - no symptoms
Group 2 - sleep disturbance, tiredness, depressive mood
Group 3 - headaches, restlessness, dazed state, irritability, disturbance of concentration, forgetfulness, learning difficulties, difficulty finding words
Group 4 - frequent infections, sinusitis, lymph node swellings, joint and limb pains, nerve and soft tissue pains, numbness or tingling, allergies
Group 5 - tinnitus, hearing loss, sudden hearing loss, giddiness, impaired balance, visual disturbances, eye inflammation, dry eyes
Group 6 - tachycardia, episodic hypertension, collapse
Group 7 - other symptoms: hormonal disturbances, thyroid disease, night sweats, frequent urge to urinate, weight increase, nausea, loss of appetite, nose bleeds, skin complaints, tumours, diabetes


Different parts of the body absorb radiofrequency energy differently. It depends to a large extent on the water content of the tissue, so blood, skin, muscle, brain and peripheral nerves absorb more than fat and bone. It is likely that the effect is cumulative rather than purely instantaneous, and that cascade effects, where one reaction triggers one or more other effects in cells or systems, are important. It is probable that these cascade effects help to explain the wide range of symptoms that characterise electrical hypersensitivity.

What the research clearly demonstrates is that biological systems may react at some low power levels and not others; they may not react at all to high levels when they do at lower ones [Daniells 1998]; they may react very differently to different frequencies.

We believe that, rather than there being a general threshold below which no ill-health symptoms occur, people are very variable, having their own individual thresholds that can, in an increasing minority of the population, be exceeded at low levels of exposure. In modern life, people are exposed to an ever-increasing range of environmental pollutants, which means that their bodies become more and more stressed. Eventually, some additional or new exposure tips the body into ill-health. It may be a new RF source, a new electrical appliance, a new chemical, an MRI scan, an accident, etc.

However, there have been specific mechanisms suggested that may be implicated in the effect of RF on the biology of living systems.

Among these are that the radiation reduces melatonin levels and increases nitric oxide (NO) levels [Yariktas 2005]. Changes in melatonin and nitric oxide levels may reduce the amount of cancer fighting cells in our bodies. This may explain why no particular cancer is associated with microwave exposure; the immune system's ability to repair cancer damage is compromised, no matter in which area of the body the cancer first appears.

These changes also may promote sleeping disorders, increase cholesterol levels leading to greater risk of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease, and increase blood pressure [Aly 2008] giving greater risk of blood clots and strokes, and changes the body's ability to cope with other toxins.

Oberfeld found brain wave (EEG) patterns changed, predicted by Hyland, as a result of RF exposure. A study by in the late 80's [Lai 1989] found that 45 minutes of exposure to pulsed microwaves affected choline uptake in the rat. Choline is a chemical precursor or "building block" needed to produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and research suggests that memory, intelligence and mood are mediated at least in part by acetylcholine metabolism in the brain.

Physicists at UC Berkeley [Jensen 2007] have produced the world's smallest radio out of a single carbon nanotube that is 10,000 times thinner than a human hair. The nanotube absorbs the radio transmission and physically vibrates in response, like a tuning fork or the tiny hairlike structures inside the human ear. The multi-walled cylinders were better at picking up AM and FM transmissions and the single walled nanotubes were best for receiving the frequencies used in cell phones. It is interesting that the mechanism is by physical vibration of the nanotube in response to RF fields. This may give more pointers as to the bio-detection capability of the body, even at a cellular level and also may well invoke a bio-response. Later work [Pavicic & Trosic 2008] found that 935 MHz radiation affected microtubule proteins, which the authors believed could obstruct cell growth.

Health research and politics

Like all health research, it is impossible to gauge what impact political pressure has on the information made available to the general public. Some of the research is undertaken with industry-funded money; for example T-Mobile commissioned a scientific report that concluded that mobile phone handsets masts contribute to cancer and genetic damage. The report recommended that exposure limits should be cut to 1/1,000th of our current limits. Dr Peter Neitzke, of the Ecolog Institute, which produced the report for T-Mobile (2000 and updated in 2003), accused T-Mobile of diluting the findings by commissioning other studies from which it knew that "no critical results or recommendations were to be expected". Ecolog's report concluded "Given the results of the present epidemiological studies, it can be concluded that electromagnetic fields with frequencies in the mobile telecommunications range do play a role in the development of cancer." "This is particularly notable for tumours of the central nervous system."

It is worth noting that a systematic review from 2007 [Huss 2007] of studies of controlled exposure to radiofrequency radiation with health-related outcomes. From a total of 59 studies in their analysis, 12 were funded exclusively by the telecommunications industry, 11 were funded by public agencies and charities, 14 had mixed funding (including industry), and in 22 the funding was not reported. They found that "studies funded exclusively by industry reported the largest number of outcomes, but were least likely to report a statistically significant result. The odds ratio was 0.11 compared with studies funded by public agencies or charities." This means that according to their data, studies funded by the cellphone industries alone were 9 times more likely to find no effect as those by purely public agencies and charities, and that this difference was significant! They concluded that "The interpretation of results from studies of health effects of radiofrequency radiation should take sponsorship into account."

Is there a problem with microwave exposure?

It depends on your viewpoint. The situation is complex and there are vested interests involved. The mechanisms of interaction between microwaves and human biology are not clearly understood, but neither is the link between smoking and lung cancer, which is still being disputed. Although there are financial constraints on the research possibilities, many of the hypotheses that have been put forward to explain the potential links are being investigated and genetic research is beginning to reveal biomarkers for individual susceptibilities.

Meanwhile, whilst the arguments continue as to who is right and who wrong, possibly a precautionary approach would be wise.


1. P Abdel-Rassoul G et al, (March 2007) Neurobehavioral effects among inhabitants around mobile phone base stations, Neurotoxicology. 2007 Mar;28(2):434-40 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
2. P Aly AA et al, (February 2008) Effects of 900-MHz radio frequencies on the chemotaxis of human neutrophils in vitro, IEEE Trans Biomed Eng. 2008 Feb;55(2):795-7 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
3. P Bortkiewicz A et al, (2004) Subjective symptoms reported by people living in the vicinity of cellular phone base stations: review, Med Pr. 2004;55(4):345-51 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
4. P Daniells C et al, (March 1998) Transgenic nematodes as biomonitors of microwave-induced stress, Mutat Res. 1998 Mar 13;399(1):55-64 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
5. P Forman SA et al, (October 1995) Psychological symptoms and intermittent hypertension following acute microwave exposure, J Occup Med. 1982 Nov;24(11):932-4 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
6. P Graham RB, (1985) The medical results of human exposure to radiofrequency radiation The impact of proposed radiofrequency radiation standards on military operations, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France: Advisory Group for Aerospace Research and Development (AGARD) 6-1-6-8 (Lecture Series No 138) [View Author's abstract conclusions]
7. - Hocking B et al, (1988) Health aspects of radio-frequency radiation accidents. Part I: Assessment of health after a radio-frequency radiation accident, J Microw Power Electromagn Energy. 1988;23(2):67-74 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
8. - Huss A et al, (January 2007) Source of funding and results of studies of health effects of mobile phone use: systematic review of experimental studies, Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Jan;115(1):1-4 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
9. P Hutter HP et al, (May 2006) Subjective symptoms, sleeping problems, and cognitive performance in subjects living near mobile phone base stations, Occup Environ Med. 2006 May;63(5):307-13 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
10. - Jensen K et al, (November 2007) Nanotube radio, Nano Lett. 2007 Nov;7(11):3508-11 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
11. P Lai H et al, (May 1989) Low-level microwave irradiation and central cholinergic systems, Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1989 May;33(1):131-8 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
12. - Marchiori PE et al, (October 1995) Acute multiple mononeuropathy after accidental exposure to oven microwaves, Occup Med (Lond). 1995 Oct;45(5):276-7 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
13. P Navarro EA et al, (December 2003) The Microwave Syndrome: A Preliminary Study in Spain, Electromagn Biol Med 22(2-3): 161-169 [View Author's abstract conclusions]
14. P Oberfeld G et al, (October 2004) The Microwave Syndrome - Further Aspects of a Spanish Study, Conference Proceedings [View Author's abstract conclusions]
15. P Pavicic I, Trosic I, (August 2008) In vitro testing of cellular response to ultra high frequency electromagnetic field radiation, Toxicol In Vitro. 2008 Aug;22(5):1344-8 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
16. P Sadcikova M, (1974) Clinical manifestations of reactions to microwave irradiation in various occupational groups, Biological Effects and Health Hazards of Microwave Radiation. WHO symposium, Polish Medical Publishers 261-267 [View Author's abstract conclusions]
17. P Santini R et al, (July 2002) Investigation on the health of people living near mobile telephone relay stations: I/Incidence according to distance and sex, Pathol Biol (Paris) 2002 Jul;50(6):369-73 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
18. P Schilling CJ, (April 1997) Effects of acute exposure to ultrahigh radiofrequency radiation on three antenna engineers, Occup Environ Med. 1997 Apr;54(4):281-4 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]
19. P Wayne L et al, (1984) Investigation of an active microwave-oven hand injury, J Hand Surg 9A: 132-5 [View Author's abstract conclusions]
20. - Yariktas M et al, (May 2005) Nitric oxide level in the nasal and sinus mucosa after exposure to electromagnetic field, Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2005 May;132(5):713-6 [View Author's abstract conclusions] [View on Pubmed]