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Electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS)

Health index » Childhood leukaemia | Brain tumours | Electromagnetic hypersensitivity | Microwave sickness | Other health effects

Electrical Hypersensitivity (ES) is an illness that is both highly controversial and little understood. The symptoms can vary a lot between sufferers, but will normally include some of the following: sleep disturbance, tiredness, depression, headaches, restlessness, irritability, concentration problems, forgetfulness, learning difficulties, frequent infections, blood pressure changes, limb and joint pains, numbness or tingling sensations, tinnitus, hearing loss, impaired balance, giddiness and eye problems. There have been reports of cardiovascular problems such as tachycardia, though these are relatively rare.

If you are convinced that you are electromagnetically hypersensitive, you should consider shielding your sleeping environment to minimise the impact on your daily health.

Many of the symptoms reported have a lot in common with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), and it is quite common for someone who suffers from one condition to suffer from the other[1]. It seems quite sensible to theorise that both syndromes therefore may affect particularly susceptible members of the population. It may also be that there is a 'synergistic' effect; i.e. people develop symptoms in the presence of both (or multiple) environmental exposures, whereas only one such exposure would not provoke the symptoms.

A useful analogy can be drawn between epilepsy and EHS as follows:

Electrosensitivity is often scoffed at as a ridiculous proposition on the basis that people are bathed with EMFs all day long, from countless sources including light from the sun, the earth's magnetic field, etc - so what could be wrong with a little bit of Mobile Phone/DECT/Tetra? And why would the body react any differently just because it's pulsed a bit? Besides, most people aren't complaining about it - if it was a real issue, surely more people would be reporting the symptoms?

Photosensitive Epilepsy is a rare condition where visual stimuli at a certain frequency sends the person into epileptic seizures. About 0.75% of people have epilepsy, and about 5% of these people are of the photosensitive type - about 0.04% of the population in total. People with Photosensitive epilepsy are fine when exposed to light normally, but when they are exposed to light which flashes at a certain frequency - typically 16-25Hz, they go into a seizure. This condition has become an issue only in modern times due to technology, where televisions and computer monitors have started to produce the frequencies of light which can activate the epileptic fits.

Does that sound similar to you?

In February 2006, at a meeting of the Dutch working group on EHS, Hugo Schooneveld, a neurobiologist, and himself a sufferer, showed how different radiation can have different effects on different people. He showed that there may be some delay before health effects are experienced. Indeed they can be perceived as positive at first and negative after a lengthy exposure. Sometimes low and high exposure do not have effects, but exposure in between has (called a 'window' effect, see below). He also confirmed from his clinical experience that although EMFs may only cause small effects in biological systems, small effects on a cellular level can lead to large consequences on the organ level.

Hugo Schooneveld has now completed a questionnaire, which was completed by 250 electrohypersensitive (EHS) persons in the Netherlands over a 3-year period, who contacted the EHS Foundation on their own initiative. Self declared health problems were recorded along with the sources of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) - if known - that caused the health effects. The results were quite striking, and very consistent with other grey literature on EHS.

These variations make the study of, and medical acceptance of, ES very difficult. We present below a very brief summary of some of the findings of the research into the effects that electromagnetic fields have on living systems, or in the laboratory. The biological changes found may lead directly to a health problem, without provoking or aggravating ES; it is not always easy to make this distinction. There are many references cited for you to investigate any of the areas covered in more detail, if you wish to do so.

Powerfrequency EMFs

Powerfequency electric and magnetic fields are produced by powerlines, substations, electricity distribution faults, electrical appliances in the home or workplace, house wiring, cables, cars, trains, etc. Many people believe that their ill-health effects arise as a result of proximity to these sources, or as a result of living in the fields they generate. People exposed to EMFs may develop an illness such as childhood leukaemia[2][3][4], adult skin cancer[5], breast cancer[6], Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS - Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) [7][8][9] and miscarriage[10][11][12]. The research has looked at proximity to sources and also field levels and associated ill-health.

The exposure that results in an increased risk of developing these illnesses may not be the same as that which provokes and aggravates ES. People who suffer from ES tend to have a wider range of symptoms with a less well defined clinical outcome.[1]

Common electrical appliances, such as televisions and computers often provoke mild to moderate symptoms in ES people[13][14]. An increase in mast cells (such as found in people suffering from allergies) have been found in people watching television[15][16][17]. Different types of lighting, especially fluorescent fixtures (including the new low-energy bulbs) are difficult for many people with ES to tolerate[18]. This has wide implications, as fluorescent lighting is used in most offices, hospitals, shopping and leisure centres. This could make these facilities very difficult for people with ES to access. Transport such as cars, trains, planes, trams all contain equipment that give off levels of EMFs that sensitive people may find hard to tolerate.

Radiofrequency EMFs

There has been a lot of speculation in the media about ill-health effects such as these being caused by a number of modern wireless communication conveniences, such as mobile phones and their base stations, DECT cordless phones and WiFi. The research into ES has been very varied, with a number of papers finding effects on brain activity[19][20][21][22][23][24] (of which some found RF exposure actually enhanced cognitive ability[25][26][27][28][29]), altered EEG measurements[30][31][32][33][34][35][36], or other recordable cellular effects[37][38][39][40][41][42], of which some highlight a possibility that EMFs only effect cellular mechanisms on cells with a specific genetic background[43][44][45][46]. All of these are objective effects, and can ignore the possibilities of a nocebo effect as stimulated by the recent press coverage. There have been a number of papers finding these "Microwave Syndrome" effects from the usage of mobile and cordless phones and mobile phone base stations[47][48][49][50][51].

It is important to remember that there is also a good deal of literature failing to find an effect with most of the above (with the exception that very little epidemiological work has been done on mobile phone base stations, and that which has been carried out primarily shows an effect), probably in a ratio of around 1:1 (i.e. 50% show an effect, 50% don't). However, it is also important to remember that positive and negative/null studies do not cancel each other out. It is very easy to fail to cater for a certain important confounding factor (even if just through lack of understanding at the time of research), and therefore far easier to fail to find an effect compared to finding an effect. Unless the studies that find an effect are flawed in some way, then 3 or 4 separately conducted studies finding the same effect is exceptionally important evidence.

It is undeniable that there is no general consensus of agreement in the literature, but it is also very clear that the probability of low power RF EMFs having non-thermal effects is very high. The extent of such effects will likely remain unclear for quite some time, but the recognition of non-thermal effects by international bodies such as WHO will open the doors to significant progress in this field - it is hard to see why they are still clinging to the old paradigm of "if it doesn't heat you, it doesn't hurt you".

Health Protection Agency's "Irvine Report" on Electrosensitivity

Back in November 2005, the UK HPA produced the "Irvine Report"[1], which summarised that "It has not been possible to construct a meaningful definition of ES..." (Section 5.1 paragraph 1)" under the basis that the broad range of possible symptoms and attributed causes made it nigh impossible to diagnose with any degree of confidence, especially as the condition overlaps with other idiopathic intolerance based syndromes. However, whilst the conclusions and the recommendations were at best vague, it did a very good job of pooling much of the recent literature on investigating Electrical Sensitivity.

We have made a full response and analysis of the Irvine report, which is available here.

Symptoms and Causation

The report contains references to a number of questionnaire surveys that have found statistically significant increases in "Microwave Syndrome" effects[52][53][54][55], but the connection between these effects and the EMF sources are subjectively based on the participants' claims.

Some mobile phone studies which use questionnaire responses as the basis for their information, have been criticised as subject to recall bias and therefore are likely to be inaccurate. Often the criticisms suggested that the bias would result in risks being exaggerated. However, recent work by the Interphone group, an International research collaboration involving 13 countries[56], claim that heavy users tend to overestimate their total usage which, if correct, would mean that e.g. statistically significant increases may in fact be for less usage than actually reported. If so, this consequently implies that the brain tumour risk from mobile phone usage may be greater than that suggested. This uncertainty with regard to bias is likely to apply to other areas of research relying on questionnaire information.


The report also covers the prevalence of the condition and reports on the studies (primarily questionnaire surveys) that covered the type and proportions of people that claim to suffer from the condition[54][55][57][58]. All of these point towards the heterogeneous nature of the syndrome, and help describe why pinning down the precise causes can be so difficult.

Provocation Studies

This area will expand as we analyse a number of the older provocation studies in greater detail.

In an aim to pin down causation, a number of provocation studies have been carried out, where the aim is to expose the participant to EMFs and monitor their reaction. These are performed with a real and a sham (not emitting EMFs) signal, and the participant is "blinded" as to which they are being exposed to at any point. The balance of evidence from these studies points to there being a definite psychological effect, where the participants reacted to both the sham and real exposure.

In reality, whenever someone has a fear that something may cause them harm, or a belief that it may make them feel better, there is good evidence to suggest that this belief alone can be enough to trigger a genuine physiological response. The mechanism of this response is unknown, but it is documented well enough that it is accepted as real, and known as a "placebo" or "nocebo" effect (depending on whether a positive or negative physiological response has been triggered). It seems very clear that with phenomena that have received mainstream press coverage, such as the concerns over mobile phones and their base stations, the nocebo effect becomes very real for a subset of the population that believe themselves to be at risk.

As a result, the medical profession on the whole do not recognise ES, and GPs will often refer patients to the psychiatric profession saying that their symptoms are psychological in nature. There are some medical practitioners who, from evidence in their own practice, believe strongly that the syndrome can indeed by caused, or exacerbated, by EMFs, but these are few and far between.

Nocebo and Real Effects

However, the existence of a nocebo effect does not negate the existence of a real effect, which may be greater, lesser, or approximately as strong as the nocebo effect. The only real contribution provocation studies have made so far is to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a nocebo effect is real[59]. They show that a fair proportion of self-assessed electrosensitive people have the symptoms either aggravated, or amplified, by a perceived danger - They cannot summarise that there is no real effect however, as none of the recent studies that we are aware of have controlled for this effect.

Part of the difficulty of course lies in how to assess what response can be expected from a purely nocebo reaction. There are ways to attempt to combat this problem, such as excluding all those that seem to be unable to differentiate between sham and real exposure until you are left with either a) people that consistently react to real exposure but not sham exposure, or b) no-one left out of the original sensitive group. Another way to combat the nocebo effect would be to expose the participants (to real and sham exposures) without them knowing that the exposure had started. This removes the possibility of a reaction based on perceived risk, but is also likely to require having much more of a time commitment from the participants as tight schedules would not be possible.

Another big problem with provocation studies is how to ensure you have "relaxed" sensitive participants. Most electrosensitive people have arranged their homes in a way that they are largely free of electromagnetic fields, and as such a 4 hour journey along a motorway dotted with mobile phone masts could well be triggering a number of their responses before the tests even start. Again, this is almost impossible to control for as the research time will be relying on the "initial" measurements as a sensible baseline of subjective symptoms.

Exposure Metrics

It is also extremely difficult to try to simulate the sort of electromagnetic environment where electrosensitive people are finding their symptoms most aggravated. Naturally this is crucial for performing an accurate experiment, but there are two problems: firstly, it is both expensive and time-consuming to create equipment that produces an accurate simulation signal, such as a base station with an appropriate amount of fake "call traffic". Secondly, the more factors you add to the signal, the harder it is to pin down what exactly is causing the effects that are found.

There are also problems with removing the ambient background exposure that is present in the room, and this can only really be achieved by appropriate shielding. One recent study from this country was largely nullified by completely failing to either a) shield the test room, or b) measure the background ELF or RF radiation in the room - being based in the city of London there is a very good chance that the sham exposure wasn't a true sham[60]. Another study this year, this one from Norway, removed all the components from the signal other than RF - again, without knowing precisely what the sensitive group are responding to, it is impossible to judge what effect this may have. It is helpful for assessing responses to pure RF, but not to mobile phone radiation (as it was incorrectly titled)[61]. The latest study, by Essex University, did a good job of making very realistic exposure metrics, and shielded the room adequately. They found that there was a very clear psychological component to the participants' health effects, but also found some very interesting results that they failed to address appropriately in their analysis. Whilst the results are clearly not statistically significant, there are also some definite signs that the sensitive group were able to recognise the difference between sham and UMTS signal exposure[62]. We have a more detailed explanation for this comment and data analysis has been sent for publication in the same journal, "Environmental Health Perspectives".


Our belief is that there is now plenty of evidence to support the possibility that some people are very genuinely affected by electromagnetic radiation to varying degrees. We believe that as many as 5% of people could be affected (exhibiting typical stress symptoms such as headaches, tiredness and concentration difficulties), and a fraction of a percent affected to quite severe degrees (such as not being able to use even a mobile phone without suffering from severe symptoms).

It is unknown what exactly triggers electrical sensitivity, though a number of possibilities (such as VDUs, fluorescent lighting, mobile phones or mobile phone masts, or by chemical exposure such as a damp proof course installation, garden or farm sprays, cavity wall insulation, etc) have been suggested.

We have written an extensive book on this subject, Electrical Hypersensitivity (ES), a Modern Illness, which includes chapters on what ES is, what triggers it, how it develops and affects people. It describes the known biology of ES and some of the theories that are being researched. Most importantly, there is a chapter on what to do if you think you have ES. The changes that are important to make, including reducing your exposure, using shielding materials in the home, having complementary therapies that help your body cope better and making lifestyle changes that will help you prevent your health from deteriorating. Remember once ES is initiated it does not seem to go away of its own accord, it frequently continues to get worse, and can lead to the necessity of living in an electricity-free environment with all the limitations that involves, if it is not taken seriously and acted on early enough. The book has references, information about support groups and websites of interest. If you want help to convince someone else, including your GP, that what you are suffering is real and not "all in the mind", this is well worth reading through.

Radio Interview with Magda Havas

Roman Pitt interviewed Magda Havas - Associate Professor at the Environmental Studies Department of Trent University in Ontario Canada about a disorder that comes as a result of exposure to electromagnetic fields that can be found in all things electrical around us. How severe can the disorder get to be? She is an expert on the adverse health claims regarding EMFs from electricity and explains "dirty electricity" and talks about research experiments that she has conducted with special filters and talks about what she has found are the likely benefits of using those filters.

The full interview can be heard from here (6.45 MB)

Magda Havas has also written an excellent precautionary paper, prepared for the Board of Supervisors, City and County of San Francisco. This 51 page document is available from here, and covers a wide range of literature and scientific findings on RF research, and presents them in a logical and progressive manner.


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