In the hit television series Better Call Saul, Jimmy McGill’s brother suffers from something called “electromagnetic sensitivity.” Before Jimmy can enter Chuck’s home, he is not only required to “ground” himself by removing the static charge from his body, but he must also leave his car keys, phone, and other electronics in Chuck’s mailbox as the house has been stripped of anything that produces electromagnetic radiation – appliances, light bulbs, you name it. The presence of these appliances and gadgets causes Chuck to feel vertigo, generalized pain, and nausea, among other symptoms, leaving viewers to wonder – does electrical sensitivity actually happen to people in real life?
While there’s no doubt that some people experience a variety of health problems which they attribute to electromagnetic fields (EMF), is this condition, known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity, a true, verified, and accepted health condition in the medical community? Should we follow Chuck’s lead and start removing electronics from our home immediately?
Before we wrap ourselves in what Chuck calls a “space blanket” to shield against static electricity prior to leaving our homes, let’s dig a little deeper and take a look at some of the most frequently asked questions regarding electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
1. What is electromagnetic hypersensitivity?
Electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) is the term used for a specific set of health symptoms whose cause is electrically based. It is also known as electromagnetic sensitivity (EMS), electrical sensitivity (ES), EMF-injured, Radiation or Microwave Sickness, among other names. In medical literature, you may see references to “idiopathic environmental illness with attribution to electromagnetic fields,” also known as IEI-EMF. Some individuals have reported a wide range of nonspecific health problems that they attribute to low-level exposure of electromagnetic fields (EMF) from cell phones and other technology-based electrical gadgets.
2. Is electromagnetic hypersensitivity a real thing?
Although the scientific community is not convinced that “WiFi allergies” are legitimate, some international legal systems are far more credulous: in August 2015, a French court ruled in favor of a disability grant for a 39-year-old woman’s allergy to gadgets in what was described as “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”. It was one of the first times a court of law recognized EHS.
While there may be limited scientific evidence, other countries have recognized that WiFi signals have shown adverse health effects on some and have classified EHS as an occupational disease. The World Health Organization has also suggested that EHS has been a particularly contentious issue for a number of years, while also stating that there have been numerous studies looking to determine if EHS symptoms are related to EMF exposure.
While we haven’t come much closer to a “real” answer, the topic continues to be a hot one in the technological, scientific, and medical communities, with the WHO itself acknowledging a need for additional studies.
3. What are symptoms of EMF sensitivity?
Symptoms can vary with each person, depending on his or her basic health practices, each person’s body, exposure to other environmental toxins, and the length, type, and strength of reported EMF exposure. Symptoms range from mild to severe and can include:
– Sleep problems
– Skin symptoms such as burning, prickling, and rashes
– Muscle and limb aches
– Eye burning and blurriness
– Depression and inability to focus
– Swelling of the neck and face
– Joint pain
– Heart palpitations
– Chronic fatigue
– Immune system complications
– Digestive system issues
– Learning and memory problems
– Sexual changes and infertility
4. What are doctors and research saying about electrical sensitivity?
Chuck aside, there is a small but vocal minority of people worldwide who claim to be sensitive to electricity and non-ionizing radiation – the kind of low-energy radiation that microwaves, radio towers, and cell phones require. In response to this minority, EM-sensitives are moving to towns without WiFi, watchdog organizations are offering detailed resources for people claiming to have this condition, and councils are beginning to advocate for removing mobile phones and WiFi from schools. But is EHS a medical condition?
A National Institute of Health study on “electromagnetic hypersensitivity–an increasing challenge to the medical profession” concluded that; “It seems necessary to give an International Classification of Diseases to EHS to get it accepted as EMF-related health problems. The increasing exposure to RF-EMF in schools is of great concern and needs better attention. Longer-term health effects are unknown. Parents, teachers, and school boards have the responsibility to protect children from unnecessary exposure.”
What Doctor’s Are Saying:
Jeffrey Mogil, Ph.D., Head of Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University, E.P. Taylor Professor of Pain Studies, Canada Research Chair in the Genetics of Pain (Tier I), Director of the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain stated, “I don’t think people can create pain in their minds. Real diseases produce real pain, and just because EHS has no current medical explanation doesn’t mean it’s not real.”
David O. Carpenter, MD, Director of Institute for Health and the Environment, a Collaborating Centre of the World Health Organization at the University at Albany states, “Electromagnetic hypersensitivity is a real disease. And it does matter if it is real or not. …The reason that it does matter is that if one is really sensitive to EMFs you can reduce your symptoms by avoiding excessive exposure.”
Dr. Robert Becker, MD, two-time Nobel nominee, and author of The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life says, “I have no doubt in my mind that at the present time, the greatest polluting element in the earth’s environment is the proliferation of electromagnetic fields. I consider that to be far greater on a global scale, than warming, and the increase in chemical elements in the environment.”
5. How do we not know what causes EHS?
We don’t know really the causes of EHS because its symptoms are so fantastically common. In medical terms, these “nonspecific symptoms” can indicate a whole host of different reasons for these different problems. For instance, a headache could be attributed to drinking too much coffee in the morning; it’s also a sign of carbon monoxide poisoning, meningitis, and the literal plague. In other words, nonspecific symptoms are basically the reason why the “average” person should be careful about self-diagnosing from online articles! Unfortunately, many things could cause the same symptoms as EHS, and each sufferer may not experience it in exactly the same way as someone else. Although these symptoms may be indicative of other underlying health conditions, there is no doubt that they are certainly real and can vary widely in their severity. Whatever its cause, an EMF allergy is a disabling problem for the affected individual, even though there is no clear diagnostic criteria and no scientific evidence to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure as of yet.
6. Are any future studies on electromagnetic hypersensitivity planned?
Yes! With emerging technology and growth of 5G networks along with better functioning cell phones, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration nominated cell phone radio frequency radiation (RFR) for study by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) because of widespread public use of cell phones and limited knowledge about potential health effects from long-term exposure. NTP will provide the results of these studies to the FDA and the Federal Communications Commission, who will review the information as they continue to monitor new research on the potential effects of RFR. Read more: https://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsroom/releases/2018/november1/index.cfm
The World Health Organization (WHO), through its International EMF Project, is continuing to identify research needs and coordinate a worldwide program of EMF studies with the goal of allowing a better, more thorough understanding of any health risks associated with EMF exposure. The organization is placing a particular emphasis on the possible health consequences of low-level electromagnetic waves. Information about the EMF effects and EMF Project is offered via a series of fact sheets at the WHO’s website found under Electromagnetic Fields. Find more: https://www.who.int/peh-emf/en/
The problem for researchers is that not only is there little consistency in the symptoms themselves, there’s also no consistent pattern in the duration of symptoms or the source. Some people claim it’s due to mobile phones. For others, it’s WiFi. Some say it’s one device, while others argue that multiple sources trigger their symptoms. This makes EHS an extremely complex phenomenon, difficult to scientifically investigate, and virtually impossible to diagnose.
However vague and unclear the symptoms may be to medical professionals, the condition can certainly ruin lives as sufferers may begin to withdraw from society. They might be unable to perform simple, everyday tasks such as grocery shopping due to the installation of wireless routers in public places and the number of people with mobile phones. In extreme cases, EHS can cause such occupational and social dysfunction that sufferers are forced to leave their jobs and relocate to areas with lower EMF emissions, thus further isolating themselves.
While the debate continues, due to the possibility of developing health complications from EMF exposure, we must continue to be vigilant and devote more resources to future studies in order to paint the clearest clinical picture possible about electromagnetic hypersensitivity and the effect it may have on our bodies and overall health.
Additional References & Further Resources:
- SportPort™ Knowledge Base on Cell Phone Safety: https://www.sportportactive.com/knowledge-base/
- Is Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity a Real Illness: https://gizmodo.com/is-electromagnetic-hypersensitivity-a-real-illness-1797058292
- Why Sleeping in the Woods for 11 Days Improved My Mental Health: