The Fallacy of Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity


volcow et al pic skeptic north

This is a cross-post from the Huffington Post article here.

Medicine can be tricky.  Patients never present with the perfect cluster of disease defining symptoms and when they do, it is so rare that you begin to think that they just read a textbook or Googled “heart attack” to fool you.  As a patient, waiting for a diagnosis can be frustrating and fraught with anxiety.  For illnesses that are vague, or diseases that are rare, sometimes the patient will go through several different diagnoses, each one getting more obscure and requiring a different specialist before the Docs hit the spot.  Some patients never even get a diagnosis, and while the condescending statement “it’s all in your head” is rarely uttered by any health professionals anymore, it is a billboard-sized message that is unavoidable to the patient.  It is into these gaps of diagnosis that alternative medicine squeezes itself, and it is not too surprising.

Electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or EHS, was in the news again in the past couple of weeks.  The Toronto Star ran a story about a woman who is plagued by quite debilitating symptoms, including nausea, dizzy spells, and short term memory loss.  Veronica Ciandre, the focus of the article, is also a spokesperson for Citizens for Safe Technology, a grass roots organization that is trying to convince various governments to limit exposure to radio frequencies, with wireless transmission from cell phones, cell phone towers, and wireless internet hubs at the top of the list.  She was also the focus of a CBC Sunday Edition program back in 2011. This would be a noble cause, if indeed the cause was the cause they thought it was, so a little history is in order.

Back in 1996, a World Health Organisation panel convened to discuss a condition that at that time was called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), which had similar vague symptoms to EHS but the cause of which was unknown, other than some sort of common environmental exposure that was not normally hurtful to humans.  No definitive environmental cause could be demonstrated to explain the appearance of such symptoms, and the panel decided to change the name of the condition, which was characterised by symptoms like headaches, difficulty concentrating, joint and muscle pain, and dizziness and nausea, with the more general term “Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance (IEI)”.  Idiopathic just means “unknown cause” and the name was chosen to both acknowledge the syndrome without supposing a cause for the condition.  It is important to note that this is not a diagnosis of a disease, which is where things get sticky.

In 2004 the WHO convened again in Prague to discuss EHS and sort through what was known of the phenomenon then. Given the similar symptoms to MCS, and the lack of a link between electromagnetic fields (EMF) and the illness, the panel decided to call it “Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance” as well, but this time “attributed to EMF”.  What is even more curious is that symptoms varied depending on the country, with skin conditions being more of a problem in Scandinavian countries but less so in England.  This suggests that there are cultural cues at play here in the illness, so much so that they panel decided that epidemiological studies, which study a disease in a population, rather than in individuals, were not helpful because the illness was so variable country to country that defining it is very difficult.

This brings us back to how we define a disease.  An illness is just a cluster of subjective symptoms, and since the rise of the practice of medicine, labels that we call “disease” have been applied to various illnesses in an attempt define a typical presentation of the illness and link it to a possible cause.  These disease labels have shifted over time, with illnesses redefined as we discovered the chemical underpinnings of life.  The germ theory led some doctors to be convinced that microbes caused all disease, and with the discovery of genes and chromosomes, genetic disorders reigned as the supreme cause.  Now, most diseases have a biochemical explanation of some sort with a variety of root causes.   If you do not have a standard presentation of the symptoms, or the symptoms are so varied that they overlap with many other disease conditions, it is difficult to characterise an illness as a specific disease: this is the problem with IEI-EMF.

The most striking point made in the 2004 report by the WHO is a warning to practitioners not to diagnose somebody with EHS.  It is not a recognized diagnosis and only a convenient label for the illness.  There are many other diseases that have symptoms of IEI-EHS;  Ciandre’s nausea, dizziness for days on end, and ringing in the ears is also characteristic of Meniere’s disease, for example.  This has not stopped grass roots patient’s groups in continuing to fight for a diagnosis of EHS, and this is illustrative of the challenge that medical practitioners have faced since Hippocrates’ time in 400 BCE: people want to know why they feel the way they do.  The receipt of a diagnosis gives a person not only a reason to pin their illness on, but to also make a guess on what is going to happen in the future: to get a prognosis.  This cultural dance, illness to disease to prognosis, is such a compelling need in humans that we will continue to search for the answers we want, even applying fantastical frameworks like that found in most alternative medical paradigms in the absence of a biochemical reason for our illness.

This is the essential problem when we continue to promote a diagnosis without evidence to back it up.  When we close our minds to the possibility that we may not be able to find out the root cause, or that science based medicine is incapable of discerning the cause, and we leave ourselves susceptible to the follies of fantasy based medicine: alternative pathology, physiology, chemistry and even physics, twisted to create an answer, any answer, to why we suffer.  For many people, having a wrong answer is better than having any answer at all.  It is also important to note that in order to get treatment, or more importantly treatment paid for by the government or insurer, a diagnosis is necessary (an entire other discussion, alas).

EHS has not been shown to be caused by a hypersensitivity to EMF or any other stimulus.  EMF has not been able to reliably provoke a reaction when the person is blind to the stimulus, little evidence of a  plausible reproducible mechanism has been proposed for the effect at the power level of cell phones or WiFi emitters,  and the symptoms, though real, could easily be part of many other syndromes ranging from mild anxiety disorders to serious heart or neurological problems.  As long patient’s groups and fringe researchers continue to claim that EHS is an actual disease and not the manifestation of the desire for an answer to explain idiopathic or difficult to characterise symptoms, patients will be alienated from the medical establishment.  Doctors and patients will continue to be frustrated with each other, and those suffering from IEI will be driven into the arms of those practitioners and salespersons offering fantasies instead of facts.   More importantly, those suffering from IEI-EHS will not get the care they need to get better, and a relief from suffering will remain an empty promise.

5 Responses to “The Fallacy of Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity”

  1. Veronica says:

    I developed EHS 4 months ago. Prior to that I was healthy with no real health problems. I moved to an area with many cell towers–right in the line of my sight and had 2 smart meters placed on my house. Now I had no problem selecting my home site and no previous concern about the cell towers. After a few months I started having the symptoms described as EHS around my cell phone and computer–burning skin, burning eyes, nausea, headaches. This went on for some time until it got so bad taht I could feel those same feelings when going past cell towers. I stopped using the cellphone and computer. We stopped the eifi, ipads use, cordless games. I even began to get sick around the compact florescent lights and dimmer switches in my home. This is a devasting illness and it is very real. I cannot go anyplace now as there are cell towers everywhere. The symptoms are gone when I am in a place without any equipmetn or towers. I know of only one placw like that and it is a few hurs from my home. There I have no symptoms. I was not tech phobic as we had everything cordless. We all enjoyed those items. It was hard for me to even admit that it was those items causing the problem because my f amily likes them and I also used them everyday. I did not even know that EHS existed so could not be influenced by that. I chose my home site without considering cell towers becsuse I didn’t think they were problematic. It was only after the symptoms go so bad that I started researching the problem. Indeed what I was feeling is happening with greater frequency to people all around the globe. I miss my electronic equipment and still go on a hardwired computer for about 5 minutes before the symptoms start. The WHO director has EHS. People just don’t want o admit that it exists because they can use wireless and not feel anything. There is a subset of the opulation taht experiences adverse symptoms associated with exposure to radiofrequency radiation that most otehrs do not feel. Why is that so difficult to understand. The mechanism that produces there effects hasn’t been found yet. Why would people create a hardship on themselves that a person who doesn’t have this cannot even begin to understand? If people would just look back at history they would see that emerging illnesses are frequently dismissed–especially when their very existance threatens an industry. This is even worse for EHS sufferers because not only the industry is invested in the products, but so is every human on the planet.
    When researchers figure out how to test for it, then its existence will be proven. They researchers must first find people who are sensitive. Then they must determine what they are sensitive to–certain radiofrequencies, magnetic fields, electric fields. There are many different symptoms–just like there are a variety of symtoms to the commoe cold–some people get stuffy noses while others get runny noses. Some people cough while others sneeze. Some people have productive coughs while others have dry coughs. Some people get headaches while others get fatigue. Some get fevers whole others do not. If someone had a dry cough and a headache, would that be a cold to you if yours was a productive cough with fatigue??? See, every illness has differnt manifestations.
    If you look at allegies, some people get rashes, others get nausea, others just feel ill. some people die!! This type of variation exists even when the allergy is to the same food. There are variations in the intensity and response becasue every body is slightly different.
    So to get back to the testing of EHS. Imagine what kind of study it would be if a researcher was studying food allergies. So they just got peoplewho said they had allergies. So to test them, they gave them all a peanut. None of them got sick so they conclude that either the subjects weren’t people with allergies at all or they conclude that peanut allergies don’t exist. Then they give them fish. Some of the people get a little sick, one dies, and the readhave no reaction. They then conclude the people who reacted did so for psychosomatic reasons and the others are obviously not allergic to anything. That would be a poor study wit hbad results.
    The smae applies to studying EHS. If the researchers find out what the person is sensitive to and then test them–they would get accurate results. You can’t start with the premise that every EHS person will react to the smae thing and will react in the same manner as everyone else. Plus, you can;t expose them to things in the experimental environment that may provoke an inadvertant reaction. It would be easy to prove the existance of this illness if it was conducted in the proper way taking into account what truly affects people and testing the person for that specific thing. If they did that they would see it is true.
    In the mean time, the people wit hit suffer twice. First from an illnes that limits literally every aspect of their lives and second they suffer from the public at large dismissing them. It is a very lonely and painful thing. I hope that someone does a respectable study soon and that the world opens its collective heart to the sufferers.

  2. Alex says:

    I invite the writer to come live in my body for five minutes. It would be cruel of me to ask the writer to occupy my body for anymore than five minutes.

    • I can’t imagine what it is like to live with the symptoms of IEI-EMF;I see people in my own job as a medic that live with chronic pain and other disabilities that interfere with their lives to such an extent that they are prisoners in their own home and minds.

      I can and do however challenge the cause to which these symptoms are attributed. The distraction of EHS is getting in the way of proper diagnosis and treatment and we need to challenge those groups who continue to promote these ideas – otherwise people like you, Alex, will not get the help they need to start to live their lives again.


  1. [...] The Fallacy of Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity. A nice summary and explanation of why fake diseases are so problematic. [...]

  • Michael Kruse

    Michael is an advanced-care paramedic in York Region, just north of Toronto, Ontario. A semi-retired theatrical lighting designer as well, he re-trained in 2005 as an EMT-PS at the University of Iowa and as an ACP at Durham College, and is currently working towards a B.Sc at the University of Toronto. Michael is a founder and the chair of the board of directors of Bad Science Watch. He is also the recipient of the first annual Barry Beyerstein Award for Skepticism. Follow Michael on twitter @anxiousmedic. Michael's musings are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer or Bad Science Watch.