Microwave-generating equipment, most notably radar, originated during World War II. In the ensuing decades, many reports of “microwave sickness” were published by Soviet scientists with NASA reporting similar findings in 1981. (1,2) Microwave sickness has since been referred to as “electrosensitivity” or “electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS)”.
To be clear, all humans are electrochemical organisms. The brain, heart and gut are electrically and chemically activated organ systems-all the way down to voltage-gated ion channels on cell membranes, in which an electrical signal can lead to chemicals entering the cell that alter that cell’s function. As such, we are all “electrosensitive”. The term “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” is thus reserved for a subset of people who have developed a pathological hypersensitivity, often as a result of some triggering event or exposure-be it electrical, chemical, infectious or physical. There are individual genetic differences which can also influence the development and/or severity of electrohypersensitivity.
People with EHS can present with an array of symptoms when exposed to electromagnetic fields (EMF). Those with more severe EHS can become symptomatic at EMF levels commonly found in most modern houses and buildings. EMF that may induce a reaction include low frequency electric and magnetic fields, medium frequency distortions of house electricity (“dirty electricity”), and high frequency radiowaves. For those with EHS, the types of EMF that induce symptoms will vary, as do the symptoms that each person develops. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Reported physical symptoms include headache, difficulties with concentration or memory, dizziness, sleep disturbances, irritability, rashes, vision changes, heart palpitations, muscle twitching, fatigue, tinnitus, and others. Psychological symptoms, such as anxiety and depression, are commonly in response to the burden of physical symptoms, though excess stimulation of the neurological system may also play a role.
Prevalence of Electrosensitivity
Several population-based studies have documented a varied prevalence rate for electrosensitivity: 1.5% in Sweden (Hillert, 2002); 3.2% in California (Levallois, 2002); 5% in Switzerland (Shreier, 2006); 9% in Germany (Infas, 2006); 4% in the United Kingdom (Eliti, 2007); 3.5% in Austria (Schröttner, 2008); and 13.3% in Taiwan (Tseng, 2011). (3-9) The questionnaires used varied between studies, making it difficult to reach definitive conclusions about temporal or geographic shifts in prevalence of electrosensitivity. The World Health Organization has noted that “approximately 10% of reported cases of EHS were considered severe”. (10)
Electrosensitivity as a Recognized Functional Impairment
Electrosensitivity support groups now link thousands of people worldwide. In 2002, Sweden was the first country to recognize EHS as a functional impairment. A similar conclusion was reached in 2002 by the United States Access Board (the federal agency devoted to accessibility issues for people with disabilities), in 2007 by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and in 2009 by the European Parliament. Courts have awarded disability claims to people with EHS in Australia, France, Spain, United Kingdom, and United States. (11-15) Also of note, EMF researchers and physicians have authored more than 20 position papers and resolutions cautioning about EMF health risks (e.g. in 2016, 220 scientists from 42 countries signed an International Appeal directed to the United Nations and the WHO, calling for protection from non-ionizing EMF exposure). (16)
What Causes Electrosensitivity?
The cause of EHS has been a contentious issue for many years, with EHS sufferers and many physicians and scientists attributing symptoms to EMF exposure, while others would deny this is so. In 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO) sponsored the International Workshop on EMF Hypersensitivity. Soon after, in December 2005, the WHO published its “Fact sheet N°296” (17), which concludes: “EHS is characterized by a variety of non-specific symptoms that differ from individual to individual. The symptoms are certainly real and can vary widely in their severity. Whatever its cause, EHS can be a disabling problem for the affected individual. EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure.”
Curiously, Fact sheet N°296 has remained posted on the WHO website without update for over a decade. This is consistent with the WHO’s continued stance that radiowave injury can only occur at levels sufficient to cause a person to be measurably heated. To the contrary, mounting extensive scientific evidence has demonstrated that non-thermal effects are seen at lower levels of exposure—not only in EHS sufferers, though most markedly so in such people. See BioInitiative 2012 for a comprehensive review of relevant studies. (18)
Respected researchers, including Dr. Neil Cherry in 1999 and Dr. Lennart Hardell in 2017, have questioned the independence of WHO recommendations about EHS and related safety issues of EMF, given the existence of strong ties between the WHO, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), and military, telecommunication and power industries. (19, 20)
Science of Biologic Harm Continues to Grow
Mounting scientific evidence of biologic harm caused by EMF (see this website’s Executive Summary) and the increasing number of credible case reports (see this website’s An Overview of Relevant Research) have made it clear that EHS is a real EMF-induced medical entity. While more research is needed, we encourage physicians to consider EHS as a possible explanation for vague chronic symptoms such as insomnia, headache or mental fatigue.
To delve more deeply, visit either of these two additional PST webpages:
1) Carpenter D. (2015). The microwave syndrome or electro-hypersensitivity: historical background. Rev Environ Health. 2015;30(4):217-22.
2) Raines J. (1981). NASA Report: Electromagnetic field interactions with the human body: Observed effects and theories. NASA Report/Patent Number: NASA-CR-166661. April 9, 1981. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=198100171323 Hillert L. (2002). Prevalence of self-reported hypersensitivity to electric or magnetic fields in a population-based questionnaire survey. Scand J Work Environ Health 2002; 28:33e41.
3) Hillert L. (2002). Prevalence of self-reported hypersensitivity to electric or magnetic fields in a population-based questionnaire survey. Scand J Work Environ Health 2002; 28:33e41.
4) Levallois P. (2002). Study of self-reported hypersensitivity to electromagnetic fields in California. Environ Health Perspect 2002;110 (Suppl. 4): 619e23.
5) Schreier N. (2006). The prevalence of symptoms attributed to electromagnetic field exposure: a cross-sectional representative survey in Switzerland. Soz Praventivmed 2006; 51: 202e9.
6) Infas. (2006). Ermittlung der Befurchtungen und Angste der breiten Offentlichkeit hinsichtlich moglicher Gefahren der hochfrequenten elektromagnetischen Felder des Mobilfunks: Abschlussbericht uber die Befragung im Jahr 2006. Institut fur Angewandte Sozialwissenschaft GmbH, Bonn.
7) Eliti S. (2007). Development and evaluation of the electromagnetic hypersensitivity questionnaire. Bioelectromagnetics 2007; 28: 137e51.
8) Schröttner J. (2008). Sensitivity to electricity—temporal changes in Austria. BMC Public Health 2008; 8: 310.
9) Tseng M. (2011). Prevalence and psychiatric comorbidity of self-reported electromagnetic field sensitivity in Taiwan: A population-based study. J Formosan Med Assoc 2011; 110.
10) World Health Organization (2005). Electromagnetic fields and public health: Electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Fact sheet N°296; December 2005. http://www.who.int/peh-emf/publications/facts/fs296/en/
11) http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/aat/2013/105.html http://www.news.com.au/technology/csiro-scientist-dr-david-mcdonald-wins-compensation-for-wifi-pain/story-e6frfrnr-1226729178281
14) Text from claimant cited in Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: A Summary by Dr Erica Mallery-Blythe found at http://electromagnetichealth.org/electromagnetic-health-blog/ehs-mallery-blythe/
16) Belyaev I. (2016). EUROPAEM EMF Guideline 2016 for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of EMF-related health problems and illness. Rev Environ Health. 2016 Sep 1;31(3):363-97. https://www.diagnose-funk.org/download.php?field=filename&id=363&class=DownloadItem
18) BioInitiative Working Group, Sage, C. & Carpenter, D. (Eds.). (2012). BioInitiative Report: A Rationale for Biologically-based Public Exposure Standards for Electromagnetic Radiation at www.bioinitiative.org.
19) Cherry N. (1999). Criticism of the Proposal to Adopt the ICNIRP Guidelines for Cellsites in New Zealand. 10/2/99. http://www.beperkdestraling.org/images/stories/Documenten/Blootstellingsnormen/ICNIRP_guideline_critique_Dr._Cherry.pdf
20) Hardell L. (2017). World Health Organization, radiofrequency radiation and health – a hard nut to crack (Review). Intl J Oncology; August 2017, Volume 51 Issue 2. https://www.spandidos-publications.com/10.3892/ijo.2017.4046