A Sample of Early Studies
Johansson did important early work with people in Sweden who had developed skin- and mucosa-related symptoms (itching, pain, heat sensation, redness, rashes) when exposed to visual display terminals and other electromagnetic devices—a condition he called “screen dermatitis”. (21) As an example, in one of several related studies, he found a profound increase in mast cells in facial skin samples from people with this form of EHS.
Sandström, Hansson Mild and Lyskov published a series of studies, from 1994 to 2003, of people with skin and/or neurasthenic symptoms. (22) They found evidence for autonomic nervous system dysfunction compared to control groups. EHS sufferers had increased sympathetic activity, with higher resting heart rates and hyper-responsiveness to flickering light and audio stimulation, and also had night-time parasympathetic inefficiency.
Is Electrosensitivity Real?
Rubin and colleagues published two reviews of EHS provocation studies, evaluating 31 experiments in 2005 and 15 new studies in 2010. (23, 24) In the 2005 article, Rubin concluded: “The symptoms described by ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’ sufferers can be severe and sometimes disabling. However, it has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF can trigger these symptoms.” Their 2010 study reached a similar conclusion.
Of Rubin’s work, Marino writes: “The experiments designed to detect EHS had been based on the assumption that if it existed, it was a linear phenomenon, whereas EHS is actually a nonlinear phenomenon.” Marino adds: “If EMFs created disease in precisely the same way with every person (e.g., induction of migraine headaches), then a cause-effect relationship between EMFs and disease would easily be detectable using linear methods. The tradeoff for capitalizing on the sensitivity of linear methods is the likelihood of a false-negative result if the determinism in the system under study is nonlinear.” (25)
At issue, then, is whether or not EHS represents a single, linear phenomenon. If EHS is non-linear—that is, it’s comprised of a variety of related conditions, each with their own unique EMF trigger(s), pathophysiology, array of symptoms, and time to onset of symptoms—then any study designed to properly confirm or deny its existence would need to be done on a case-by-case basis.
See the Genius and Lipp article for a more detailed review of the unique challenges faced in studying the relationship between EMF exposure and EHS symptoms. (26)
A Tale of Three Physicians
Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland is perhaps the world’s most famous person who has reported being hypersensitive to EMF. Dr. Bruntland served three terms as Prime Minister of Norway from 1981 to 1996, was Director-General of the World Health Organization from 1998 to 2003, and was U.N. Special Envoy on Climate Change from 2007 to 2010. Months after becoming the WHO Director-General, Bruntland suffered severe eye damage during a microwave oven accident, which she believes caused her electrosensitivity. Ironically, she went public with her self-diagnosis of EHS while still heading the WHO, while the agency was refusing to acknowledge that EHS symptoms were directly caused by EMF exposure. In 2002, she had the following to say in a Norwegian newspaper interview (translated here into English): “It’s not the sound, but the waves I react on. My hypersensitivity has gone so far that I even react on mobiles closer to me than about four metres . . . In the beginning, I felt a local warmth around my ear. But the agony got worse, and turned into a strong discomfort and headaches every time I used a mobile phone . . . And in order not to be hysterical—that someone should believe that this was just something I imagined—I have made several tests: People have been in my office with their mobile hidden in their pocket or bag. Without knowing if it was on or off, we have tested my reactions. I have always reacted when the phone has been on—never when it’s off. So there is no doubt.” (27)
Dr. Scott Eberle, a hospice physician in Northern California, has published two articles describing his own development of a severe version of EHS. Like Bruntland, Eberle constructed a blinded self-study to confirm the diagnosis. “At home I had a router with wireless and wired options. I sat with eyes closed a few feet from the router and, at an unknown time, a friend turned on the silent wireless function. About ten minutes into the trial, I started having a piercing headache: sharp and pointy going up the middle of my brain just left of midline. My friend confirmed that he had turned on the router less than a minute before I had become symptomatic.” After many months of “meticulously testing [his] environment [and] keeping a detailed journal about exposures and symptoms”, Eberle identified a repeatable pattern for lower-level radiofrequency exposures. “Within an hour,” he writes, “my brain feels unnaturally activated, like a shot of mental caffeine. An hour or two later, a headache starts and mental function slows, followed by a night of poor sleep. The next day I awaken feeling mentally washed out. It takes me 24 hours to feel okay and 48-72 hours to return to normal.” (28)
McCarty and colleagues (including Marino) have taken Bruntland’s and Eberle’s blinded approach one step further, performing a double-blinded EMF provocation study to test an unnamed third physician who, like Bruntland and Eberle, was self-diagnosed with EHS. (29) First the researchers conducted preliminary studies to identify what kind of EMF triggered her symptoms and what those symptoms were. As Marino says, “We assumed any symptoms triggered by the controlled field would be specific to the subject (not a universal reaction similar in nature and intensity to the reactions of all true EHS sufferers).” They then used methods designed to minimize unintentional sensory cues while repeatedly exposing the subject to the identified type of EMF trigger: a 60-Hz electric field of 300 V/m, comparable to a typical environmental-strength EMF. “[T]he subject developed temporal pain, headache, muscle-twitching, and skipped heartbeats within 100 s after initiation of EMF exposure (P < 0.05)” despite having “no conscious perception of the field”. She reported symptoms in 100% of these electric field exposures and never during periods of not being exposed. The researchers conclude that EMF hypersensitivity is “a bona fide environmentally-inducible neurological syndrome”.
Rubin sent a letter-to-the-editor critique of the McCarty article, with his primary objection being the language used by the subject to describe her symptoms. (30) Marino, representing the McCarty group, offered a published response, describing in detail how his group had well-handled this issue of symptom reporting. (31)
Biomarkers for Electrosensitivity
In 2015, Belpomme and colleagues published a comprehensive study of 1,216 people with environmental sensitivities: 71.6% had EHS, 7.2% had multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), and 21.2% had both conditions. (32) They documented abnormal findings in an array of reliable biomarkers, with positive results being found for five different serum markers in 15%-40% of subjects (as one example, nearly 40% of subjects had elevated serum histamine levels suggesting a chronic inflammatory process in this subset of subjects). They also found a deficit in melatonin metabolic availability in all investigated cases, and capsulothalamic hypoperfusion and blood-brain barrier opening on brain imaging.
Heart Rate Variability as a Possible Marker
Havas and colleagues published a double-blind study measuring heart rate variability in response to a cordless phone provocation. (33) The 25 subjects had perceived levels of electrosensitivity ranging from “extremely electrically sensitive” to either “not sensitive” or “no opinion”. Four of 25 subjects (16%) had a significant increase in heart rate during microwave exposure compared to sham exposure (an increase of 10 to 93 beats per minute). Focusing on the most dramatic example, they write: “The heart rate for subject 25 jumped from 61 bpm to 154 bpm (with real provocation) and returned to 64 bpm (with sham provocation).” They also monitored heart rate with positional changes and found that “the sympathetic/parasympathetic balance changed for an additional 6 subjects (24%) while they remained in a supine position.” They conclude: “Orthostatic HRV [heart rate variability] combined with provocation testing may provide a diagnostic test for some EHS sufferers when they are exposed to electromagnetic emitting devices.” This study echoes earlier work done by Bellieni and colleagues who found a statistically significant change in HRV in neonates when exposed to the EMF produced by incubators while turned on compared to when the incubators were turned off.
Electrosensitivity as a Nonlinear Condition
Returning to Marino’s analysis: “[T]he symptoms of EHS vary in terms of physical location in the body, may linger after the stimulus is turned off, appear to depend not only upon the field strength but also upon changes of the field (‘pulse’ vs. ‘continuous’), and are quite likely to be amplified by other factors, including the subject’s emotional response to the suffering”. (34) The variable biomarker results in Belpomme’s study support Marino’s assessment and suggest that this nonlinear phenomenon may be comprised of a variety of related conditions, each with their own unique EMF triggers, pathophysiology, array of symptoms, time to onset of each symptom, and measurable biomarkers.
That EHS is a non-linear condition is also suggested by the three physician case histories presented above. Bruntland and Eberle report something similar—headaches soon after being exposed to radio-frequency EMF, though Eberle also describes a more delayed and prolonged reaction different from Bruntland’s. In contrast, McCarty’s physician subject developed her headaches after exposure to a low-frequency electric field rather than radio-frequency EMF. Of further note, all three of these cases are very different from the screen dermatitis described by Johansson, and all three may or may not exhibit the heart rate changes reported in the Havas study.
Side-by-side provocation studies of multiple EHS sufferers, in a fashion similar to the McCarty study, would be needed to confirm if there are multiple versions of EHS, each with its own unique and reproducible combination of EMF triggers and time-course of symptoms.
Considering the current body of research, and direct experiences with those who are electrosensitive people, we conclude that electrosensitivty is a verified electromagnetically-induced medical entity.
21) Johansson O. (2006). Summary of all studies found in: Electrohypersensitivity: Observations in the human skin of a physical impairment. Johansson’s chapter in World Health Organization’s report of the International Workshop on EMF Hypersensitivity; Prague, Czech Republic, October 25-27, 2004. http://www.who.int/peh-emf/publications/reports/EHS_Proceedings_June2006.pdf
22) Lyskov E. (2006). Summary of all studies found in Lyskov’s chapter in World Health Organization’s report of the International Workshop on EMF Hypersensitivity; Prague, Czech Republic, October 25-27, 2004. http://www.who.int/peh-emf/publications/reports/EHS_Proceedings_June2006.pdf.
23) Rubin G. (2005). Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: A systematic review of provocation studies. Psychosomatic Medicine 67:224–232.
24) Rubin G. (2010). Idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (formerly “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”): an updated systematic review of provocation studies. Bioelectromagnetics. 2010; 31: 1-11.
25) Marino A. (2012). Response to letter to the editor concerning “Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: Evidence for a novel neurological syndrome. Intl J Neurosci, Early Online, 1-2, 2012.
26) Genuis S. (2012). Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: Fact or fiction? Science of The Total Environment. Volume 414, 1 January 2012, Pages 103-112. http://www.helbredssikker-telekommunikation.dk/sites/default/files/Geniu%20and%20Lipp%202011.pdf
27) Aud Dalsegg (9 March 2002). “Får hodesmerter av mobilstråling”. Dagbladet (in Norwegian). Retrieved 3 July 2017. http://www.dagbladet.no/nyheter/far-hodesmerter-av-mobilstraling/65792704
28) Eberle S. (2014). What’s the diagnosis, doctor? Sonoma Medicine; Fall 2014: 27-32.
29) McCarty D. (2011). Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: Evidence for a novel neurological syndrome. Intl J Neurosci 2011; 121: 670-676.
30) Rubin G. (2012). Letter to the editor: Electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Intl J Neurosci; 122: 401.
31) Marino A. (2012). Response to letter to the editor concerning “Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: Evidence for a novel neurological syndrome. Intl J Neurosci, Early Online, 1-2, 2012.
32) Belpomme D. (2015). Reliable disease biomarkers characterizing and identifying electrohypersensitivity and multiple chemical sensitivity as two etiopathogenic aspects of a unique pathological disorder. Rev Environ Health. 2015; 30 (4): 251-71. http://www.ehs-mcs.org/fichiers/1454070991_Reliable_biomarkers.pdf
33 Havas M. (2010). Provocation study using heart rate variability shows microwave radiation from 2.4 GHz cordless phone affects autonomic nervous system. Eur J Oncol Library, vol. 5: 273-300.
34) Marino A. (2012). Response to letter to the editor concerning “Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: Evidence for a novel neurological syndrome. Intl J Neurosci, Early Online, 1-2, 2012.