How to manage electrosensitivity

Today much of humanity lives in a sea of electromagnetic energies, or EM fields. Radio and TV signals are now joined by mobile phone towers and communications masts. Closer to home are mobile phones, Wi-Fi and smart meters. According to Swedish expert and researcher Olle Johansson, this level of radiation is one quintillion (1 followed by 18 zeros) times higher than the background level encountered before modern technology arrived on the scene.

Biological effects were first noticed early, in the 1930s, when a syndrome often referred to as “radiowave sickness” was encountered among military personnel exposed to radar. During the following decades, this condition was also encountered by amateur radio buffs who were using non-shielded equipment.

People with ES are more likely than the general population to have multiple chemical sensitivities.

Decades later, with multiplying sources of EMF radiation in the environment, this issue has not gone away and trends indicate a continuing growth in numbers affected. Electrosensitivity (ES), also sometimes known as electrohypersensitivity (EHS), affects somewhere around 4-10 per cent of the population in industrialised nations, with women more likely to experience it than men.

Among ES people, physiological damage is often cumulative and irreversible, although there are ways to tackle the symptoms. These symptoms appear to be neurological and immunological in nature and include headaches, fatigue, insomnia, tinnitus and brain fog. People with ES are more likely than the general population to have multiple chemical sensitivity.

The mainstream view

In today’s technology-addicted society where radiation-emitting devices are ubiquitous and most people are unaware of experiencing any ill effects, treating electrosensitivity like a real condition is out of step with mainstream public awareness. A common theme is the inevitable tinfoil hat stereotype, implying that the causes are paranoia, irrational beliefs and technophobia.

Given the influence of Wikipedia as one of the world’s most frequently consulted websites, its dismissal of radiation as a cause of electrosensitivity is unhelpful. High-profile scientist Karl Kruszelnicki dismisses the concerns as “hysteria”. However, sometimes the mainstream media is prepared to go out on a limb by presenting ES from the perspective of those who are affected by it. One example is the Sydney Morning Herald’s2015 story “Brain on fire”.

[In Sweden] since 2000 ES has been recognised as a functional impairment, a form of disability.

While the medical mainstream holds that ES is a genuine condition, it dismisses the symptoms as essentially psychological. The Australian academic Simon Chapman is an example. With a background in public health, he is a high-profile exponent of the “nocebo” theory. This holds that people generate physical symptoms as a result of a strong belief that something will do them harm. Australian bodies that are inclined to a psychological interpretation include the national regulator Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) and the research unit Australian Centre for Electromagnetic Bioeffects Research (ACEBR).

Ascribing ES to a psychological disorder is not consequence-free; it steers policy making away from curbing radiation levels, and has led to a fair number of ES sufferers being wrongly and unjustly detained in mental institutions for periods of time. It certainly dovetails closely with industry interests.

This psychological interpretation is at odds with the experience of electrosensitives who develop a cluster of symptoms, are unable to obtain a medical diagnosis and only years later identify EMF as the cause.

Weak safety limits

Despite many studies indicating that physiological damage can only occur at “non-thermal” levels, below those capable of creating a heating effect in the body, decision-makers typically reject this evidence and hold the contrary view that damage can only occur at higher “thermal” levels. This perspective is reflected in 1998 global exposure guidelines drawn up by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). Widely criticised for being too lax, they appear to have been set at a level that accommodates likely maximum exposures.

Earthing, or grounding, is beneficial to electrosensitives. It involves spending time with one's bare feet on the grass, which has a mild negative charge. Another suggestion is to soak in a baking soda and sea salt bath.

The Australian and New Zealand safe exposure limit of 1000 microwatts per square centimetreis based on the ICNIRP level, and contrasts markedly with a number of countries including China, Russia, and several European contries all have limits of 10 microwatts per square centimetreor less. Australia’s adherence to ICNIRP is interesting, given the existence of a little-known 1994 CSIRO report, authored by Dr Stan Barnett, acknowledging increasing evidence of health effects occurring at non-thermal radiation levels.

A new concern is radiation from the 5G network, which is currently being rolled out in Australia, and is likely to arrive in New Zealand soon. “Small cells” may need to installed on residential streets, and it has already been signalled that 5G is likely to prompt ICNIRP to upwardly revise its already-generous radiation guidelines.

Non-ionising versus ionising

An easy error to make is to confuse non-ionising EMF radiation with the ionising radiation associated with radioactivity and x-rays, which is more commonly associated with DNA damage. Both operate on different parts of the spectrum.

Scientific research

In an ideal world it would be easy to diagnose electrosensitivity, but unfortunately there is no standard test to identify it. Among people who self-identify as ES, nocebo may be a small factor, but a thorough investigation of the case histories of people with more severe ES points in other directions.

One class of test is the provocation trial, in which a test subject attempts to detect the presence of an EMF field under “blinded” conditions, when compared to a placebo. Often these are unsuccessful, based as they are on the shaky assumption that the average ES person has accurate detection powers in real-time. Double-blind studies on the subject tend to have a few common weaknesses, including the exclusion of subjects who dropped out because they felt too ill, and different individuals being more sensitive to different frequencies.

Despite this, some double-blind studies on ES subjects have yielded positive results. These include studies related to tachycardia (elevated heartbeat rate) from cordless phones, a rise in blood pressure from mobile phone exposure, and one female who showed electrosensitivity symptoms following exposure.

Scientific work in this field involves:

Olle Johansson, who until recently worked at Karolinska Institute in Sweden. His 2006 paper found that test subjects with ES exhibited alterations in their mast and dendritic skin cells that were not encountered in the remainder of the population. Similar effects were also found on animals, removing the risk of nocebo being the cause.

Martin Pall is an emeritus professor at Washington State University. An outspoken scientific figure on the topic, he sees voltage-gated calcium channels as the mechanism by which low-level EMFs can have a biological effect. Drugs that block these channels tend to largely prevent negative symptoms.

An Italian-Russian study found that people with ES were significantly more likely to have gene variants in the body’s glutathione antioxidant system. As a result, further oxidative stress was more likely to produce symptoms.

Professor Dominique Belpomme in France looked at 700 ES sufferers. All had decreased levels of melatonin, which probably explains why sleep disturbances are common among electrosensitives. More than one-quarter had a broken blood-brain barrier, and those affected in this way are more likely to be affected by chemicals.

An important 2004 study by Dr Gunnar Heuser was prompted by neurological problems experienced by fire-fighters, starting immediately after a mobile phone tower was installed on their fire station. In all subjects, SPECT scans identified brain abnormalities, indicating hyper-excitability of neurons in some areas of the brain.

Meeting needs

On the whole, the needs of electrosensitives are not being taken into account. The main exception is Sweden, where ES has been recognised as a functional impairment (a form of disability). Electrosensitives receive allowances, and live in houses that are retrofitted to remove radiation sources.

In Australia in 2013, CSIRO research scientist Dr David McDonald was awarded compensation by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in relation to his electrosensitivity.

Olle Johansson argues that people with ES should not be excluded from certain areas of life, or banished to refuges, if they are lucky enough to find one. Sweden’s policies take the comparatively radical but commonsense view that where human functioning is in conflict with the surrounding environment, the environment should be altered to accommodate the needs of people, rather than people being treated as subservient to their man-made surroundings.

Dafna Tachover from the American ES advocacy group We Are the Evidence believes that the term “sensitivity” is a case of victim blaming and she prefers to refer to the condition as an injury.

Coping strategies

Inevitably city centres have high EMR levels, and the remote bush has the lowest. While it is possible to implement protection measures in one’s private living space, public spaces with their myriad radiation sources pose more of a challenge, and sensitive people typically limit the time that they spend there. Buying a radiation-measuring meter is useful to keep tabs on exposure levels. The term “distance is your friend” is a good motto to remember; doubling the distance from an EMF source reduces exposure four-fold.

Get a good doctor who has some experience with electrosensitivity, and who can advocate on your behalf if needed.

In terms of navigating the consumer marketplace, corded landlines are obviously far more suitable than cordless phones and mobiles. For people with more severe symptoms, while not desirabke from and energy use perspective halogen globes are ideal in terms of radiation emission, but their sale in Australia will be discontinued from September 2020 onward. For smart meters, which are probably the number one involuntary domestic exposure, field intensity can be greatly reduced by Faraday cage-style units such as the Smartblock. Meters can be wireless-deactivated in Australia, and in New Zealand customers of Nova Energy can swap them for older-style meters.

Avoiding metal helps, whether these are contaminants in the body (heavy metals), metals on the body (jewellery, amalgam fillings, dental implants) or mattress springs. The range of EMF-protective products available online includes shielding paints, special clothing, grounding plates, window film and anti-radiation phone cases.

In the typical modern lifestyle, a positive charge is typically built up in the body as a result of exposure to technological devices. Earthing, or grounding, is beneficial to electrosensitives. It involves spending time with one’s bare feet on the grass, which has a mild negative charge. Another suggestion is to soak in a baking soda and sea salt bath.

Finding refuge

When electrosensitive people are looking to relocate to the bush, a key consideration is the mobile coverage map. Unlike the majority of people who are looking for reasonably good coverage, electrosensitives are searching for none at all. These “white zones”, or black spots, are sought after, and valleys are good because they tend to block incoming signals. The difficulty is that given the incursion of coverage into rural areas, a white zone may suddenly see a new phone tower and sensitive people may be forced to move.

Significant radiation-quiet-zones include the National Radio Quiet Zone in the US state of Virginia, a large area covering about 34,000 square kilometres. In south-eastern France, a refuge is situated in the Drôme region, inside a nature reserve. Italy has its own refuge within the Vena del Gesso Regional Park in the province of Ravenna.


Electrosensitivity Australia


Australian National Register of Environmental Sensitivities

ARPANSA Electromagnetic Radiation Health Complaints Register

We Are The Evidence

Radiation Refuge

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.

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