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Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity

Electromagnetic radiation from natural sources accompanies life on earth. With the multiplicity of man-made sources of non-ionizing radiation, we witness claims from individuals who believe that exposure to this radiation affects their health.  They report that exposure to non-ionizing radiation leads to the manifestation of various non-specific symptoms (such as headaches, vertigo, sleep disturbances, fatigue, problems of concentration, dizziness, nausea, elevated pulse rate, digestive problems) and/or skin problems (redness, itching, burning sensations).  The source and type of radiation purported to cause these phenomena differ between individuals.  Some report the appearance of the symptoms when they are close to a source of very low frequency radiation, such as power lines or electrical household appliances, while others report experiencing their symptoms in the vicinity of a source of radiofrequency radiation, such as mobile phones or cellular base stations.

 

This phenomenon is known as Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS).  However, since overall existing knowledge provides no scientific proof that exposure to electromagnetic radiation causes these phenomena, and since the causes of these manifestations and their mechanism of action are unknown, scientists researching this topic have named it Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance to Electromagnetic Fields, or IEI-EMF.

 

This phenomenon is similar to other non-specific sensitivities, such as Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, related to environmental exposure to low levels of chemicals.  This too is characterized by a wide range of non-specific symptoms, not verified toxicologically or physiologically.

 

Is this phenomenon widespread?

The prevalence of this phenomenon is not clear, and data on the number of individuals claiming to suffer from it are available from certain countries only.  Reported numbers indicate considerable differences between different geographic areas regarding the prevalence of the phenomenon and the type of symptoms that are reported (a higher prevalence is reported in Sweden, Germany and Denmark compared with Britain, Austria and France).  The fact that this is a general phenomenon, not precisely defined and lacking clear diagnostic criteria, makes it difficult to assess its prevalence, and contributes to the reported differences between different countries.  In Israel there are no reliable data on the prevalence of the phenomenon.

 

Has the topic been researched?

A few dozen studies have been conducted under controlled laboratory conditions to study the development of the phenomenon.  In these studies the source of non-ionizing radiation was generally mobile phones, screens or mobile phone base stations.  In most studies the effect of non-ionizing radiation on healthy volunteers was compared with that on individuals claiming to suffer from radiation hypersensitivity.  The subjects were asked whether they could 'sense' when the radiation source was emitting or not emitting radiation.  To eliminate bias  in the results, some of the studies used objective indices such as heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, sweating, recall or reaction time, to investigate whether the subjects could sense the radiation,.  These studies were generally conducted under 'double blind' conditions – i.e. the radiation source was operated by a third party, with the researcher and the subject being unaware of the stage of the experiment at which the electromagnetic radiation was emitted, and at which stage there was no exposure to radiation,

 

Most studies indicated that individuals claiming to suffer from electromagnetic radiation hypersensitivity were unable to identify exposure to electromagnetic radiation more precisely than the control group of subjects who had not reported hypersensitivity. Most studies did not reveal a correlation  between exposure and development of the symptoms.  Also, there was no evidence to indicate that people claiming to suffer from Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance to Electromagnetic Radiation could sense lower levels of radiation than non-sensitive individuals.

 

Treatment of Radiation Hypersensitivity

Since there is no scientific evidence to indicate a causal relationship between exposure to non-ionizing radiation and the symptoms, and because the symptoms are non-specific, it is not possible to define clear diagnostic criteria for IEI-EMF. 

The position of the World Health Organization is that the reported symptoms are real and vary in type and degree of severity (as far-reaching as affecting functioning in the sufferers).

There are those who suggest that the symptoms manifested by some of the individuals are caused by environmental factors not directly related to electromagnetic radiation (such as flickering fluorescent lights, visual problems arising from viewing screens, pressure at work or in the daily living environment).  Others claim that the symptoms are of a psychological or psychiatric nature, including fear of electromagnetic radiation.

Consequently, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other organizations recommend that physicians should treat the various symptoms to alleviate suffering (including psychological or psychiatric evaluation and reduction of mental stress).  At the same time, it is recommended that the home and work environments should be examined, to reduce exposure to possible contaminants, including air pollution, noise, lighting (reduction of flickering lights) and ergonomic factors.

 

References

  • Duerrenberger G, Hillert L, Kandel S, Oftedal G, Rubin GJ, van Rongen E, Vogel E. Idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF) or 'electromagnetic hypersensitivity'. COST Action BM0704. Emerging EMF technologies:Health risk management. Last accessed 23 September 2014.
  • World Health Organization. Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity 
    Proceedings: International Workshop on EMF Hypersensitivity, Prague, Czech Republic, October 25-27, 2004. http://www.who.int/peh-emf/publications/reports/EHS_Proceedings_June2006.pdf. Last accessed 23 September 2014.
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