A French court recently awarded a disability grant to a woman claiming to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Sufferers define this as an illness caused by the radiation given out by everyday objects (Wi-Fi routers, mobile phones and power lines, for example), resulting in a wide range of non-specific symptoms, including headaches, fatigue and irregular heartbeats. There have been several lawsuits in the US from people claiming that their health has been affected by Wi-Fi (unsuccessful so far), and just this week in Massachusetts parents have sued a school, claiming that the Wi-Fi there made their son ill.
While sufferers may have very real symptoms, we can be extremely confident that they are not as a result of exposure to electromagnetic radiation, and all reliable evidence suggests that electromagnetic hypersensitivity does not exist as an illness. Many studies have now been conducted to test whether the everyday electromagnetic radiation is causing the symptoms that sufferers display.
For example, trials have exposed sufferers to either electromagnetic radiation or not, and tested whether the patients can tell the difference (they can’t), or whether there are increased stress hormones in their blood (there isn’t). Alternatively, study participants’ can be given protective netting designed to shield them from electromagnetic ﬁelds, sham netting or no netting, and tested to see if their symptoms get any better when shielded (they don’t).
A 2010 review of the literature gathered evidence of 46 published papers on electromagnetic hypersensitivity and stated that the authors were “unable to ﬁnd any robust evidence to support the existence of (electro-magnetic hypersensitivity) as a biologic entity”. Furthermore, the WHO took into account a staggering 25,000 articles, published over the last 30 years, analysing the biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation and concluded that “current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields”.
The most likely explanation is that these symptoms are caused by the nocebo effect. This is the opposite of the placebo effect, so rather than people feeling better when they think they have been given a treatment, they feel worse when they think they have been exposed to something harmful. The symptoms that they feel may be entirely real, but they are almost certainly psychological. In an experiment carried out in 2013, scientists showed half of their subjects an episode of the BBC series “Panorama,” which alleged that WiFi signals were harmful. They then exposed the whole group to a fake Wi-Fi signal and waited to see who would get sick. The ones who watched the documentary were far more likely to develop electromagnetic hypersensitivity symptoms, providing strong evidence that the nocebo effect plays a large role in this syndrome.
The judge in the case in France accepted that the woman’s symptoms prevented her from working, but stopped short of recognising electromagnetic hypersensitivity as an illness. This however hasn’t stopped believers from claiming this as a major breakthrough which proves that it is not a psychiatric illness. It doesn’t help when so many news outlets report so credulously on this story. Unfortunately, this court case has given legitimacy to believers in this syndrome, which could have much wider consequences. An industry has sprung up, selling products that claim to protect people from this harmless radiation, exploiting sick and vulnerable people. Unfortunately, this court case will only make this easier.