Killer hertz?

For most people technology is an asset, but controversial research claims an increasing number of us are laid low by the effects of its magnetic radiation.

Getting up in the morning with an aversion to work is not unusual. We’ve all suffered headaches and aches at the thought of going into the office. But for some people these problems are more than psychological: as society becomes increasingly technology dependent, more and more employees are finding they are allergic to work – literally.

Skin problems, headaches, muscle pains, flu-like symptoms, dizziness, irregular heartbeats, problems with concentration and loss of memory are just a few of the symptoms.

They are being blamed on two controversial electromagnetic radiation-related allergies – electrosensitivity (ES) and electrohypersensitivity (EHS) – whose victims claim their numbers are growing the more technology dictates our lives.

Since the 1970s individual cases of ES and EHS have been reported to doctors, but the conditions have only recently received attention from researchers and the media. Electromagnetic radiation is a biologically active agent that many claim has demonstrable and adverse effects on the human body. Studies show links between abnormalities in functions of the nervous system and blood cell irregularities and the symptoms associated with electrosensitivity and hypersensitivity. Reported symptoms are usually found to occur during or after being in close proximity to sources of EMR.

Such sources include power lines (both high and low voltage), electric blankets, hairdryers, fluorescent lights, photocopiers, mobile phones, handheld electrical tools, electric appliances and, most commonly, computers and screens.

This means that ES and especially EHS victims are apparently allergic to both their work and their home environments – and to all public places such as shops, banks, post offices, hospitals, public transport and even cars.

And the problem is claimed to be growing. From only a few reported individual cases during the 1970s, support groups say the condition has come to affect thousands.Based on international estimates by sources such as the National Institute of Working Life in Sweden, Powerwatch, a pressure group on electromagnetic fields and health issues in the UK, claims that between three and five per cent of the UK population could be significantly affected by ES and EHS, while a third could be suffering without being aware.

In Sweden the documented number is 3.1 per cent, plus a suspected large number of unreported cases. Dr Olle Johansson, professor, The Experimental Dermatology Unit, Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, is worried that the whole of the Swedish population is exposed to full body micro-radiation all day every day, and that this exposure over time could lead to serious health problems. But, there is no scientific consensus about the effects of low-level radiation because the phenomenon has not been fully researched.

The Institution of Electrical Engineers has for over 10 years had a working group on electromagnetic fields that looks at all peer-reviewed publications in the field. Its latest statement says: ‘The existence of the electrical hypersensitivity has not been confirmed in controlled, laboratory tests, although subtle cognitive changes have been reported using power frequency magnetic fields.’

The report of the UK independent expert group on mobile phones published in 2000 recommended caution. ‘The balance of evidence to date suggests that exposures to RF radiation below NRPB guidelines do not cause adverse health effects to the general population,’ it said. It added: ‘There is now scientific evidence which suggests that there may be biological effects occurring at exposures below these guidelines. People can vary in their susceptibility to environmental hazards.

It is not possible to say that exposure to RF radiation, even at levels below national guidelines, is totally without potential adverse effects, and the gaps in knowledge are sufficient to justify a precautionary approach.’

However, UK authors Alasdair and Jean Philips published their book Electrosensitivity – A Modern Illness in June, and Powerwatch stresses the fact that today we are surrounded by unnatural pulsing electromagnetic signals thousands of times stronger than those 50 years ago.

The digital revolution over the past 15 years, they argue, has dramatically changed the form of our exposure and has caused ‘lumpy’ (bursts of full amplitude data pulses) signals, often emitted in bursts at rates that interfere with those of the body, from a few hertz to a few kHz. ‘We are broadband receivers whose cells and tissue can act in non-linear ways to detect incoming RF signals, providing windows where effects will be enhanced,’ says Powerwatch.

This, it is claimed, causes some people to develop ES or EHS, with varying levels of severity. Those who are electrosensitive can, after some changes to their environments and their work tasks, continue to be employed and live at their normal locations, whereas the hypersensitive may have to change their life completely and live and work in areas where the risk of being exposed to EMR is as low as possible.

This often means moving to rural locations under spartan conditions for longer or shorter periods of time.

Powerwatch claims that of the three per cent in the UK who are significantly affected, one to two per cent are so hypersensitive that they cannot travel on public transport or by car and so become totally isolated. This would make ES more common than, for example, repetitive strain injury, but unlike RSI it is not uniformly recognised by the medical and scientific community.

Powerwatch says that ES normally starts after the sufferer is sensitised by something else, such as a toxic chemical like formaldehyde, or frequent use of a mobile phone, or stress. It takes six to nine months from the onset of symptoms before the condition develops fully. Mild cases can fully recover, especially if the person takes action during this initial period, but many are reluctant or unable to accept that computers or mobile phones are making them ill. After the six to nine-month period deterioration can be rapid if no action is taken.

There are ES support organisations in the UK, all the Scandinavian countries, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Australia, Japan and the US. These seek to increase awareness of the condition, but also attempt to give useful advice on how to create more tolerable environments for sufferers.

The Swedish support group FEB has tried to map out a full details of ES by interviewing its members. It has also approached engineers with its results and asked them to try to come up with solutions for homes and workplaces of those affected. ‘The problem is that people with ES and EHS react to different frequencies. Why we do so could be a matter of genetics or the amount of toxins stored in our bodies,’ says Ulla Lindal, spokesperson for FEB.

Martin Andersson, managing director of Amak, a company that specialises in the development of products that emit very low levels of electrical and magnetic fields, is one of few engineers who have dedicated their careers to trying to improve everyday environments for electrosensitive people.

After years of research technical innovations that the firm has put on to the market include two sizes of flat-screen monitors (electronically stabilised, so you can isolate yourself from the existing mains earthing and connect up with the outer earthing) with screened mouse and keyboard; a signal amplifier (for working at a distance of up to 100m from your workstation); cables that are specially screened for minimising electromagnetic fields; and a converted telephone that gives a very low field but retains the same quality of sound. Andersson also has a mobile test lab: an electronically stable office with screened products and cables where ES sufferers can try out a new work environment especially designed for them.

These products have helped people return to work and lead a next to normal life again. ‘Few companies or individuals engage in this type of research.

Electrosensitivity is a divisive issue in Sweden,’ says Andersson, who also carries out research into why some people are more prone to ES than others.

FEB activist Jan Ã…berg writes in FEB’s discussion forum that industrial and university research into EMR is influenced not only by economics but also by political factors. Ã…berg believes that there is a fear that employees will panic if ES becomes known more generally to the public: this is in part why some research has problems getting funding, he claims.

‘ES is a sensitive social problem,’ says Lena Ekström, FEB regional chairman. ‘We want increased awareness and support from society.’ Currently it is a struggle for ES to get official recognition from top politicians and universities. ‘Several independent studies on ES have been completed at highly recognised institutions across the West, which show obvious links between symptoms and EMR, but no clear opinion has yet been established or announced by the joint international scientific community,’ says Ekström. ‘There have been many controversies about ES within the political arena and the research community in Sweden alone.’

Many ES sufferers are met with scepticism when they claim they are ill because of EMR exposure. Sweden’s Dr Christina Eliasch and the UK’s Powerwatch warn people who think they might suffer from electrosensitivity or hypersensitivity that a common reaction by many GPs is to prescribe tranquillisers or antidepressants.

The industrial and digital society is built upon the premise of EMR use, which is rising inexorably. FEB’s main concern today is the rapid construction of 3G masts across the western world: ‘We have nowhere to flee,’ says Ekström.

Sidebar: It was as though my nervous system was shutting down

Earlier this year Faisal Khawaja was living a normal life in London. He loved his gadgets, computer programs and going out clubbing, and was embarking on a career as a photographer in advertising.

Today, Khawaja is a shadow of his former self. He has had to leave London for the country and is contemplating giving up his career. He claims his sensitivity to electromagnetic radiation has made it impossible for him to continue leading a normal life.

The problems started when Faisal was talking on the phone and a sharp pain shot through the ear to which he was holding his phone and through his head. The pain was so severe he dropped his phone. ‘I felt as though I had been electrocuted,’ says Khawaja. From then on he says he has suffered from acute headaches.

Khawaja sought the advice of his GP who referred him to be examined for tumours and other possible causes for the headache, but all tests showed normal results. Finally the doctor told him to take paracetamol regularly and rest.

But the headaches had not abated after five months, and Khawaja says he also began experiencing dizziness, memory loss, difficulty in concentrating and a general feeling of just not ‘being with it’; ‘It was as though my nervous system was shutting down on me’, he says. ‘I have always been intellectually sharp and have enjoyed sports – now I find myself incapable of functioning as normal.’

The symptoms became especially bad when he was close to mobile phone masts – his ears ‘clogged up’ and he experienced a ringing or clicking sensation as well as increased headaches.

So Khawaja has stopped using mobile and cordless phones, and only uses computers, faxes and photocopiers when absolutely necessary. He still works as a photographer, but has had to make changes to his studio equipment. He is finding it difficult to carry on working: ‘as in any other modern industry, advertising is dependent on technology,’ he says.

Khawaja might also have to move further into the country, as a mobile phone mast has been put up outside his house in Buckinghamshire.