Could you be ‘allergic’ to your phone?
Symptoms experienced by EHS sufferers include redness in skin, fatigue and digestive issues
In the American TV drama series Better Call Saul, Chuck (right) is a recluse on extended leave from his legal firm who believes he has electromagnetic hypersensitivity
Every day we are surrounded by mobile phones, tablets and wifi modems. The radiation they emit never rests, and concerns have been raised about their potential to cause long-term damaging health effects, including cancer. But could they cause other, more immediate effects?
Could you be “allergic” to mobile phone radiation?
Electromagnetic hypersensitivity (known as EHS) is a condition where symptoms are claimed to be caused by electromagnetic fields from fluorescent lights, mobile phones and wifi. The biggest culprits of EHS appear to be mobile phone antennas or base stations and mobile phones themselves, although microwave ovens, computer and tablet screens have also been named.
This is not the first time that sources of electromagnetic radiation have been blamed for ill health: in the mid-1980s, office workers reported suffering from skin symptoms they blamed on their computer screens. After mobile phones and wireless internet were introduced, the complaints escalated.
The symptoms experienced by EHS sufferers vary widely and include redness, tingling and burning sensations in the skin, fatigue, tiredness, sleep disturbances, dizziness, nausea, palpitations and digestive issues. The symptoms are common to many other conditions and can be very different from person to person. Some symptoms appear to be dependent on the specific area that people live in: for example, Swedish EHS sufferers are more likely to report skin-related symptoms.
The prevalence of EHS varies from country to country: self-reported surveys have estimated EHS sufferers account for 1.5 per cent of the population in Sweden, 3.2 per cent in California, 4 per cent in the UK, 5 per cent in Switzerland and 8-10 per cent in Germany. According to the WHO, about 10 per cent of EHS cases are considered severe, meaning sufferers cannot work and have to make drastic changes to their lifestyle. This could include moving to so-called quiet zones, areas where electromagnetic radiation is restricted in order to carry out scientific research.
How could a mobile phone or a wifi modem cause such severe symptoms?
Radiation from different sources comes in waves, like ripples on the surface of water. Different types of radiation have different frequencies, which means the waves come very close together or are more separated from each other: frequency is measured in Hertz (Hz). The span of each wave, known as the wavelength, can also vary with different types of radiation, and is measured in length units like millimetres.
The higher the wave frequency and the shorter the waves, the more energy they carry: for example, X-rays have a very high frequency and carry a lot of energy, and so they are able to cause damage to our cells if exposed for a long time. Even ultraviolet radiation from the sun has enough energy to cause small breakages in our DNA and increase the risk of developing cancer in our skin. These types of radiation all have very short wavelengths hundreds of thousands of times smaller than a millimetre.
Radiation from mobile phones, on the other hand, carries a lot less energy: the wavelengths here are between those of microwaves (which can be measured in centimetres) and those of radio (which can be measured in metres). Because they don’t have as much energy as ultraviolet or X-ray radiation, these waves are unable to damage our cell DNA, but they can cause an increase in temperature, which is the way microwave ovens can heat food. Mobile phone radiation can only cause small increases in temperature (about 1 degree or less), and so it is hard to explain how it could cause harm to our cells.
Because there is no known mechanism through which radiation from mobile phones or wifi could be causing EHS symptoms, researchers set up experiments where they challenged EHS sufferers and healthy people with different levels of electromagnetic radiation, from high to none at all. The experiments were blind, meaning that the participants receiving radiation didn’t know what level of radiation they were being exposed to, or whether there was any radiation at all. Some of the studies were double-blind, where the researchers administering the radiation didn’t know this either.
The results from 46 studies including 1,175 EHS sufferers show that the vast majority of these patients cannot identify when they are being exposed to electromagnetic radiation any better than healthy people. Moreover, their symptoms did not always appear when they were exposed to radiation; however, the patients often experienced symptoms when they thought they were being exposed. This suggests that EHS patients are suffering from the nocebo effect, a sort of reverse placebo where stress and worry of being exposed to the perceived damaging effects of electromagnetic radiation is the cause of the symptoms, rather than the radiation itself.
So far, there is no scientific evidence that radiation from mobile phones or wifi modems can cause the symptoms described by EHS patients. Supporting this fact, the rates of EHS have decreased in recent years, while use of mobile and wireless appliances has steadily risen. However, no one doubts that the symptoms displayed by these patients are very real and can be crippling.
In 2015, a British teenager took her own life after a long history of complaining of bad headaches, difficulty in concentrating and tiredness which her parents blamed on the effects of wifi. The symptoms she displayed are common in teenagers suffering from depression, but her mother went on to campaign against the presence of wifi in schools as she was convinced this was the cause of her daughter’s ill health.
The WHO recommends that these patients receive treatment to reduce their symptoms and also psychological assistance. It also recommends that other factors that may be causing stress and hamper wellbeing are checked, such as air pollution, excessive noise, flickering light from fluorescent bulbs and ergonomic factors.
Even if mobile phones are innocent, the suffering of EHS patients is to be taken very seriously.
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