EMF MISCONCEPTIONS and THE REALITY OF ELECTRICAL SENSITIVITIES/EHS
Updated October 25, 2012
A first serious misconception: “if it isn’t thermal then there cannot possibly be any effect”. Anyone who makes this statement is either highly dishonest (vested interest) or is misinformed and totally ignorant of the way that scientific discoveries usually come about and also ignorant of molecular biology, because in reality:
a) There are many possible very high gain biological mechanisms that could account for the sensing of low, non-thermal levels of EMF and for its short and long term effects, in both electrically sensitive and normal persons.
b) To be able to understand a mechanism is not a prerequisite for the acceptance of carefully researched anectdotal or experimental evidence; if unusual data was rejected out-of-hand because it was not understood, we would miss many new discoveries. (Just because one does not yet have an explanation for something does not mean it doesn’t exist; if this were true then most of the universe, including everything within us, would not exist. No good scientist would discard reproducible evidence out of hand just because it is anecdotal and/or does not fit pre-conceived ideas or theories, instead she or he would become excited at the prospect of new understanding.)
c) Many of the research papers and review articles that deny the existence of non-thermal effects were funded by cell phone companies. They make false assumptions and misuse logic to reach conclusions in accordance with their vested interests, in spite of the many hundreds of excellent publications that do show non-thermal effects. Today there is almost no research money available for bona-fide research on non-thermal effects; at least half-a-dozen prominent researchers who discovered non-thermal effects have had their funding withdrawn and were told to work on something else.
d) Even many currently accepted biological phenomena have not yet been understood in detail and are still lacking not only mechanism but sometimes also description. Anyone who is aware of this, and who also considers the extreme sensitivity of vision (a single photon is detectable by the retina), olfaction (only a few molecules), and hearing (about a billionth of a watt) would have to be blinded by bias to not accept the fact that non-thermal detection of EMF by humans is a definite possibility. Good science consists of first, accurate observation and recording of data, and second, developing theories based on the data. Bad science consists of holding firmly to a preconceived theory and discarding any new data that does not fit.
A second serious misconception: “if the average power level is below a certain safe standard, then a device is safe”. Aside from the fact that the safe standard itself was set too high (essentially it is based on avoiding cooking dead meat), many electronic devices generate very short pulses, followed by relatively long off periods. This is called a low duty cycle. For example, if a pulse is a thousandth of a second long and repeats once per second, this would result in a duty cycle of 1/1,000, or 0.1%. Thus the instantaneous peak power would be 1,000 times greater than the average power, and if the average power was near the “safe” standard, then the peak would be 1,000 times greater than the “safe” average power. For many biological mechanisms it will be not the average power that is important, but it is the peak power that can exceed a certain damage threshold. For example, we can comfortably tolerate looking directly at a one watt night-light bulb (1 watt continuous or average power), but if that mere one watt were condensed into a one-thousandth of a second flash, it would have one thousand watts of peak power and would be blinding, like a flashbulb. The average power of a very disorienting strobe light can be low, but its peak power is extremely high. Furthermore, pulses or AM modulation can have many more biological effects than continuous wave RF or microwaves.
A third serious misconception: “EMF/electical sensitivities are not real because people only imagine that they are sensitive to EMF; they took on EMF sensitivities out of paranoia after having heard about them from others; the nocebo effect." In most cases these statements are not true, because the majority of people who become electrically sensitive discovered that they were having puzzling and painful symptoms that reproducibly correlated to exposures to electrical devices, before they had ever heard of the phenomon of EMF sensitivity/EHS (Electrical HyperSensitivity). Their first reactions were often disbelief, surprise and shock. Who would choose a sensitivity that would not allow them to use their computer, car, or even their TV? A person would have to be insane to take on EHS thru suggestion. Most of the people reporting EHS are not insane, but astute: they were able to recognize correlations - repeated cause and effect - symptoms worse when exposed to EMF, and symptoms lessened (usually after a lag period) when no longer exposed. There are probably many people who have EHS but do not realize it yet because they are not astute and objective enough to correlate cause and effect.
Laboratory research on human responses to EMF is very difficult and is bound to produce mixed results because there are probably a number of unknown variables, and even the known variables are many and hard to control. Known variables include wide swings in day-to-day sensitivity of test subjects; their previous exposures: foods, allergens, chemical and EMF, and their mixtures; background EMF: levels, type and mixtures, including magnetic or electric, frequency, waveform, pulsed or not, near or far-field, orientation of all fields including of static magnetic field. Each individual with EHS usually has only a specific frequency range or ranges that they are sensitive to, which varies from person to person. Furthermore, reaction times to provocation with EMF have a wide range and variability. Each provocation resets the response threshold; it can make the physiological threshold lower (more sensitive) while at the same time making conscious perception of EMF less sensitive, because of being layered on top of a previous reaction that the subject has not yet recovered from. Usually it takes much longer to recover than to react, so only one accurate test point can be obtained per day for many subjects.
Taking all of these facts into consideration, one can see that even a very few positive research results mean more than a lot of negative research results, because false negatives are to be expected, and positive results are far less likely to be false. I think that research relying more on objectively measurable physiological and biochemical changes rather than subjective conscious responses is the most significant and more likely to give reproducible and believable results. Two good research papers on human responses are: Wm. Rea 1991 paper, and Andy Marino 2011 paper.
The above discussion about variables and false negatives and real positives also holds true for the animal and in vitro (cell) experiments, and explains why many of them have been difficult to reproduce. Many of the research papers are excellent and others are weak, but the baby should not be thrown out with the bath water, as industry tries to do, with the help of numerous highly biased reviews funded by the mobile phone industry. The effects of low levels of EMF on biological systems are real, and therefore the Precautionary Principle should be applied to public exposure to EMF.
Further evidence that EHS is real:
The "anecdotal" evidence from day-to-day life supplied by persons who themselves have EHS (who are the real experts in this field), is far stronger than mere anecdotal evidence. It actually has all the elements of good science:
1. Totally blinded experiments with internal controls (at first, subjects were usually naive, and later, many exposures were inadvertent and only discovered after the fact).
2. Careful observation (pain is hard to miss, and is well-remembered).
3. Reproducible experimental results, reproduced with similar results, dozens or hundreds of times:
A) in each sensitive individual (EMF exposure resulting in symptoms, then more EMF exposures resulting in similar symptoms, usually many times per month); amplified by nearly identical experiences of / inadvertent experiments by:
B) in each of hundreds of thousands of sensitive persons who at first had never heard of EHS from anyone, each person having the same results.
4. Logical conclusion: cause and effect, repeated correlation - EMF exposure results in uncomfortable / painful symptoms. This clearly shows that the smoking gun is EMF exposure.
The symptoms fall into a typical group, usually involving some type of inflammation, including burning skin, heart palpations or arrythmia, unusual headaches, and agitation that prevents sleep. The symptoms are often system-wide, and should be expected to be so because they involve system-wide functions in the body: biochemical, neurological, endocrine and immune. There is plenty of research evidence for all of these effects of EMF, in humans, in animals, and in cells.
Industry categorically denies any "possible" effects of low (non-thermal) levels of EMF on human beings, and at the same time admits (only) that they do affect human brainwaves and sleep patterns (but according to them, these are of "uncertain relevance and mechanistic explanation is lacking" SCENIHR 2009, page 4). Brainwaves that are an averaging of millions of functions of the brain irrelevant? Sleep patterns irrelevant? Is a mechanistic explanation for gravity necessary before recognizing its existence? This is not science. Neither are insinuations that EMF does not cause the symptoms of EHS but that the causes are psychogenic. Would hundreds of thousands of persons, many astute, choose such a disability because of some form of mass hysteria? This is an illogical conclusion due to either a lack of intelligence, being misinformed, or having non-biological vested interests combined with lack of ethics. Therefore people with EHS, the real experts, whose vested interests are biological - human health and human rights - are the people who should be listened to, rather than engineers and businessmen with technological and financial vested interests. The people should be listened to, rather than the corporations.
Sometimes EMF sensitivities are originally initiated by an EMF exposure, or sometimes by a chemical exposure such as pesticide poisoning, but then repeatedly re-triggered later by "safe" levels of EMF. The evidence for the reality of EHS is overwhelming and irrefutable. From my article Some of my own EHS Experiences : "Anecdotal evidence is irrefutable when it comes from the independent testimonies of many people who were initially naive. People only realize that they have become electrically sensitive because of repeated correlation of symptoms with exposures, sometimes in inadvertently "blind" experiments where they were not at first aware that they were being exposed. It is understandable that someone who has never experienced EMF symptoms in their own body would reject the possibility of EHS at first, thinking the person "claiming" EHS to be an impressionable fearful nut. It takes hearing about EHS from more than one person, reading about it in more than one place, to begin to be convinced. Becoming convinced at the intellectual level is only the first step; getting it emotionally is even more difficult. Years ago, before anything had been written about EHS, I did not think it was real until I experienced it myself."
1. There are many very likely biological mechanisms for non-thermal effects, and it is not necessary to be able to conceive of or to understand a mechanism before acceptance of good evidence.
2. In biology peak power and modulation frequency is important.
3. The evidence for EHS is irrefutable; it is not just anecdotal evidence, it is good science.
4. If someone holds to the belief that EHS is usually the result of a sufferer's imagination or fears, such a belief is itself the result of imagination - unrealistic imagination, untested preconception, and/or vested interest.
A note concerning the FCC exposure limits: Most engineers think only in terms of the FCC thermal limits. As far as the mechanisms of molecular biology are concerned, these limits are untested for safety, and are ludicrous; they are essentially set to avoid cooking meat. With biological effects, it is often not the energy of the messenger that is most important, but the information content of the message itself. The message can have a catalytic effect because it is amplified many orders of magnitude by the systems of the body, first at the molecular level, and then at the organ level. One analogy, sound: there is very, very little actual energy in a whisper, but if someone would whisper a few choice words into your ear conveying a particular message (e.g. cursing you, or horrible news), in less than a second your glands would flood your system with hormones, your pulse rate could double, your blood pressure would rise, etc., etc. We do not yet know what kind of RF (Radio Frequency) information content that the nervous system and biological tissues perceive (through any number of possible mechanisms) as a message, except that pulsed and digital RF is much worse than analog as far as electrical sensitivities is concerned.
Because the FCC bases their standards on thermal-only effects:
1) they select the MPE to be a "safe" amount below the level at which heat buildup would begin to exceed heat dissipation and cause a temperature rise for bulk tissue;
2) they consider their MPE to be a constant (for any one emission frequency) no matter what the actual time of continuous exposure is;
3) they consider only average power density not peak power density, to be the significant value in relation to MPE; and
4) they ignore any possible effects at levels lower than thermal levels.
On the other hand, non-thermal effects are most likely to be related to an exponential power (for example the square or cube) of peak power, as well as to time of exposure. Some countries have adopted their own standards which are far below those of the FCC.
AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH: smart meters are sensitizing hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people all over the world to become Electrically HyperSensitive, regardless of the stubborn adherence of industry and the FCC to thermal "safety" standards. Their response to non-thermal evidence is to ignore, disregard, deny, and above all, disbelieve. They neither conduct nor support unbiased non-thermal effects research.
Every week I get calls from new people who say that they have recently become electrically sensitive. Especially lately with the installation of so many smart meters (see my article: Smart Meters). They call me for consulting help to reduce their electrical exposures from their computer and other devices in their office or home. I first question them in great detail, because I don't want to waste my time chasing psychological stuff. What I have found is:
A. There are a few (very few) persons who, due to suggestibility and/or pure paranoia, claim to be electrically sensitive and are not really sensitive (the nocebo effect).
B. Then there are some who become truly sensitive to some sources of RF and later become fearful that they are also sensitive to some other sources that they are not really sensitive to, due to a layer of "understandable" paranoia generated by really having suffered so much from something they could not see, hear, smell or touch. Especially those that tend to get emotional about it.
C. Some persons with true electrical sensitivities are additionally a bit wacky, just like a lot of persons in the general population are.
D. In many persons with true electrical sensitivities, EMF exposures known or unknown can have an effect on the physiological functioning of the mind and hormones, causing ADD, migranes, neurologically induced stress or depression,etc.
E. Because of the severe limitations placed on their lifestyle by their very real (although usually invisible) disability, psychological stress and/or depression can understandably result on top of all this.
F. There are many people who are astute, completely level-headed and sane, like the numerous scientists, engineers, programmers, financial advisors and realtors I have talked to, who love their work and their computers but are truly disabled because they can't sit in front of a computer for more than a few minutes without having debilitating symptoms and so can't work anymore, they can only drive an older car with the early, less powerful computer under the hood (like my own 1990 Toyota Corolla), can't travel into many environments, their partners and friends leave them because they are not willing to believe or accommodate them, etc. It goes on and on, and gets worse and worse, and worse. EHS is very real.
Quite a mix. Symptom thresholds can vary from day to day depending on recent EMF exposures, state of inflammation of the immune system and recent reactions to foods or chemicals. Each person has unique frequency ranges that he/she is most sensitive to.
EHS is similar to the situation with food allergies: a person who is allergic to a particular food will react to it whether or not they know it is a hidden ingredient in a mixture, a soup, for example. And most would not choose, either consciously nor subconsciously, to be restricted in their choice of foods, or to feel worse after eating instead of better. It just happens. And people who have never experienced food allergies themselves often disregard it - they may accept the concept intellectually and yet at the same time not believe it at the emotional level (beliefs, and humans in general, are more emotional than rational). It would not be difficult for one person without food allergies to convince another that food allergies do not exist in anyone. By analogy, this is likewise true in the case of EMF sensitivities.
Another analogy between EHS and food allergies: most people with EHS are much more sensitive to certain frequencies than to other frequencies. You won't get a positive result by challenging a person with wheat if they are allergic to dairy only. Thus if you are doing an experiment to test for the reality of EHS, you have to test the person to frequencies he or she is sensitive to. In such testing there are many variables, some of which are uncontrollable or unknown. Variables that must be controlled or taken into account include: recent exposures, current background exposures, current state of homeostasis/health/circadian rhythms of the person (or of the animal in animal studies, or of the cell culture in the case of in vitro studies).
The above analogies also hold true for chemical exposures in persons with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities.
Recognition of the Electromagnetic Sensitivity as a Disability Under the ADA:
Website with many resources to convince others not to use Wi-Fi, including references to non-thermal research:
Magnificent letter from Dr. Olle Johansson to British Columbia's Perry Kendall, suggesting the reality of how a public health officer must protect those he serves -- the public:
This article: "EHS: Fact or Fiction" is in some ways is a good article, but to make it appear "balanced" or to get it through peer review they hedge and distort in places, which can be misleading and changes the truth a bit. They could have done better by entitling it The Reality of EHS and following through more directly. I also take issue with the universality and accuracy of some of their theories of cause and cure.
A review article on the thermal, non-thermal controversy and its history:
See more EMF and EHS links at the end of my article on smart meters: