Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: A disease for the wireless age?

December 15, 2015 //By Paul Pickering
Paul Pickering considers the unexplained ailments and diseases that have arisen in different eras and speculates that a widely-held distrust of electromagnetic radiation may be about to go into decline.

Does every era have a characteristic disease? After all, demonic possession was all the rage in the Middle Ages: these days, not so much. In Victorian times, female hysteria was a common diagnosis. More recently, we've seen a variety of 20th century candidates Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Parental Alienation Syndrome, and the peculiarly French affliction known as jambes lourdes (heavy legs), which can be relieved by drinking lots of tea or walking in the ocean.

For the Internet Age, though, we need a disease more appropriate to an environment of cloud storage, ubiquitous connectivity and election cycles driven by Twitter. The truth is, demonic possession, outside of Hollywood and the Catholic Church, is so old school.

Luckily, a new affliction is gaining traction, electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS). This encompasses a variety of ailments supposedly brought on by exposure to non-ionizing electromagnetic fields at levels well below those permitted by international radiation standards. Reported symptoms include headache, fatigue, stress, sleep disturbances, skin symptoms such as prickling or burning sensations and rashes, muscle aches and pains and many other health problems.

EHS is becoming more widespread according to advocacy group ES UK that estimates that 4 percent of the UK population are severely affected by EHS and up to 40 percent are mildly affected. In severe cases, the organization claims, exposure to Wi-Fi or use of a mobile phone up to 40 feet away from a sufferer could a reaction similar to an anaphylactic shock, resulting in a collapse.

Does science allow for the possibility that exposure to low levels of electromagnetic (EM) radiation can cause EHS?

EM radiation can be categorized into two types: high-energy ionizing (e.g., gamma rays, x-rays, and the higher UV parts of the spectrum) and non-ionizing (lower frequencies than UV, including visible light, infrared, microwaves and radio transmissions). The boundary between the types isn't sharply defined, but occurs at a photon energy of between 10eV and 33eV.

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