Science vs science: The contradictory fight over whether electromagnetic hypersensitivity is real

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For years, sufferers of EHS have maintained that the electromagnetic fields around us are dangerous. A handful of scientists agree. (Sangoiri/ Big Stock Photo)

For years, sufferers of EHS have maintained that the electromagnetic fields around us are dangerous. A handful of scientists agree. (Sangoiri/ Big Stock Photo)

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

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Electromagnetic fields are everywhere, and especially so in recent years. They’re produced by power lines, cellphone towers, Wi-Fi — and soon by 5G.

To most of us, those fields are undetectable. But a small number of people believe they have an actual allergy to electromagnetic fields — as, for example, one of the main characters in the show “Better Call Saul” does. The character’s name is Chuck, and he’s convinced he has a condition called electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS).

“For reasons unknown, my nervous system has become sensitized to certain frequencies of electromagnetic radiation,” Chuck tells his doctor after a spell that puts him in the hospital. “Electronic devices create their own electromagnetic fields. The closer I am to such devices, the worse the symptoms.”

It’s clear in the show that the symptoms are real and debilitating — but it’s also clear that they’re mostly in Chuck’s head. EHS, the show implies, is simply a manifestation of Chuck’s mental illness.

But that, of course, is fiction. Does EHS exist out in the real world? And if so, is it a “real” medical condition — or is it, as “Better Call Saul” suggests, all in people’s heads?

Living with EHS

It was in 2016 that Reza Ganjavi — an IT professional who hails from California, but currently lives in Zurich — first started noticing symptoms.

“The most important symptom was the lack of good sleep,” Ganjavi said.

On top of the insomnia were headaches, fatigue, a “restless mind” — and one more strange symptom.

“I noticed that I had more wrinkles,” Ganjavi said. “I was getting older, quicker.”

For Ganjavi — a self-described “yogi,” who eats an organic, vegetarian diet, and eschews smoking and drugs — it was a concerning development. So he started hunting around for a cause; something, anything, that had changed in his environment over the past few weeks.

“It didn’t click until one day I was using my laptop and I noticed that there was a Wi-Fi connection that I didn’t recognize,” Ganjavi said.

After a bit of investigation, he figured out the source — a new Wi-Fi router that his landlord had installed a few meters outside his front door. The discovery prompted Ganjavi to start researching potential connections between routers and health effects. Pretty soon, he came across something he’d never heard of before: electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS).

For Ganjavi, an IT professional, the idea that his Wi-Fi could be making him sick wasn’t a welcome one.

“I was really, really hoping that this was not it,” he said. “The more research I did, the more troubling it became.”

By “it,” Ganjavi means electromagnetic fields, also known as EMF or electromagnetic radiation.

Electromagnetic fields are all around us. There are natural ones — produced by the earth, the sun, even our own bodies — and others generated by power lines, wireless devices, cellphone towers, TV and radio broadcasts, and more.

Mainstream science has affirmed for years that these human-made electromagnetic fields are safe, at least in the frequencies and dosages that most people encounter them. But people with EHS believe that these fields not only aren’t inherently safe, they’re fundamentally dangerous, and that people with EHS just happen to be more sensitive to their effects.

“This is not a sickness — I am not sick,” Ganjavi said. “I am just a normal, sensitive human who is hurt by a very, very damaging radiation.”

It wasn’t long before Ganjavi was a full-on convert to the cause. He started a website called EMF Crisis, wrote petitions and letters, became known as an anti-5G activist — and, along the way, he changed the way he lived.

“So at home, I have completely wired internet,” Ganjavi said. “Even for my cellphone. I have internet on my phone with no radiation.”

His next project is installing a “shielding blanket” on the floor of his apartment — basically a large piece of material that’s been woven with copper and other metals to block electromagnetic fields — to prevent radiation coming from downstairs.

These days, Ganjavi said, he’s gotten his home close to zero radiation. And he can tell the difference when he goes outside.

“When I go to a big city, or any city these days where they have a lot of cell towers, or if I’m in a place where there’s Wi-Fi and I’m close to the Wi-Fi router, I have all kinds of symptoms,” he said. “I get disoriented; I get dizzy; I get headaches, heavy headaches, and so on. It’s a terrible thing. It’s almost debilitating.”

But over the years, Ganjavi has found workarounds. When he has to travel for work, he stays in Airbnbs instead of hotels, so he can unplug the router. He also carries a radiation detector with him, to zero in on the best and worst places for him to set up camp. On planes and trains, he brings shielding blankets for protection.

“I basically wrap myself up like a burrito,” he said. “Or I had a shirt and pants made out of this material, so I can wear it. And basically, the radiation just bounces off it.”

But Ganjavi said it isn’t just people with EHS who are vulnerable to electromagnetic fields.

“It’s very important to emphasize that it hurts everybody,” he said. “Some people feel it like me, but it hurts everybody.”

Ganjavi said there are thousands of studies documenting a litany of harmful effects caused by electromagnetic fields — including tumors, DNA damage, reproductive harm, memory impact, autism, headaches, disorientation, insomnia, thinning of the blood-brain barrier, dizziness, fatigue, cardiac arrest, cognitive decline, sperm damage, oxidative stress, a variety of cancers, brain damage, hearing damage, depression, anxiety, birth defects, heart disease, behavioral issues, and more.

“These have all been researched and observed through studies that were not paid for by [the telecom] industry,” Ganjavi said. “If you look at the industry studies, the majority of them say, ‘Oh, it’s completely safe.’ But that was the case with tobacco. So actually we have a replay of tobacco.”

What science has to say

Mainstream science has largely dismissed EHS as a probable psychosomatic illness, thanks to a lack of definitive evidence linking it to electromagnetic fields.

But despite its marginal status, the condition has garnered attention from powerful and respected corners — including the World Health Organization, whose website has an entire page dedicated to EHS.

“For some time, a number of individuals have reported a variety of health problems that they relate to exposure to EMF [electromagnetic hypersensitivity],” the WHO fact sheet reads. “While some individuals report mild symptoms and react by avoiding the fields as best they can, others are so severely affected that they cease work and change their entire lifestyle.”

The fact sheet goes on to enumerate common symptoms (ranging from fatigue and vertigo, to nausea and heart palpitations), and describes the prevalence of EHS (worldwide, with an especially high incidence in Sweden, Germany, and Denmark). But it never comes down squarely on any explanation of what EHS is, or what causes it.

Does that mean the WHO considers EHS an actual illness?

“No … that’s not correct,” said radiobiologist Eric van Rongen. “EHS is something that is recognized by the WHO in such a way that they recognize that people have the symptoms and the health complaints that they express. That is something that cannot be denied. But the WHO does not recognize that there is a relation with exposure to electromagnetic fields.”

He should know — in addition to having served on the WHO’s international EMF project, van Rongen is also the vice chairman of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radio Protection (ICNIRP), which is generally regarded as the world’s leading authority on health issues related to electromagnetic fields. Countries around the world base their exposure limits to electromagnetic fields — which affects everything from 5G technologies, to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, mobile phones, and base stations — on ICNIRP guidelines.

His day job is working for the Dutch government, meanwhile, he is writing reports on the effects of electromagnetic fields. So he is pretty familiar with the research.

“From the literature, you cannot draw the conclusion that there is indeed even a hint of an association or a causal relationship between exposure to electromagnetic fields and the complaints and symptoms that people exhibit,” he said. “So there is no scientific proof that EHS is real in the sense that the symptoms that people have are caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields.”

So where did these fears of electromagnetic fields come from? According to van Rongen, they date back to World War II, when radar systems were first developed.

“There are stories that people saw birds dropping dead from radar antennas because they had been exposed to a very high level [of electromagnetic fields] and they were sort of cooked because of that,” van Rongen said.

Scientists decided to use heat — as in, how much electromagnetic fields heat up human bodies — as a metric for determining safety limits. But public fears surged again with every new technology using electromagnetic fields — from mobile phones, to (currently) the construction of 5G.

“With the advent of 5G, you see that there are a lot of protests, even more than in previous years,” van Rongen said. “And they’re also worldwide.”

Every time, van Rongen said, the science has borne out that these fields aren’t a risk to human health — with a minor caveat.

“As long as the exposure guidelines are observed, they should not pose a threat,” he said.

Science vs. science

But not all scientists agree. Among them is Joel Moskowitz, a longtime public health researcher who teaches at University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health.

Moskowitz first got interested in what he calls radiofrequency radiation — the name for harmful electromagnetic fields — back in 2009, when he was part of a team that found a potential link between mobile phone use and tumor risk.

“When that went public, I began to hear from people all over the country who were suffering various illnesses related to electromagnetic fields,” Moskowitz said, “essentially begging me to keep working on this area, because there was virtually no one in the U.S. within academic institutions that was addressing these issues.”

Moskowitz was skeptical at first, both about electromagnetic fields’ potential for harm, and specifically about EHS.

“But in talking to many of these people who were contacting me, I became pretty convinced that it wasn’t just psychosomatic, what they were experiencing,” he said.

Moskowitz found their stories compelling. But more than those stories, he said, it was the research that convinced him — thousands of studies showing biological harm caused by electromagnetic radiation.

“The broad categories are increased tumor risk from long-term exposure, increased risk of reproductive harm in both males and females, neurologic effects, particularly in children, neurologic and cognitive effects, and electromagnetic hypersensitivity,” Moskowitz said.

Though it was technically outside his scientific wheelhouse, Moskowitz became interested enough that he launched his own website, SaferEMR.com, which contains links to more than 1,000 scientific papers on the topic.

Moskowitz said there are a significant number of scientists who are concerned about electromagnetic fields — though he admits their concerns aren’t exactly mainstream.

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“I think most doctors, particularly in the U.S. — don’t know about other countries — will say it’s all in your head,” he said of EHS.

But Moskowitz maintains that the reason most doctors and scientists think that is because they simply haven’t been exposed to the evidence. Those who have, he said — actual bioelectromagnetic scientists — are worried about the harm caused by electromagnetic radiation. In fact, several years ago, Moskowitz was among at least 240 scientists from 44 countries who signed a letter to the United Nations calling for strengthening exposure limits.

“I would argue that that constitutes the vast majority of EMF scientists who have taken a position on exposure limits in the world,” Moskowitz said.

Origins of the fight over EMF

But if there’s actual physical harm being caused by the electromagnetic fields that surround us constantly, why haven’t any of the authorities taken notice? And how did it happen in the first place?

Moskowitz said one problem is that, from the beginning, scientists have relied on the wrong basis for determining safety standards — namely, heat.

“The current safety standards are completely inadequate,” he said. “They were only designed to prevent short-term heating effects, and yet the mechanisms that cause the harm to humans and other species, in most cases, it has nothing to do with heating.”

Remember those birds that were cooked by radar signals? That made scientists think that the main source of potential harm from electromagnetic fields involved heating. As a result, safety standards have been, and remain, tailored to prevent dangerous heating of human or animal bodies.

The problem, Moskowitz said, is that many of the original architects of those standards weren’t in any position to make health-related judgments, because the group was largely dominated by engineers and physicists.

“They failed to understand the biology,” Moskowitz said. “Many of the cells in our body use very small electrical mechanisms to activate chemical processes. And it’s at the cellular level that many of these effects begin to initiate.”

One of the more popular hypotheses for why electromagnetic fields could be causing harm is that they’re disrupting those chemical processes, causing oxidative stress. Moskowitz laid out one of the more popular ideas for how this could be happening.

“Certain frequencies and modulations … appear to be triggering calcium channels within the cells to open up in certain cases, letting in a cascade of calcium, which is known to create nitric oxide within the cell and superoxide — essentially free radicals, or what are also called reactive oxygen species, which then creates stress proteins and can either lead to cell death or DNA damage. So it’s a complex set of mechanisms, which has been well elaborated in a number of peer reviewed papers,” he said.

But none of those effects have been taken into consideration when it comes to safety limits — only those related to heating.

Another reason for the insufficient safety limits, Moskowitz said, is the influence of the telecom industry.

“The industry has been extremely effective, like the tobacco industry was maybe 40 to 50 years ago, in ensuring that no research has been done in this country on an issue that is of great importance to that industry,” Moskowitz said.

Telecom companies have gotten cozy, he said, with the agency that regulates exposure to electromagnetic fields — the Federal Communications Commission.

“The FCC is a completely captured agency,” Moskowitz said. “There’s a revolving door between people who run the FCC, the FCC commissioners, and the telecom industry.”

Rebutting fears over electromagnetic dangers

Ken Foster, a professor emeritus of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, has heard these arguments before.

“Exactly the same rhetoric has been going on for 50 years,” said Foster, who began studying the biological effects of microwave radiation in 1971. “Activists would point to all these biological effects studies and say, ‘There must be some hazard’; health agencies would have meticulous reviews of literature and not see much of a problem.”

Foster took on Moskowitz’s arguments, starting with his complaint that exposure limits are only based on short-term heating effects, ignoring other potentially harmful mechanisms.

“The exposure limits are designed explicitly to protect against heating,” Foster said. “The reason is that these are the only hazards that are well established. There’s a lot of speculation out there, but you can’t set an exposure limit to protect against a spectrum of hazards, or an unproven hazard.”

And yet, if you ask Moskowitz, those hazards have been proven — through thousands of studies demonstrating biological harm resulting from electromagnetic radiation.

On an individual level, some of those studies might look convincing, Foster said — but as a whole, they aren’t.

“The problem is that these studies are extremely diverse in endpoint relevance to health and in quality,” Foster said. “Health agencies tend to do a critical review by looking at studies, weighing one study up against another, seeing if the data are consistent, making some judgment about how well done the study was. And the large fraction of the studies that are published are poorly done, small studies, unblinded fishing expeditions. The better-done studies tended to show small effects or no effects. Whereas the poorer-done studies tend to show all sorts of effects.”

“So what to make of this is something that really, nobody really knows how to handle. You have a large pile of studies of very mixed quality, which point in all directions. So people who want to believe there’s a problem can easily sift through all this garbage and find whatever they want that would justify whatever conclusion they have,” he said.

Health agencies that have tried to figure out the problem on a systematic level haven’t come up with anything, Foster said.

“This may change next year, when some well-done study shows clearly that [it’s] a problem, but so far it hasn’t happened,” he said. “And after 50 years, I’m somewhat skeptical of whether it will happen.” In 2019, Moskowitz responded to Foster’s thoughts on EMF health risks in an opinion piece published by Scientific American’s website.

Eric van Rongen — the vice chair of ICNIRP — had similar responses, adding that the international appeal to the U.N. Moskowitz mentioned is less convincing than you might think.

“The majority of the people who signed the appeal he mentioned (and many other similar appeals) are not scientists with knowledge of EMF effects (or even not scientists at all),” he said. “Such appeals are not a good way to promote your ideas. They more look like desperate attempts to convey your thoughts. There should be a discussion based on solid science.”

Moskowitz responded: “Van Rongen is absolutely wrong. See the list of signatories of the International EMF Scientist Appeal who signed this petition ‘based on solid science.’ All signatories have published peer reviewed papers on EMF and biology or health. In September 2019, using the EMF-Portal database I counted more than 2,000 papers and letters in professional journals were published by these signatories (unduplicated count).”

Conflicts of interest

But supporters of EHS visibility, like Reza Ganjavi, are critical of the scientists who rebut claims of EMF danger.

Ganjavi said Ken Foster has the “least credibility in this field because he has extreme conflict of interest.” In fact, Ganjavi has a whole page on his website dedicated to Foster’s alleged industry ties.

A look through Foster’s research reveals that he has accepted funds from telecom industry groups for several studies, which he acknowledged over email.

“The sponsor has no say in the content of my papers,” he wrote, “and in fact does not see them until after they are accepted. Most of my papers are done without industry support. If the activist thinks that he/she can improve on my results I invite him/her to do so.”

Foster added that in the U.S. at least, there’s “virtually no funding” in this field for research.

“If industry did not support research in the U.S.,” he wrote, “nobody would.”

“Also industry has an obligation, I think, to support good research on the safety of RF energy, if they did not, the activists would complain about that as well.”

Ganjavi had similar feelings about Eric van Rongen.

“ICNIRP is the problem,” Ganjavi said. “ICNIRP is a complete scandal itself. It’s a pro-industry body, which pretends to be neutral.”

Ganjavi isn’t alone in making these claims. There are several manifestos online making the same accusation against ICNIRP, which van Rongen addressed head on.

“Lately, you see that often ICNIRP has been accused of having connections or even tight connections with the industry,” van Rongen said. “These allegations are completely unfounded.”

ICNIRP, van Rongen said, receives the majority of its funding from the German government — and none from the industry. (The group posts information about its funding, as well as individual members’ personal interests, on its site.)

He added in an email, “We are also part of society and exposed to the same EMF as everybody else, including our children and grandchildren. We wish the best and a safe living environment for everybody.”

An EHS expert’s opinion

One researcher who exists completely outside of the American telecom industrial complex is Maël Dieudonné, a French sociologist who’s been studying people with EHS for roughly a decade. His goal: to understand how people can be convinced that they have EHS when everybody else seems to think the contrary.

Over that time, he’s interviewed nearly 60 patients, and come to his own conclusions about EHS.

“And after all the research I’ve done, I must admit — I would be surprised if EMF had anything to do with EHS,” Dieudonné said.

He cited several reasons for his skepticism. For one thing, he was struck by the many inconsistencies in interviewees’ narratives.

“For instance, they would not develop symptoms when obviously exposed to EMF, or they would develop symptoms when obviously not exposed,” he said. “They would also react differently to the same exposure source by developing symptoms one day and not the others. So it was a real mess to such an extent that even EHS people acknowledge that the condition was still perplexing to them. And there were many symptoms that they could not explain.”

That fits, he said, with what the majority of experimental studies on EHS have shown: namely, that people with EHS don’t react to EMF exposure in either laboratory settings or in daily life.

“What we also know very well is that there are no biological effects of EMF that could explain EHS symptoms,” he said. “So biologically, it’s absolutely implausible. EHS, if caused by EMF — and let’s say if that turned out to be true — it would be a genuine scientific revolution.”

As for the larger body of research — and the claim that thousands of studies reveal harm caused by EMF — Dieudonné had a view similar to Ken Foster’s.

“What you must realize is that when you deal with many studies to a phenomenon, you will get all kinds of results,” he said. “False positives and false negatives do happen all the time because of natural variability, because of the way you conduct your studies.”

Studies demonstrating harm are an inevitable part of the larger scientific process, Dieudonné said. So the question shouldn’t be whether results showing harm exist — but rather which ones are the false positives, and which ones are the false negatives.

“And it’s something that you can only answer by considering the scientific literature as a whole,” he said. “You cannot just focus on studies with positive outcomes. You have to regard the whole set of results and try to understand which conclusion is the more likely.”

Dieudonné took pains to emphasize that he himself isn’t a bioelectromagnetic scientist — his research focus has been on the people who say they have EHS. And over the years of interviewing them, he’s come up with his own interpretation of what causes EHS.

“I came to understand EHS as a coping strategy for medically unexplained symptoms, rather than as a specific disease,” he said.

Most of the dozens of patients he interviewed over the years had been sick long before they’d heard of EHS, but had failed to receive an acceptable diagnosis or effective treatment.

“So they had to turn to EHS for lack of a better solution in order to make sense of their illness and to try to restore their health,” Dieudonné said. “So to put it simply, when you self-diagnose as [having] EHS, you can pinpoint natural causes to your illness. You can prove that you’re not faking it.”

It’s an opportunity to restore agency, he said — to actively combat their symptoms, often after years of doctors shrugging their shoulders.

The trouble, Dieudonné said, is that often this new label does more harm than good. Of the 60 or so patients he’s interviewed over the years, only three or four have improved following self-diagnosis with EHS. Many others, he said, have resorted to quitting their jobs, moving house, declining to go outside, and losing contact with family and friends, all in an effort to avoid EMF.

A lot of that could be prevented, he said, if doctors would take the symptoms of medically unexplained illnesses more seriously, instead of writing them off as psychosomatic.

“In the current medical framework, either it’s in your body or it’s in your mind,” he said, “and if it’s in your mind, it’s not real. And that’s not true, because it can be real in your mind, it’s real for you, and it has real consequences.”

In that sense, he said, it may not matter whether EHS is “real” or not.

“Saying EHS is not real should not mean that EHS persons are not sick,” Dieudonné said. “I want to be very specific on this. They are sick in a way that resists medical reductionism — in a way that fails to be demonstratively ‘real’ in the current medical framework. But the suffering is real, the predicament is real and it must be addressed seriously.”

This story has been edited to include a response from Joel Moskowitz to Eric van Rongen’s assertion that many of the signatories of the International EMF Scientist Appeal were not scientists or specialists on EMF.

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