Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity

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For years, there have been questions and concerns around possible health consequences associated with the exposure to electromagnetic fields. While commonly dismissed as nonsense, there is clear evidence that electromagnetic fields have relevant effects on cells and tissues. These effects could influence the human body. While safety levels in the United States are based almost completely on how much these fields heat up or increase the temperature of the body, many of the documented effects occur at power levels below this safety threshold.

What Are Electromagnetic Fields (EMF)?

Electromagnetic fields are fields that arise from electrical devices or equipment that use electricity. Typically, it is difficult to detect the presence of an electromagnetic field without a meter or measuring device. Some of the strongest sources of electromagnetic fields are used for wireless communication. Starting with the advent of radio and continuing through the development of cellular phones and wireless computers, the human body is exposed to an ever-increasing array of electromagnetic fields. Since we can’t perceive these fields, most people are unaware of the increasing exposure. 

While natural electromagnetic fields exist, current exposure levels are profoundly higher than what occurs naturally. Man-made electromagnetic fields around a frequency of one gigahertz are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1018) times stronger than naturally occurring fields (Bandara 2018). A frequency of one gigahertz means that the field changes polarity from positive to negative one billion times every second. 

What Are the Documented Effects of Electromagnetic Fields in Humans?

Since electromagnetic fields have different frequencies and different power levels, there are an infinite variety of fields that can be produced, all of which may have different effects. Some fields are a complex mix of frequencies, where others are a single frequency. Some fields may turn on and off, while others are steady. Due to all of the different possibilities, it is incredibly complex to try and understand the effects on humans.

This has made researching their effects difficult. And studies are often hard to duplicate due to the challenge of recreating an identical exposure. This, combined with the financial motivation to ignore any data that would suggest potential harm from electromagnetic fields is likely why the possibility of harm is often dismissed outright. Wireless communication is a billion dollar industry. Even if we found definitive proof of harm, due to convenience and necessity, many people would likely still want to use the technology. 

A study on Air Force pilots that got accidentally exposed to high frequency radio fields showed concerning effects. Psychiatric testing found that two-thirds of the young men developed symptoms consistent with antisocial personality disorder, mild organic brain syndrome, and anxiety among other symptoms (Carpenter 2015). Even more concerning, some of the men had ongoing symptoms that did not appear to improve over time.  

Other research, using imaging technology, has found alterations in brain function after exposure to cell phone radiation. Volunteers exposed to a 50 minute cell phone call had increased brain cell activity (measured as the utilization of glucose) on the side closest to the phone’s antenna (Volkow 2011).  Other studies have found that “cell-phone-like fields” can increase blood flow to brain areas that are exposed (Huber 2005). The effects were increased by higher power levels. 

Studies on Patients with Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity

A comprehensive analysis of over 2000 patients with electromagnetic hypersensitivity also came to an interesting conclusion: electromagnetic hypersensitivity has specific identifiable features. In the study, markers in the blood consistently showed increased free radical activity in the majority of patients (Belpomme 2020). In addition, brain imaging found problems with blood flow through parts of the brain that were present in more than 80% of patients (Phillippe 2018).

The most commonly reported symptoms of patients with electromagnetic hypersensitivity include the following (Belpomme 2020):

  • Headache
  • Abnormal sensations, burning, prickling or aching  
  • Muscle pain
  • Ear heat
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Sensitivity to sound
  • Dizziness
  • Balance problems
  • Attention and memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Transient heart symptoms/abnormalities
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Skin rashes or lesions
  • Temperature regulation problems

While many of these symptoms are described as subjective, in some cases, family members were able to confirm them. While not all patients have skin rashes, those that do often have a rash on the back of their dominant hand, the same hand that they use to hold their cell phone (Belpomme 2020).

Underlying Mechanisms

Electrical Substations Produce Strong Electromagnetic Fields

Probably one of the most consistent findings of harm from electromagnetic fields is increased free radical stress (Kivrak 2017). As previously mentioned, it’s worth noting that subjects with diagnosed electromagnetic hypersensitivity often have detectable levels of increased free radical stress in their bloodstream. 

Impaired detox mechanisms might also be involved. This could further worsen the damage from increased free radicals. Other research suggests dysregulation of cellular calcium signaling from electromagnetic field exposures (Stein 2020). Downstream effects could include dysregulation in brain and hormonal circuits that then manifest as symptoms. 

There are also intriguing data about genetic conditions that relate to electromagnetic hypersensitivity. A genetic variant that causes problems in cellular DNA repair is linked to childhood leukemia from exposure to electromagnetic fields from power lines (Yang 2008). A separate genetic problem that increases susceptibility to free radical damage was found to increase the risk for electromagnetic hypersensitivity by a factor of ten (De Luca 2014).  

Critiques 

While the data supporting the existence of individuals that are hypersensitive to electromagnetic fields is compelling, others argue that the condition is subjective and caused by a nocebo effect. A nocebo effect is where someone’s belief that something is bad causes negative symptoms. 

A review of exposure studies on patients with electromagnetic hypersensitivity concluded that the evidence is mixed. However, they also state that the strongest and most rigorous studies suggest that effects are unlikely or small if they do exist (Schmiedchen 2019). Due to the challenges in studying electromagnetic hypersensitivity, more research is necessary to fully understand the condition. 

Conclusion

Electromagnetic hypersensitivity is a controversial condition thought to be caused by over exposure to electromagnetic fields. Evidence has consistently shown that electromagnetic fields can affect living systems, including through the production of free radicals. Research showing increased free radicals and increased genetic susceptibility to free radicals in patients who have electromagnetic hypersensitivity seems suggestive of a potential underlying cause. While controversy remains, it is worth keeping an open mind. It appears plausible that some individuals may have negative health effects from exposure to electromagnetic fields.

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