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), 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, who estimate that 4% of the UK population are severely affected by EHS and up to 40% are midly 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.
Exposure to ionizing radiation, such as from radiation therapy, is known to increase the risk of cancer. Many studies have examined the potential health effects of non-ionizing radiation from radar, microwave ovens, and other sources, but so far there's no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk.
The FCC defines RF exposure in terms of Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), a measure of the rate of absorption of RF energy of the human body. The SAR for cell phones is 1.6 watts per kg of body tissue, measured at a distance of 5mm. The SAR is defined as the exposure under worst-case conditions; most cell phones operate at a fraction of this level in normal coverage areas.
In addition, the field strength of the signal follows an inverse square law, so the exposure 40 feet from a cell phone transmission discussed above would be about six million times lower than the SAR limit, or 2.6 x 10-7 W/kg.
Given this, the scientific community is skeptical about EHS, especially since a series of double-blind tests have shown patients unable to distinguish between real and fake stimuli—cellphones, for example.
Many doctors consider EHS to be an example of the 'nocebo effect'—a condition where an inert substance creates an adverse reaction in a patient. It's the opposite of the more widely known placebo effect, in which an inert substance causes a beneficial result.
Regardless of the cause, the symptoms are real and can be debilitating. One woman in the UK who claims she is allergic to electricity doesn't venture outside without a full-body protective suit that has silver woven into the fabric to repel EM fields; neighbors say she looks like a “demented bee keeper”. Judge for yourself here. To give herself some relief from the unrelenting EM barrage, she lives life by candlelight and has moved to a rural part of Dorset.
In smiliar fashion, many EHS sufferers in the US have relocated to the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ), an area of about 13,000 square miles including parts of West Virginia, Virginia, and a sliver of Maryland, in which radio transmissions are strictly restricted by law to facilitate scientific research and military intelligence.
Science may be skeptical, but that hasn't stopped EHS suffers from pursuing recognition through the legal system. In Sweden, although EHS is not regarded as a disease, it's officially recognized as a “functional impairment” or disability; a court in Toulouse granted a $900-a-month disability payment to an EHS sufferer.
In the US, the parents of a student are suing a Massachusetts boarding school for $250,000 after it installed new WiFi in 2013, blaming it for their son's headaches, skin rashes, nosebleeds and nausea.
If this EHS follows the same pattern as fashionable diseases of the past, it will reach a peak then slowly decline as publicity fades and the next malady gains prominence. Any nominations for the next disorder brought on by modern technology?
Wind Turbine Syndrome, perhaps.