Hypersensitivity to Electromagnetic Radiation
Does research suggest environmental radiation and psychological illness links?
Posted Sep 25, 2019
Public and political concerns over potential adverse health effects of environmental electromagnetic radiation exposure have grown in proportion to the use of the mobile digital technology that drives increases in everyday contact with environmental Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR). These concerns include the impact of EMR on the development of Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome (EHS) – that is, the putative physical and neuropsychiatric symptoms associated with EMR exposure that arise for some individuals. Unfortunately, such worries currently cannot be addressed fully by scientific data, and, consequently, debates about public health are currently occurring in an evidential vacuum. So, what are the concerns as they relate to any evidence, so far?
Although there can be many sources of environmental EMR, recent attention has focused on the growing use of wireless telecommunication technology, and the associated increased exposure to the non-ionising EMR that this technology entails1-3. The most common sources of such environmental EMR are mobile phone masts, cordless phones, and Wi-Fi routers installed in homes2,4. In this regard, mobile phone use is ubiquitous, with an estimated 6.9 billion subscriptions globally (albeit concentrated in financially wealthier countries), or 96 cell-phone service subscriptions for every 100 people5.
A particular concern related to the increased use of mobile digital technology is whether the Electromagnetic Fields (EMFs) emitted by such devices can be a source of environmentally-related adverse health effects3,6,7. In fact, concerns over the health effects of environmental EMR exposure have existed for over a quarter-century. For example, the term ‘Electromagnetic Field Sensitivity’ was employed nearly 30 years ago8, and a report prepared for the European Commission, a quarter-century ago, first employed the term ‘Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome’ to describe self-reported clinical conditions attributed to EMR exposure9. In addition to a range of physical conditions, these symptoms have included depression, anxiety, and cognitive problems such as reduced attention and impaired memory3.
In the face of these concerns, increasing numbers of individuals claim to experience EHS, and attribute their physical and psychological symptoms to environmental non-ionising EMR. Non-ionising EMR exposure has been linked to reports of a wide variety of serious medical conditions1,3,6,10, and, thus, has the potential to be a major public health concern2,10. Critically, increasing numbers of individuals report experiencing physical and psychological symptoms resulting from exposure to EMR11 – a trend that has been apparent for the last 20 years12 and mirrors the growth of mobile digital technology.
The distress associated with EHS is recognised by numerous social and medical organisations. For example, the European Economic and Social Committee (2015) has recognised EHS distress as real, but they offered no view about its nature or cause, and major gaps in present scientific knowledge prevent further progress in this area. EHS symptoms are often nonspecific, and research to date has not established either clear symptom clusters associated with EHS, or a direct causal relationship between EMR and EHS. Most critically, although correlations between EMF/EMR exposure and a range of symptoms have been established3,6,7, no study has managed to determine whether EMR exposure precedes EHS, or whether EMR is identified as a cause, following symptom development for individuals who otherwise cannot identify a valid reason for these presenting symptoms, and who are concerned over EMR exposure13,14.
Despite the lack of clear causal evidence, a number of potential and plausible mechanisms could underlie the production of EHS symptoms1,3,6. An influential suggestion3 is that non-thermal microwave/lower-frequency EMFs act via voltage-gated calcium channel (VGCC) activation, and are, therefore, associated with a wide range of neuropsychiatric effects. VGCCs occur in very high densities throughout the nervous system, and have a widespread role in neurotransmitter, and neuroendocrine hormone, release; such that nervous system histology and function show diverse and substantial changes as a result of their activation. Unfortunately, once again, although the theory appears to have a solid scientific base, there is little direct evidence to support it in relation to EHS, and no causal evidence has yet been produced in its favour.
The impact of potential toxins in the environment, such as benzene, dioxins, smoke, lead, ozone, and radon, is well established, and these environmental health-stressors have been causally related to a wide variety of physical and neuropsychiatric illnesses15. The overall global impact of environmental disease is placed into stark contrast by the findings of a World Health Organisation report5, which estimated that 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment, which represents 25 percent of total global deaths16. However, exposure to environmental non-ionising EMR, which has been the source of public, political, and scientific concern, over a prolonged period of time6,9,10, was not included in this WHO report.
Above and beyond the impact on environmental disease burden6,17, there are potential health economic burdens on both individuals and society. Even perceived impacts of EMR on quality of life and illness could generate enormous financial costs to public health systems and employers, especially given the projected growth in sources of EMR/EMF17. As a proportion of people who believe that they have EHS may be unable to work due to their symptoms, revenue will be lost through missed workdays and increased health care costs18. Additionally, an extra burden may be created on health-care systems due to inappropriate diagnosis and management of EMR-related symptoms, including for those who may be unaware that they have EHS, if the link turns out to be causal. In more severe cases, individuals may be forced to live in extreme isolation, poverty, and poor health; in fact, litigations over ill health and lost income, due to alleged exposure to EMFs in the workplace, have already been instigated, and found successful for some plaintiffs.
Thus, there are strong practical and theoretical implications should a link between EHS and environmental non-ionising EMR be established. However, major gaps in current knowledge, especially concerning the causal relationship of EMR to any particular sets of symptoms, prevent a clear approach being developed to any potential EMR-related problems, and also prevent clear strategies for the management of any risks being developed. Given this, integrated and independent scientific information concerning the effects of EMR is a substantial need for any development of credible health and safety regulations in this increasingly important area. The current problem is that people are concerned, there is some indicative evidence, but we still really do not know the extent, if any, of the causal impacts of non-ionising EMR on neuro-psychological functioning.
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18. Canadian Human Rights Commission (2007). The medical perspective on environmental sensitivities. http://www.chrc-ccdp.gc.ca/sites/default/files/envsensitivity_en.pdf