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Surviving in a sea of EMFs - April 2005 vol 16 no 1/special report

  • Even low levels cause symptoms
  • Linked to childhood and other cancers
  • Related to chemical sensitivities
  • Monitor your exposure

You can't see them, hear or feel them, but we are bathed in them 24 hours a day. Apart from the air itself, electromagnetic fields ... (EMFs) are the most pervasive things in our environment. And yet, few of us give them a second thought.

But there is a group of people who think of little else. These are the so-called 'electrosensitives'-people who find the fields generated by everyday electrical appliances so disabling that they cannot easily live a normal life. Their symptoms range from headaches to chronic fatigue.

How common is the problem? Because there's very little publicity given to it, you would be forgiven for thinking that electrohypersensitivity (ES) is rare. But it's possible that as much as 3 per cent of the population suffer from extreme adverse reactions to EMFs, according to a Swedish survey carried out by the prestigious Karolinska Institute (Johansson O. Liu p-y 'Electrosensitivity'. 'electrosupersensitivity' and 'screen dermatitis': preliminary observations from ongoing studies in the human skin. In Simunic D, ed, Proceedings of the COST 244: Biomedical Effects of Electromagnetic Fields. Workshop on Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity EU (DG xiii). Brussels/Graz, 1995: 52-7).

Sweden is unusual in taking the problem seriously as, in most other countries, the medical establishment often denies the issue, dismissing electrosensitives as mere hypochondriacs. So, is the problem of ES really imaginary, or are sufferers like canaries down mines-a warning to the rest of us of the hazards we all face in an increasingly electromagnetic world?

Humanity has had millions of years of evolution but, in the space of just 50 years, we have rapidly become exposed to huge amounts of artificial electromagnetic radiation. While it is true that we evolved in an EM environment-primarily radiation from the sun and the earth's magnetic field-these natural fields are very different from the EMFs produced by electric power.

electromagnetic hazards

The first 'canaries' warning us all of the hidden dangers in EMFs have been workers in electricity-related industries. To the authorities' great surprise and discomfiture, it urns out that there are significant occupational risks from being regularly exposed to high levels of electromagnetic radiation.

Here again, Sweden has taken the lead in researching the link between EMF exposure and sickness. Over a decade ago, researchers at the Swedish National Institute of Occupational Health concluded a 19year-long study of the increased risk of various diseases among electrical workers, and a clear pattern emerged. Consistently, these workers were found to have an increased risk of two types of cancer-brain tumours and leukaemia, a virulent cancer of the blood. There was a relatively consistent dose-response, too: by and large, the greater the EMF exposure, the higher the risk of cancer. Among electronics engineers and technicians, for example, the leukaemia risk rose by 30 per cent but, for people working on high-tension power lines, their risk was up to twice the usual. Welders were found to have a 30 per cent increase in brain tumours, but television and radio assemblers, being more continuously exposed, suffered nearly three times the normal risk of developing these tumours (Br J indust Med, 1991; 48: 597-603).

After the same two cancers showed up in electric-train drivers, the Swedish occupational-health doctors decided to find out why. What they saw was profoundly disturbing. They discovered that four out of five drivers had "significant aberrations" in their chromosomes. But more alarming still was the fact that these were occurring at relatively modest levels of EMF exposure - as low as 2 microteslas. (see table below) Clearly, they concluded, even low levels of EMFs can have "genotoxic potential" (Bioelectromagnetics, 2001:22: 306-15).

This has since been confirmed by American scientists at the University of Washington, in Seattle, who have reported finding "magnetic-field-induced DNA strand breaks" in the cells of laboratory rats subjected to EMFs (Environ Health Perspect, 2004; 112:687-94)

But it's not just workers in the electricity industries who have been found at risk. Late last year in the UK, an Oxford University team announced the results of a study of the effects of electricity power lines on the general population, particularly children. After studying over 35,000 medical records, they concluded that children living within 100 metres of overhead power lines had almost twice the risk of developing leukaemia (unpublished report by Draper G et al., 'Childhood cancer and electromagnetic field exposures from powerlines', reported in The Times, 30 October 2004).

what's your usual exposure to emfs?

  • levels drop over distance
  • safe limits lower than we think

Electromagnetic field (EMF) levels are calibrated according to a variety of measures, the most common of which is 'microteslas' (uT). In the UK, the government body responsible for advising on EMF safety is the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB). It has recently drastically revised its limits downwards to fall into line with the European Union guidelines, setting the acceptable levels for public expousre at 100 uT. In contrast, the Swedish 1999 National Institute Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) report recommended an upper safe limit of 0.2 uT - 1/500th of the UK acceptable dose.

Nevertheless, the medical evidence 'consistently' shows that the number of childhood leukaemia cases roughly doubles at 0.2 uT, and triples at over 0.35 uT, levels way below the UK official guidelines (Annu Rev Public Health, 2004; e-pub, ahead of print).

EMFs drop off rapidly the further you are from the source. Nevertheless, the table below shows that some common household appliances radiate levels that are not only above the UK guidelines, but even above the Swedish maximum levels.

 
Up close
One metre away
Electric razor
2000
0.3
Hairdryer
2000
0.3
Vacuum cleaner
800
2.0
Television set
50
0.2
Washing machine
50
0.2
Bedside clock
50
0.02
Fridge
2
0.01
Electric blanket
3
-

the bioelectromagnetic man

Results like these have come as no surprise to scientists in the relatively new field of bioelectromagnetics. Forty years ago, US scientist Robert Becker was amont the vanguard showing that the human body has its own very-low-level natural EMFs, and that these fields are used by the body in many self-healing processes. Becker's discoveries were later reinforced by the work of German physicist Fritz-Albert Popp and the late French biologist Jacques Benveniste, who both independently showed that all the cells of the body communicate through subtle electromagnetic and quantum frequencies.

Their findings suggest that we are fundamentally electromagnetic beings, thus making it even more plausible that we should be adversely affected by external EMFs. However, thus far, the assault does not appear to be obvious, which means that few of us are tempted to abandon the 21st century.

Nevertheless, the cancers caused by certain levels of electromagnetic exposure do indicate that EMFs are basically toxic, so they must be doing some damage to all of us, even when it may be too small to measure and perhaps lost in the 'noise' of all the other insults to our immune systems.

That is why the 3 per cent of people who are especially sensitive even to low levels of EMFs are so important. For them, the 21st century could be likened to living in a near-constant "electromagnetic smog"(Saunders T. The Boiled Frog Syndrome. Chichester: Wiley-Academy, 2002). The symptoms, particularly in the milder or earlier stages of the condition, are difficult to separate from feelings of being just 'run-down'. ES sufferer Alasdair Philips describes the onset of ES as a "generalised feeling of empending influenza that never quite breaks out" (Philips A. Philips J. Electrical Hypersensitivity: A Modern illness. Powerwatch, 2004).

In 1998, a Swedish trade union carried out a survey of the major ES symptoms (Swedish Union of Clerical and Technical Employees. Hypersensitivity in IT Environments. Stockholm, 1998). Top of the list were eye problems - described as a smarting irritating, 'grit in the eye' sensation, which may be accompanied by photophobia (an aversion to light). These were followed by skin conditions - feelings of irritation, warmth, itching, dryness and tingling; also, there is often a reddening of the kin, leading to rash or even pustules (Med Hypoth, 2000; 54: 663-71). The primary sites affected are the nose, mouth and face, but they can arise anywhere on the body.

Other problems on the list included headache, fatique, loss of concentration and short-term memory, depression, breathlessness, excessive thirst, numbness and a 'prickling' or weakness of the joints, leading to chronic severe pain such as in fibromyalgia.

Dr. Robert Becker sees a remarkable parallel between ES and the symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), another increasingly prevalent environmental illness, caused by exposure to toxic chemicals such as pesticides. Both have the same characteristics peculiar to immune-system disorders caused by a toxic overload (Becker RO. Cross Currents: The Perils of Electropollution. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 1990).

Indeed, Dr. William Rea, a doctor who himself suffers from both MCS and ES, and who has treated thousands of people suffering from environmental illnesses, says that the patients often cannot tell the difference between the symptoms of ES and MCS. The link becomes even more compelling with the evidence that many sufferers report that their ES began after a toxic chemical assault.

diary of the electrosensitive

John, a former director of an IT consultancy

"My first experience with electrosensitivity was seven years ago, while working very near a satellite-communications base station. I worked in that job for 11 months, and had concentration and short-term memory problems for most of that time. About three years ago, I installed wireless networking in my home and office. So, for 18 months, I had near-continuous exposure to wireless networking, laptops, computers, and DECT [digital enhanced cordless telecommunication] and mobile phones.

It was then that both I and my close colleagues noticed a significant effect on my work capability - poor concentration/focus, poor short-term memory, headaches. I also noticed I could tell when the wireless network was on because of sensation in the skin of my face. So I switched off all of the wireless equipment, and started to use a Q-Link pendant, following a recommendation.

Both of these changes made an improvement, but I was still having problems. I moved house to a semi-rural location, but my issues with concentration/motivation/ memory still gave me problems. For example, once a week, I used to have to go to the Institute of Directors in London for regular weekly meetings. But every time I went, my symptoms got significantly worse, and those days were a complete write-off for me. I discovered they had wireless broadband in the building.

I had to resign from my firm." !

Jason, a 33-year-old heavy mobile-phone user, who first developed ES symptoms about seven years ago

"I get tingling in my forehead and my head starts to burn. Then, if I don't get away from the source that is affecting me, the left-hand side of my head can go numb and feel like it's burning up inside. Finally, I get extremely lethargic and go in a zombie-like state. I feel the need to lie down and sleep, but sleep does not refresh. I can feel I am going to collapse at any time.

My short-term memory is now terrible. I also get very confused, and have difficulty making decisions and become very disorientated.

I have seen numerous doctors, but no one has offered any explanation or help. I have had to move house three times in the last two years, and every home I live in I have had to have completely rewired-in screened mains cables to eliminate electrical fields. Also, I can no longer drive or use any public transport due to the high magnetic fields present in vehicles and from people using mobile phones. In the last 12 months, I have also become sensitive to certain chemicals, showing early signs of MCS [multiple chemical sensitivity), and the symptoms are virtually the same as I get from electricity.

I am dictating this as I can no longer write or touch paper. We can't have visitors any; more because I can smell washing powder on their clothes. I have to sit in the gloom as my eyes have become sensitive to sunlight."

living and working with emfs

  • Monitor your levels with DIY meters
  • turn off mains at night
  • earth all electrical appliances

various do-it-yourself meters can be purchased or hired:

  • EMF Professional Electric and Magnetic Field meter can be rented for £25/week (www.healthy-house.co.uk)
  • Powerwatch sells or hires out meters which can monitor your electrical and microwave exposure (www.powerwatch.org.uk; tel: 01353 778 814)
  • Coghill Research Laboratories offers similar devices as well as electromagnetic-protective 'nets' (www.cogreslab.co.uk; tel: 01495 752 122)
  • Tom's Gadgets sells a range of devices costing from £28 to £150 (tel: 0845 456 2370; www.tomsgadgest.com)

Your electricity supplier may agree to survey your house for EMFs, but won't leave their instruments in place to monitor nighttime EMFs, which can be higher than daytime levels.

emfs at home

Most EMF exposure comes from buried electrical wiring and appliances. In the average home, EMFs range from 0.01 to 0.2 ut. Experts advise that the places to watch out for are where you spend the most time - for most people, this is in bed.

  • Ensure that bedside electric clocks aren't too close to your head
  • If there are wires buried in the wall, move the bed a few inches away from the wall
  • Avoid metal beds and spring mattresses, which can act as EMF amplifiers
  • Don't keep an electric blanket switched on while in bed.
  • If your underfloor EMF readings are high, take up the carpet, put alumium foil (cooking foil) on the floorboards and relay the carpet. The foil should be laid in overlapping strips and 'earthed' (connected to a waterpipe or earth socket).
  • Turn everything off at night. However, simply turning off lights and appliances won't do; there will still be EMFs radiating from the wiring. But turning off all the circuits at the main fuseboard, while stopping the EMFs, will also leave you without power or light in an emergency.
  • However, thanks to modern technology, this conundrum has now been solved with a so-called 'demand switch'. This works by shutting off the electricity at the fusebox as soon as the last light is switched off at night. However, if a light is switched on during the night, the switch will register the 'demand' and, a few seconds later, restore power to the circuit, thus turning on the light. Demand switches cost £120 - £160 and take about 30 minutes to install. They are available from www.equilibra.uk.com.

Frank Wiewel of People Against Cancer recommends that all cancer sufferers should try and reduce their EMF exposure to minimise the burden on the immune system.

emfs at work

  • Avoid fluorescent lighting, the major culprit, say ES sufferers. If these are not earthed, they can emit a wide spectrum of EMF frequencies, according to Alasdair Philips of Powerwatch. Another problem used to be the flickering. Fortunately, modern fluorescent tubes are now virtually flicker-free.
  • EMFs from computer terminals (VDUs) are not subject to any official limits, and were once thought to be a major problem. However, all manufacturers nowadays de facto abide by the Swedish regulations, which limit EMF output to 2.5 milligauss (about 0.2uT) at 20 inches."Modern VDUs are no longer a problem for most of us", says EMF expert Dr Roger Coghill, "and now that they are being replaced by LCD [liquid crystal display] screens, computers essentially pose no risk." Some ES sufferers, however, continue to have problems with any type of computer screens.
  • Laptops are benign, provided they are running on battery power. However, when plugged into the mains via an adapter they can emit "enormous" EMFs, says Philips. The solution is to earth the laptop using a crocodile clip to attach a wire to the laptop at one end and the earth of an electric socket at the other.

Bluetooth and Broadband are believed to be safe but, as one expert EU body has pointed out: "Guidelines are based on results of research performed at hitherto commonly used frequencies, which have been expanded to other frequencies by extrapolation. A new technical application may, however, challenge the basis for such portability, as various signal characteristics may be different" (Potential Health Implications From Mobile Communication Systems. European Coopertion in the Field of Scientific and Technical Research, Brussels, 11 April 2001).

In other words, regarding the safety of wireless IT, we are almost completely in the dark.

when travelling

Cars can produce surprisingly high levels of EMFs. For example, Volvos have been found to produce 12-18 uT near the deriver's legs, according to tests carried out by the Swedish magazine Vi bilagare in 2002. Volvo has since fitted a suppression device called the '225 Euro' to its new models, a piece of kit which can be retrofitted to older cars. Cars with batteries in the rear appear to carry the highest risk.

Soome ES sufferers also find car tyres a problem, as they contain magnetised steel reinforcing, which produces a pulsating EMF as the tyre rotates.

As for electric trains, EMFs in the carriages are at an average of 1.6 uT, with higher levels found at the ends of carriages.

is es 'all in the head'?

Of course, none of this cuts any ice with conventional medicine, which tends to downplay both MCS and ES as imaginary illnesses that are 'all in the mind'. But this attitude is contradicted by some evidence collected over the last 25 years.

Swedish scientists recently showed that ES sufferers have significant physiological differences compared with non-sufferers - for example, in their heart rate and galvanic skin response (GSR). "ES patients have a rather distinctive physiological predisposition to sensitivity to physical and psychosocial environmental stressors," say the researchers (Bioelectromagnetics, 2001: 22: 457-62)

Two teams of investigators have tested ES sufferers in blinded trials, randomly subjecting them to real or fake EMFs. In the 1980s, allergy specialist Dr. Jean Monro and physicist Dr Cyril Smith collaborated on a series of provocation tests. Their results showed that ES patients reacted when EMF equipment was switched on, and not when it was switched off (Clin Ecol, 1990; 6: 119-28)

viewpoint/letters - clever invention

Only a little more than a hundred years after Thomas Edison first worked out how a bit of carbonised sewing thread could continue to light up an incandescent bulb, electricity has insinuated itself into every aspect of our daily lives. Edison's eventual development of a cheap, safe and long-lasting lighting system would eventually revolutionise the way we live, delivering us heat, cold or light at the flip of a switch.

Fifty years on from Edison, three scientists from Bell Labs developed a transistor and, in the blink of an eye, electricity was miniaturised: a scant few years later, a host of transistors could be baked onto a single silicon chip.

Technological progress proceeds at such a rapid pace that we often don't get the proper opportunity to ponder whether we have, in fact, gone too far - whether things which make it easier for us to function in our lives come at too great a cost.

As our cover story this month illustrates, we may have reached saturation point in terms of electromagnetic exposure. Occupational studies and anecdotal evidence have revealed that people are damaged by overexposure to electricity in ways that medicine cannot recognise or fix. Many of us walking around with inexplicable symptoms may simply be suffering from an overload of the electricity we are assaulted by, every moment of our lives.

It's hardly surprising that electricity affects us. There is growing evidence that the tiniest particle of our being is a vibrating wave packet that is profoundly affected by other such waves. As the late French biologist Jacques Benveniste discovered, the basic language of our cells is electromagnetic. According to the latest Russian findings, even our DNA beams out its instructions in a quantum frequency. The electrons that now make the world go round are, in all likelihood, having a profound effect on our own electrons.

The problem is that we understand how electricity works better than we understand how we work. Modern medicine is still stuck in an obsolete pradigm, believing that the body's basic signal is a chemical one. Small wonder that doctors in the main refuse to believe that symptoms of electrosensitivity are anything but the sufferer's paranoid imaginings.

There are devices on the market that can monitor and, to some extent, protect us. However, they may only be a Band-Aid on a vast new health problem.

Coexisting with electricity may require more than simply avoiding needless exposure. There's no turning back the clock - I, for one, would rather write this column on a computer than with a quill pen. We may have evolved technologically to where we need to invent the means to protect ourselves from our own cleverness. We need a new medicine that recognises and treats the body as an energy field, not simply a blob of tissue and organs.

Happily, such a revolution is already happening among the vanguard: pulsating electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF) and Q-Link are some of many devices attempting to work with the body's own energy field to correct imbalances due to both electro-pollution and ordinary illnesses. Many of these devices, which we have carefully investigated, have supportive scientific evidence demonstrating that, to varying degrees, they can help the body withstand the onslaught of the EMF storm around us. The best of these will be presented at our New Medicine conference on 11 April.

Come and meet the Thomas Edisons among us who are keeping one step ahead, using the best of human invention to keep us well.

Lynne McTaggart

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