Can wi- fi make you sick?

There’s no sci­en­tific ev­i­dence for be­ing hy­per­sen­si­tive to the energy field, but try telling that to those af­fected

The Northern Star - - LIVING - Sarah Loughran is a Re­search Fel­low at Univer­sity of Wol­lon­gong. This ar­ti­cle is orig­i­nally from and cour­tesy of The Con­ver­sa­tion. Sarah Loughran

ELEC­TRO­MAG­NETIC fields are all around us. They are a part of our nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, pro­duced by the Earth and the sun. But they are also be­com­ing in­creas­ingly prom­i­nent with ad­vance­ments in tech­nol­ogy, such that we are sur­rounded daily by many dif­fer­ent sources of elec­tro­mag­netic energy.

Mo­bile phones, wi- fi, per­sonal com­put­ers, smart me­ters, ra­dio, tele­vi­sion and even the TV re­mote con­trol – they all emit this kind of energy. Mo­bile phone base sta­tions are con­tin­u­ally be­ing in­stalled, and wi- fi hotspots are in­creas­ing all of the time.

Cafes and restau­rants, li­braries, ho­tels and even some city cen­tres and parks now of­fer free wi- fi. But with all of this new in­fra­struc­ture it is also get­ting harder to avoid ex­po­sure to the elec­tro­mag­netic fields that these tech­nolo­gies emit.

And the ques­tion of­ten asked is, what does all of this ex­po­sure mean for our health?

This month, in what’s be­ing touted as a break­through case, a French woman was awarded com­pen­sa­tion for an al­lergy to wi- fi.

Mar­tine Richard, who suf­fers from what is called elec­tro­mag­netic hy­per­sen­si­tiv­ity ( EHS), was granted dis­abil­ity pay­ments due to claims that her symp­toms, which she at­tributes to elec­tro­mag­netic energy, pre­vent her from be­ing able to work. This rul­ing was made de­spite the science say­ing that no re­la­tion­ship be­tween ex­po­sure to these fields and symp­toms ex­ists.

So what is EHS, what do we know and what don’t we know about this con­di­tion? And what does this case mean for the fu­ture?

What is EHS?

EHS is a com­plex con­di­tion. It is char­ac­terised by suf­fer­ers re­port­ing a va­ri­ety of non- spe­cific symp­toms ( for ex­am­ple, headaches, nau­sea and sleep­ing dif­fi­cul­ties) when in the prox­im­ity of de­vices that emit elec­tro­mag­netic fields. In se­vere cases it can have large and neg­a­tive im­pacts, with peo­ple un­able to work or func­tion in mod­ern so­ci­ety.

The preva­lence of this con­di­tion varies widely. In gen­eral the num­ber of pa­tients pre­sent­ing with symp­toms that they at­tribute to elec­tro­mag­netic field ex­po­sure seems to be in­creas­ing.

There is no doubt that the symp­toms ex­pe­ri­enced are real. But the fact re­mains that there are no clear di­ag­nos­tic cri­te­ria for this con­di­tion. It is a self- di­ag­nosed dis­or­der that cur­rently has no med­i­cal or sci­en­tific ba­sis.

What does the ev­i­dence say?

Re­search has con­sis­tently failed to find any as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween elec­tro­mag­netic field ex­po­sure and re­ported symp­toms, or health more gen­er­ally.

This raises the ques­tion, if it is not the elec­tro­mag­netic energy, then what is caus­ing EHS and the symp­toms that these peo­ple suf­fer from?

One pos­si­bil­ity is the no­cebo ef­fect, or sim­ply, the in­flu­ence of a per­son’s ex­pec­ta­tions or per­cep­tions of how some­thing might af­fect them. In the case of EHS this would cor­re­spond to a mis­aligned belief that elec­tro­mag­netic energy is harm­ful and, there­fore, when around de­vices that emit such fields they ex­pect to feel bad, and they do.

The idea of a no­cebo ef­fect makes even more sense when media cov­er­age and vo­cal lob­by­ing by those with EHS are con­sid­ered. The vast ma­jor­ity of such ac­counts re­port EHS as be­ing caused by man- made elec­tro­mag­netic fields.

This con­stant mis­at­tri­bu­tion serves only to per­pet­u­ate and re­in­force the belief that elec­tro­mag­netic energy from these de­vices is harm­ful, de­spite all of the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence to the con­trary.

The re­search goes on

While con­tro­versy re­mains about the cause of EHS, it is clear that there also re­mains a need for more re­search – to fur­ther con­sol­i­date that elec­tro­mag­netic fields are not re­spon­si­ble for these symp­toms, and to pro­vide ev­i­dence of a cause ( such as the no­cebo ef­fect).

Such re­search is un­der way, in­clud­ing our own stud­ies at the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for Elec­tro­mag­netic Bio­ef­fects Re­search, which aims to com­bat some of the crit­i­cisms of past stud­ies. Un­til a cause can be es­tab­lished, the treat­ment of this con­di­tion will re­main a chal­lenge.

PHOTO: JACKF

THE BLUES: It is get­ting harder to avoid ex­po­sure to the elec­tro­mag­netic fields that mod­ern tech­nolo­gies emit.

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