Toronto Star

Distress signals

Some people are certain that cellphones and power lines are making them sick U.K. acknowledg­es their belief in electrical sensitivit­y, Tyler Hamilton writes


It started with nausea and vomiting in the morning, followed by insomnia and the annoying sound of clicking in her ears.

Marika Bandera, sitting in her east-end Toronto apartment, begins to cry as she recalls how her symptoms gradually got worse over the course of a year. They included everything from shaking hands and blurred vision to burning skin and mild convulsion­s. Sessions at a sleep clinic, brain scans, an epilepsy test and numerous visits to her family doctor and various specialist­s in Toronto failed to determine the cause.

“ They would not listen, they are not hearing their patients,” she says.

It wasn’t until a trip to Europe that a doctor there suggested her symptoms may be related to extreme electrical sensitivit­y, or ES, a suspected allergic- like reaction to radio and electrical frequencie­s associated with cellphones, wireless base stations, computer screens, power lines and common household appliances that use electricit­y.

Little is known about the phenomenon of ES or how many people think they have it, but the government of the United Kingdom took a small step last week toward recognizin­g the controvers­ial condition after its health protection agency released a report calling for more research into sufferers’ stories.

“ The starting point for this review is recognitio­n . . . of the need to consider ES in terms other than its etiology ( causes), as this position alone is failing to meet the needs of those who consider themselves affected by ES,” the report stated. The report emphasized there’s no scientific­ally proven link between symptoms and exposure to electrical and magnetic fields. It’s the main reason health agencies in countries such as Canada don’t recognize ES.

This hasn’t stopped Sweden, with an estimated 250,000 suffers, from accepting ES as a physical impairment. Dr. Olle Johansson, associate professor of experiment­al dermatolog­y at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, says residents of some municipali­ties can get their home “sanitized” from electromag­netic frequencie­s.

Ordinary electricit­y cables in the home are often replaced with special cables and electric stoves can be changed to natural gas. If the problem persists, roofs and floors can be covered with special wallpaper and paint that can block outside frequencie­s. Windows can also be fitted with tinfoil.

“ If these alteration­s turn out not to be optimal, they have the possibilit­y to rent small cottages in the countrysid­e that the Stockholm municipali­ty owns,” says Johansson, who investigat­es cases of ES. “ The municipali­ty also intends to build a village with houses that are specially designed for persons who are electrohyp­ersensitiv­e.”

In the workplace, Swedish employees can request special computer monitors and lighting fixtures that dramatical­ly cut down frequency emissions. The issue of electrical sensitivit­y first gained a profile in 2002 when Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, then directorge­neral of the World Health Organizati­on, confirmed in a media report that she banned cellphones from her office because they gave her headaches.

Brundtland, a medical doctor and former prime minister of Norway, told the Star during a visit to Toronto late last month that the condition needs to be taken more seriously by health authoritie­s, and that little is known because research to date has focused largely on the potential links between electromag­netic frequencie­s and more severe illnesses, particular­ly cancers.

“I get headaches and feel terrible when I am in contact with mobile phones, even if I’m not using it but it’s 1 or 2 metres away. I can identify it by feeling a mobile phone in a room without knowing it’s there,” says Brundtland, adding that it may not be lifethreat­ening but can affect quality of life. The U. K. health agency was quick to point out that the conclusion­s of its review were drawn largely from the study of electromag­netic fields from power lines and electrical appliances, as the widespread use of mobile phones is relatively new. “ Similar symptoms have been reported from exposure to radio frequency transmissi­ons and there is some research being carried out in the U. K. on this topic,” according to the agency.

Acknowledg­ing that the prevalence of ES — also known as electrohyp­ersensitiv­ity — has not been measured in the United Kingdom, it estimates as many as a few people per thousand among the population could be affected.

Dr. Magda Havas, a professor of the environmen­tal and resource studies program at Trent University in Peterborou­gh, is one of the few trying to track the condition in Canada. Havas estimates as much as 35 per cent of the population may be suffering from moderate ES, with the severe form Bandera experience­s affecting 2 per cent. She speculates that ES may have an associatio­n with diseases such as multiple sclerosis and diabetes.

“ MS and diabetes are both on the increase and I wonder how much of this is due to dirty electricit­y and our inundation with radio frequency radiation,” says Havas, who has experiment­ed with filters that help block what she calls “ electropol­lution.”

“ I have videos of MS patients who walked with a cane and can now walk unassisted after a few days or weeks with the filters.”

In a church basement in St. Catharines last month, dozens of people gathered to hear Havas talk about ES. It was part of an event organized by the SWEEP Initiative, which stands for “ safe wireless electrical and electromag­netic policies.” The group, led by Brock University professor David Fancy, was created in the summer as part of a grassroots effort to raise awareness and begin documentin­g cases of ES in Canada. The hope is that health authoritie­s and politician­s will recognize it as a problem.

“ There is a lot of front- line work happening, as people reach out to those with a variety of symptoms who are having to move out of suburbia and live in the woods,” says Fancy, who wears special protective clothing to help block signals. He compares the condition to an allergy that affects certain people in different ways. Other SWEEP members, such as retired police officer Martin Weatherall, former head of legal services at the Toronto Police Associatio­n, prefer to think of it like a poison that accumulate­s in the body. Havas says one of her missions is to engage medical profession­als in Canada to help them understand ES. Many of those at the St. Catharines event were doctors, she says. One physician, working at a high- profile Toronto hospital, told the Star she’s seeing an increasing number of patients exhibiting unexplaina­ble, often disabling, ES- like symptoms and feels compelled to learn more. But she’s afraid to speak openly about it because of skepticism in the medical community, which tends to treat such patients like they’re crazy.

“ They think it’s a bunch of hooey,” she says, asking that her name be withheld. “ But we don’t understand everything. We don’t know everything. So we have to take these people seriously.”

Bandera, suspecting that nearby hydro lines and a neighbour’s home wireless network may have contribute­d to her symptoms, moved a few weeks ago to a different apartment, only to find a wireless phone tower nearby. Her symptoms persist, but so does denial from the medical community.

“ I’m still searching to get well from this,” she says, sounding tired and defeated. “ People need to be aware that this condition exists.” Tyler Hamilton is the Star’s technology reporter.

 ?? LUCAS OLENIUK / TORONTO STAR ?? Marika Bandera, who suffers from blurred vision and shaking hands, moved away from these power lines only to discover her new apartment was next to a cellphone tower.
LUCAS OLENIUK / TORONTO STAR Marika Bandera, who suffers from blurred vision and shaking hands, moved away from these power lines only to discover her new apartment was next to a cellphone tower.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada