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

Toronto Star - - Health -

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.

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