Why do so many people believe in health hazards of low-level electromagnetism (EM), against all that mainstream science is telling them? A huge amount of work has been done, both epdimiologically (looking at patients and their circumstances) and in the laboratory, to try and find out whether persistent exposure to low levels of so-called non-ionizing radiation - electricity, magnetism, microwaves, power lines and so forth - might be harmful to us. No solid evidence has ever turned up and the scientific community is becoming increasingly convinced that none ever will. Yet a steady proportion of laboratory experiments continue to turn up tantalisingly positive but not quite significant results, while people keep reporting illnesses they blame on it.
There is no doubt that people do suffer badly from a range of debilitating symptoms and are desperate for a remedy. There is also no doubt that doctors often find these symptoms baffling and struggle to diagonse the cause. Electrical and radio devices are everywhere, claims of mysterious electromagnetic effects such as dowsing, birds sensing magnetic fields, cancer clusters near power lines, communications with departed spirits and so on have all been around for a long time. Some have been explained by science, others denied. Sometimes science gets it wrong and has to backtrack. Maybe science is behind the curve with this one, too.
The human brain is a past master at sifting through dodgy data and coming up with possible connections and underlying principles. This habit lies at the root of our intelligence and creativity, even our survival as a species. It is so insistent that it constantly throws up false trails rather than nothing at all. Most of its ideas are obviously wrong, pulled randomly from a chance cluster of data that blows away when we stop to look closer. Creative artists and technologists are all too familiar with rejecting many bad ideas before they stumble on a good one. Some of us are a bit too ready to keep those bad ideas on board because they appear to explain something important to us or perhaps because they just appeal to us. Conspiracy theories are an obvious example, while at the opposite end of the intellectual scale it is embarrassingly common for respectable academics to cling too long to the Big Idea that made their professional name but is now obsolete.
If electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or EHS, appears to explain what is happening to you, why not believe it does indeed do so? Scientists are not always right, and perhaps too the industry is conspiring to hide the truth and make money at the expense of our health, just like the tobacco industry and the big pharmaceuticals companies once did.
You will even find respected scientific publishers like Elsevier putting out peer-reviewed journals dedicated to making the case for EHS and related conditions. So why believe the mainstream medical community when they diss the whole thing? They are all in the pay of Big Industry, they have a vested interest in their careers. No, the whole thing stinks.
If you feel like that, and especally if you suffer from debilitating symptoms, you have my sympathy. But, as a sometime electromagnetics professional, I believe that in this case the mainstream have it right. I'd like to see if I can persuade you to go back to the medical profession, perhaps even change your doctor, and seek the real cause of your illness. I have to acknowledge that that is no easy task, but I will do my best.
Firstly, EHS is difficult to pin down. Every sufferer paints a different picture of environmental circumstance and resulting symptoms, there is no clear characteristic cause or syndrome. Worse, much the same oddball mix is reported by others who believe they are suffering from multiple allergies or other unusual medical disorders. Patients are often wrong about what is causing their symptoms, in the present case some attributing them to multiple allergies, to toxins in the environment, or to EHS, and so on. Many symptoms will prove to be consistent with the "nocebo" effect, a well established phenomeon in which believing you are ill actually creates the symptoms psychosomatically. Others, such as correlations with phone use or drinking tap water, may prove illusory, pulled from coincidence by that overactive imagination.
For the impartial doctor seeking a diagnosis, If you look at the circumstances and symptoms of the patient, there is no way you can predict what they believe they are suffering from. As an impartial doctor seeking a diagnosis, how can you get past that? The best way forward is to recommend exploring each possible cause independently. Known causes, which they will be familiar with but you may not be, include various hormonal (glandular) or mental imbalances. Of course, having it suggested that you simply might be going mental tends to go down like a lead balloon with the sufferer of gross physical symptoms. My advice is, swallow your pride and go for it. Cognitive behaviour therapy might at least cure any nocebo symptoms. If it doesn't you have lost nothing and your clinician can move on to the next test.
The second big problem lies in characterising the low-level electromagnetic environment and its physiological effects. There are several well known ways in which electromagnetic phenomena do hurt and kill. Electric shock is the most obvious, be it a lightning strike or walking across a plastic carpet on a dry day. Ionising rays are another; typically from ultraviolet in bright sunlight but also occasionally gamma radiation from nuclear or even medical facilities. The third is the heating effect of microwaves; the familiar ovens have special metal screens so you don't cook your eyes peering in. But none of these can account for the oddball mix of environmental circumstances and symptoms put forward by those claiming to suffer from EHS.
EHS is claimed to occur with radiation levels way below the established safety limits for the known mechanisms. But nobody can establish any physical characteristic of the radiation capable of causing EHS. Every claimant is different in detail, so it is only in the science lab that we can have any hope of nailing this thing. But even that has been failing to find anything with any reliability.
The biggest part of this problem is that it is actually extremely difficult to do good science with this kind of electromagnetic effect, though all too easy to do bad science. Besides all the usual fringe issues about badly designed or conducted experiments, reporting bias by vested interests and so on, electromagnetism itself has a chronic habit of misbehaving and ruining the experiment all by itself. Most lab staff involved are biologists and have no clue how hard a task they have set themselves. Very few research papers are worth the electrons they are written in. It is time I explained why.
Before I get on to that, I should introduce myself. I worked in the industry for many years, first as an electromagnetics test engineer and later as a systems consultant in telecoms related areas. I have published a book on the GSM mobile telephony system. During that time one of my colleagues killed himself, another was half-blind from cataracts, one came down with cancer, a secretary who worked next to the test chambers almost suffered a miscarriage. We all knew about radio frequency (RF) burns, those peculiarly deep and painful electric shocks suffered from direct contact with live RF power conductors, it was said that if you had never been burned you weren't a real RF engineer. But when one associate forgot to switch off the power from a kilowatt supply before sticking his hand in, that was the end of him. My half-blind friend was of an earlier era and had found out too late that high-powered microwaves cause cataracts. He was one of the reasons the safety levels are set where they are now. Then, the cancer. These were high-power systems, cooled by special low-absorbency oils. Carcinogenic oils, as it turned out. My colleague specialised in the repair of high-power systems and often had to drain the oil and change one component or another, or mop up some unexpected leak. It could be a high-pressure job when a client needed the kit back in a hurry and sometimes working in tight spaces, you couldn't always play careful and safe. It seems that the RF itself had nothing to do with my friend's cancer. Elsewhere, cancer clusters around the distribution hubs of national power grids have also turned out to be caused by those oils leaking out, not by the stuff on the airwaves. The secretary who nearly lost her baby spent all day typing into a computer. At that time it was widely suspected that radiation from the monitor (the "VDU") might be responsible. But in the end, it turned out that bad posture and sitting too still for too long were the real causes of such miscarriages. In the end, the only harm caused by EM to any of my colleagues was through the well-known hazards of microwave heating and electric shock.
Nevertheless there remains that nagging doubt. Finding other causes for those incidents doesn't mean that electromagnetism is safe in every other way. But nobody can figure a way for it to get to you, the physics is against it. There is just no way for anything as feeble as a photon of microwave or RF energy to affect a biological system, they are hundreds of times less energetic than direct sunlight. I once remarked how plants gather enough low-energy photons of light one by one and pump up their energy level enough to build sugar from air and water. Although this mechanism, photosynthesis, has evolved over billions of years, it had to have started through some random mutation or other. Perhaps some similar, primitive but effective first step could have randomly appeared in the human body too. I wrote the idea up in a short letter to New Scientist journal and they published it in the 18 October 2003 issue. Since then no actual example, of this or anything else that might cause harm, has been convincingly demonstrated. Why am I still not quite satisfied by that? And why do so many studies produce teasing but unrepeatable results? Time to get back to basics.
In EM, every energy field is mixed up with every other field and every change spawns a cyclic cascade of changes. Wherever you find a chaning magnetic field you will find an electric field and vice versa. These fields induce electrical currents in surrounding conductors and those currents create more fields. The behaviour of these fields relative to each other varies depending on whether you are looking close to the source (evanescent waves or the near field, which can be predominantly electric or magnetic depending on circumstance) or a long way from it (radiated waves or the far field). There can even be little subtleties like polarisation and phase to consider. If you look at just one near field you will have little idea what the other one is doing.
Electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) is the gentle art of making gadgets work together so that nothing interferes with or damages anything else. For some years it was my speciality. When I taught a roomful of design engineers, I would explain that electromagnetism obeys schoolkid physics - and more to the point, it never disobeys it! You might think that a slight gap is a hole that stuff leaks through, but it is also the dielectric in a capacitor and a core in an inductor: you might think that you have designed a box with a lid, but if the lid also acts as flat-plate antenna then the EM will disillusion you. You might think that you have provided a wire for the electricity to flow along, but if you have put in another conductor that the electricity prefers, it won't stop to ask your permission, it'll go there and take its evanescent field with it. Let a couple of parasitic resonances appear in quite separate places and, if they happen to approach each other in frequency, they will gaily suck up quantites of energy and swat it to and fro between them. Measure the field in six different places and you may get a nasty surprise when you measure the seventh, never mind if the setup is sensitive to the presence of the measurement device. Come back the next day and things may seem to have changed a bit: perhaps you are not holding the sensor quite the same, perhaps the cabling has been nudged closer to another conductor, who knows. And so on. Go into any working EMC test chamber and you will see miles of duct tape holding down everything in sight. That's because if you measure something, move the wires or whatever and measure it again, you can get a different answer - the EM has reacted to the change in the wiring and is only too willing to let you know! In EM testing, experience counts more than University degrees.
Probably the worst example of EM's unpredictable nature is a phenomenon called a "window". Guaranteed to waste a day's precious test chamber time, a window occurs when you run a test sweep and, part way through, something shows susceptibility to the EM. You continue run after run with increasing power and presently the anomaly disappears and everything is fine again. Ouch! Is there a problem or isn't there? DON'T TOUCH THE DUCT TAPE!! You call in the boss, he winds the power down and up past the window and sees the trouble come and go too. By now it's getting late. You all go home, guarding your duct tape against the client as if your lives depended on it and sealing the chamber doors as you go with yellow stripy tape and KEEP OUT signs. Next morning you come in extra early and assure yourself that nothing has been touched overnight. You run the test again and there is no window. It never comes back, not for you, not for anybody.
A window is usually left unexplained. Some EM energy somewhere must have followed the physics, probably a parasitic resonance sprung up for a while then vanished: maybe a filter cooled a bit or oxide migrated inside a loose connection to change its impedance, who knows, it's time to write the report and move on.
Transfer all these issues into the average biological test lab and you begin to see that putting the EM just where it is meant to be and keeping it there throughout an experiment is no easy task. It is all too easy for the unknowing biologist to bump into a cable or a clamp and change the test conditions more than they ever dreamed possible, or to offer up two test cells for calibration and not bother mentioning the other two. Even if the technicians spot a window they may not understand what they are seeing and will certainly not know how to handle the situation. There may be no rerun - if you are exposing a biological specimen there probably can't be - and whatever happened during the window can get written up as a valid test result.
The end result is that nobody has any definitive idea what levels of EM the test specimens are actually being exposed to and worse, nobody even knows there is a problem. Good bioligist, even slightly sloppy EM tester, bad science. Consider for example the common habit of ramping up the EM near the maximum safe level. Not only is this way beyond anything that anybody will ever experience, but if you think it is the maximum level then it could in reality be a lot higher. Heat shock markers have been seen in specimens exposed to EM, suggesting that the specimen was inadvertently placed in an undetected EM hotspot that nobody realised was there. Assuming the levels to be merely as intended and ascribing the heat shock to some mystery EM physics is, frankly, pseudoscisence, but that was what the biologists did. Extrapolating back down to the levels actually experienced by phone users and on that basis declaring phones to be dangerous is just old-fashioned bad science.
Don't get me wrong here, I am impartial. The levels might have been far lower than planned, with the specimen in an undetected quiet spot, and a negative result produced where the specimen should by rights have been affected. Other biologists have taken such results to "prove" that there is no problem. That is equally bad science. I don't care whose side anybody is on, bad science is bad science either way and that's what EM draws the inexperienced into.
On another note, it is worth mentioning that power lines and cell towers, in fact any tall metal structures, can attract tiny particulates in the air which then fall like a faint rain around them. Such particulates are produced for example by Diesel engines and are known to be carcinogenic. Meanwhile, the levels of EM radiation from cell towers are set far lower than the levels you get from the connected device you are using. Really. Add together all the signals being sent to all the devices using the tower and it still comes nowhere near the signal your phone is sending right back. The EM hazard from cell tower radiation is probably the lowest in the whole mobile system: scare stories about it are just bad science. What the EM does do is to help draw in those cancer-causing particulates - you don't want those raining down on your kids all day, right? But the scatter of particles is very thin and very broad, they fall slowly and get blown by the wind, and a tower upwind of the school may drop more of them on it than a tower above the school itself. As a general principle it is probably worth keeping schools away from tall forests of metal, certainly they should avoid electricity substations with their oil-filled transformers and overhead spiderwebs. But whether any remaining metal is located in the school grounds or not makes no significant difference.
The first thing for any frustrated bio lab to do is to tighten up its procedures and make sure a thoroughly experienced EM test engineer is on hand to validate its design, vet its procedures and audit its results. Even then, you can really only take a statistical view of most experiments. Repetition is more than usually important in validating a result, not just once or twice but perhaps by half a dozen different teams. This is the only way to bring down the uncertainty associated with arbitrary EM effects such as windows, minor movements, poor earthing and parasitic resonances. If the result is still unclear, well, how many times do you have to roll a die to prove whether it is fair or loaded? As many as it takes. But who knows to do that? And who has the budget, perseverance and multiple teams to do the job properly anyway? Most labs will optimistically believe their lone result to be significant and will want that report publishing ASAP. Disillusion and the truth will not come until years later.
In all of this, there might in theory be any number of harmful effects lurking in the noise of bad science that surrounds even faintly careless EM testing. Or there might not. Which is where we came in: that is why it is so hard to get convincing experimental results.
The news is not all chaotic. Enough multiple-test scenarios have been run on the more obvious risks, and found basically just a bit of noise around a zero result, for mainstream medicine to treat the whole thing as low-risk. Any real effect lurking in the noise will be so small that there are more important things to worry about, such as what is really causing those debilitating symptoms that are ruining your or your friend's life. It might be some other physiological complaint that your doctor could diagnose (have you checked out the thyroid gland?) or maybe depression or just a downward spiral of belief in your own illness. Don't mock that last. Stimulating the body's own powers of self-healing through belief is called by doctors the "placebo effect". The body has great powers to mend itself and the placebo is said to be the most potent prescription in the average doctor's black bag. Think too how many alternative therapies seek to stimulate the body's own powers of self-healing through belief. It works. What you believe in doesn't matter, just knowing that you are under treatment is all that is needed. Turn that effect round the other way: the "nocebo effect" is a self-fulfilling belief that you are suffering harm, it stimulates the body's darker power to make itself ill. Sdaly, it is all too common among those of us who fail to keep up the pace of modern life. Take it easy my friend, turn that phone off and refresh your lifestyle – though it's not the EM that you need to get away from, it's the busy-busy-busy and the self-disgust it brings in its wake.
But there is still the possibility that a proportion of the population are more than usually sensitive to EM (as happens with some chemicals), or some wider long-term issue will slowly reveal itself (as happened with trans fats). So we need to keep looking, just in case.
Updated 4 Apr 2022