What is Electro-Hypersensitivity Syndrome?

Pretend you’re stranded on a desert island and you could only have one personal item with you. What would it be? If you’re like many Americans, chances are it would be one of your electronic devices.

But could these high-tech devices actually be harmful to your health?

When cellphones — and particularly smartphones — became the latest and greatest invention, many people feared that their use was associated with a risk of brain cancer. Luckily, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization (WHO), evaluated several studies and reported that there’s simply not enough evidence to suggest that cellphone radiation is carcinogenic.

What did the group say, though? While, in general, cellphones don’t cause cancer, there’s a possibility that electromagnetic fields can indeed be dangerous for some people.

Take the story of British teenager Jenny Fry, who committed suicide last year due to what her mother claimed was electro-hypersensitivity, or an allergy to Wi-Fi that her school did not accommodate. There’s no consensus among scientists yet on whether or not this is a real disorder, though it has recently been recognized by the WHO, so the jury’s still out.

What is the definition of Electro-Hypersensitivity Syndrome?

The WHO defines electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or EHS, as “characterized by a variety of non-specific symptoms, which afflicted individuals attribute to exposure to electromagnetic fields.” The most common symptoms reported by EHS sufferers include the following dermatological, neurological and gastrointestinal disturbances:

  • Redness
  • Tingling
  • Burning
  • Fatigue/tiredness
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Dizziness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea and other digestive disturbances

Since EHS shares similar features with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) and the attribution of such symptoms has not yet been validated by science or medicine, the WHO recommends changing the name of EHS to the term “Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance” (IEI). The IEI phraseology acknowledges these medically unexplained symptoms without linking them to electromagnetic fields specifically, while chemical sensitivities are a bit more accepted in the scientific community.

How common is EHS?

While specific prevalence ranges for this syndrome have varied, the late Swedish scientist Ulch Bergqvist and his team of researchers conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of EHS in 1997. One study across Swedish medical centers suggested that within the general population, at least a few individuals per million suffer from some sort of EHS. However, a more thorough survey across EHS self-help groups revealed the prevalence may be even higher, with up to two-tenths of the population experiencing some degree of the syndrome — and almost 10 percent of these individuals reported their symptoms as particularly severe.

What is the most recent science on EHS?

While not universally accepted by all experts, one of the most promising studies about the legitimacy of EHS was published in a 2014 paper in the clinical journal Mediators of Inflammation.

Specifically, the researchers found that so-called sensitivity-related illnesses (SRI) are not merely made-up, psychogenic syndromes, but rather that patients self-reporting EHS really do display clinically validated physiological changes in metabolic values such as enzymatic and nonenzymatic markers, concomitant organ diseases and specific comorbidities — consistent with those patients who have presented with symptoms of MCS.

What causes EHS?

The answer is — no one really knows. While animal studies are under way, very few electromagnetic experiments have been conducted with humans so far, especially given the difficulties of quarantining EHS sufferers from all sources of electromagnetic waves in a protective environment.

Further obstacles still exist in that there’s no current scientific consensus on how to standardize types and levels of electromagnetic fields, and researchers are still unsure how to quantify multi-organ responses to such electromagnetic frequencies.

There are, however, standards and industry-specific requirements, like CISPR 22 and EN 61000-3-2, to measure voltage and harmonics from devices. Companies can put their products through Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) compliance testing to determine if consumer products could potentially cause issues.

So should you toss away your electronics?

Fear-mongers, turn off your internal panic buttons. First, there’s no scientific evidence that EHS sufferers are contagious. If your co-worker a few cubicles down the hallway confides in you at the water cooler about her recent headache or dizzy spells, you shouldn’t worry that you, too, are going to become hypersensitive to your smartphone’s electromagnetic waves. This isn’t the Zika virus, after all. You’ve been carrying that smartphone with its flashy Bluetooth clip-on for how long without a dizzy spell?

WebMD or compulsive research might suggest that the rogue headache or two you’ve had in the last month could be indicative of cancer, but let’s face it: You’re more likely to develop cancer from putting too much aspartame in your caffeine pick-me-ups every day. Not that you’re dying of that, either.

Even if you did get rid of your own electronic devices, what happens when you walk into any store, restaurant or even hospital that uses Wi-Fi (practically all of them)? If you’ve never run out the door screaming before due to nausea, chances are you’re in luck: You don’t have EHS.

So carpe diem, friend. Don’t wait until you find one of the last pay phones on the planet to give your grandmother a call to wish her a happy birthday. In the meantime, it’s probably not going to hurt anything but your productivity to try that new level on Candy Crush Saga that none of your friends can beat.

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