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Woo Even Oprah Couldn't Sell 

Shocking news about electrohypersensitivity

8 April 2010. I received the following e-mail with the note "this message is confidential and should not be posted or distributed":

Dear Dr. Carroll,

I have a comment with regard to your description of electro-sensitivity. I think your web site is biased towards depicting people who suffer from this condition as being "crazy", and it clearly minimizes the validity of their suffering; and I think this is disrespectful. There are many factual errors on the web site. And you indicate that several studies found no link between exposure and symptoms, yet you neglect the body of peer-reviewed evidence which reported that individuals who are sensitive would develop symptoms every time they are exposed to electro-magnetic radiation, but not to placebo. There is very powerful evidence in the literature, disputing the claims that you made - just like there are studies which link radiation to Alzheimer's disease, Lou Gehrig disease or ALS, and cancer.

Perhaps some people are more sensitive, and just like others [who] are more sensitive [to peanut butter] can die after eating peanut butter, this would be difficult to see for someone who is not involved or not affected.

[You claim:] "It is very unlikely that the kinds of things that electro-sensitives fear actually cause cancer" - you need to review the scientific evidence first. There is clear evidence linking electromagnetic radiation to cancer.

[You claim:] "[...] the likelihood that our cell phones, microwave ovens, computers, and other electronic devices are carcinogenic is miniscule" - again, factually wrong. This is disrespectful towards all scientists who spent their days and nights proving otherwise. Microwave ovens, by the way, cause cancer. Cell phones - read the studies which demonstrate dose-dependent development of cancer on the same side the phone is used.

While I appreciate the effort you are putting into the web page, it is truly sad that I found so much misinformation on one page. This is to the detriment of consumers, by the way, who should become more aware that cell phones, wireless devices, routers, etc., are harmful and exposure should by all means minimized.

When I didn't reply, the author sent me this note:

Thank you for the kind consideration and for genuinely caring when established scientists point out factual errors and blatant misinformation that abounds in your writings. It is truly scientific and academic to disregard suggestions, especially when they are trying to correct your errors.

The author told me nothing about himself, nor did he specify any particular scientific study that I have ignored. He gave no evidence that he'd read any of the articles I've posted that concern the scientific studies I'm aware of that examine the connection between electromagnetic radiation and health problems. In case the writer happens to read this, I'll mention them here beginning with the most recent piece:

1. Warning: Your Magazine May Be Hazardous to Your Health (10 Feb 2010);

2. Cellphones, brain cancer, and other cheery thoughts (9 Jan 2010);

3. The  SD entry on EMFs (which has been up for at least 10 years and has been revised as new data has become available);

4. The SD entry on electro-sensitives and electrosentivity (which was posted last year and which mentions quite a few scientific studies that come to a position contrary to the scientific consensus).

I also recommend "The Paralyzing Precautionary Principle" and "Wi-Fi and Autism?"

If the writer had read at least the first three articles listed, and if he were honest, he could not say that I have been selective in my presentation of the data. I've considered the strongest evidence presented by scientists for an EMF connection to a variety of ailments. It is absurd to claim that it is disrespectful to disagree with a scientist. What the author should have done, if he really cares about the integrity of argument or respect for others, is to try to show me where my evaluation of these studies errs. The only positive thing I can say about the letter writer's concerns is that he doesn't try to prove his point with poignant anecdotes, stories of suffering electro-sensitives. I do take issue, however, with his claim that I depict people who say they are electro-sensitive as "crazy," that I minimize their suffering, and am, therefore, "disrespectful" of such people. Perhaps the writer was referring to something I wrote in a 2008 Newsletter: Cell phones can cause real pain to "electrosensitive" individuals, even if there is nothing electromagnetic in the "phone." I incorrectly referred to such people as hypochondriacs.

Perhaps the writer was offended by the following paragraph from my article on electro-sensitivity:

At this time, it looks as if electrohypersensitivity (aka electrical sensitivity and electromagnetic hypersensitivity) is a psychosomatic disorder. Electrohypersensitivity is not a medical diagnostic term, in any case, and is identified solely by self-reporting. Many electro-sensitives may be misdiagnosing themselves, however. For example, the insomniac who also suffers from headaches might consider cutting down from two pots of coffee a day to a cup or two instead of blaming his neighbor's Wi-Fi for his health problems. It would not surprise me to read about research that finds electro-sensitives respond well to acupuncture, homeopathy, therapeutic touch and other forms of placebo medicine.

Or perhaps the writer was offended by this paragraph in the entry on electromagnetic radiation:

At this time, it looks as if hypersensitivity to EMFs is a psychosomatic disorder.* (For example, a research team in Norway (2007) conducted tests using sixty-five pairs of sham and mobile phone radio frequency (RF) exposures. "The increase in pain or discomfort in RF sessions was 10.1 and in sham sessions 12.6 (P = 0.30). Changes in heart rate or blood pressure were not related to the type of exposure (P: 0.30–0.88). The study gave no evidence that RF fields from mobile phones may cause head pain or discomfort or influence physiological variables. The most likely reason for the symptoms is a nocebo effect.")

Or perhaps the writer was offended by my linking to news stories like these: Electrosensitive refugees from wireless technology head for Drôme, Massive revelation in iBurst tower battle, The Man Who Was Allergic to Radio Waves, or Wi-Fi anxiety: Man sues neighbor to shut off electronics.

Anyway, for the record, the physical and psychological suffering of electro-sensitives is real. It is wrong to mock such people. On the other hand, their cause is unlikely to arouse much sympathy because they are so open to mockery. Even Oprah couldn't salvage their claim that their ailments are due to modern electronics.

When I first started blogging in the mid-90s, there were people claiming that Satanists were abducting and abusing children on a massive scale and there were women claiming that silicone breast implants caused their cancers and other serious ailments. Both of those campaigns lasted for several years, fueled in large part by the media. The first cause depicted horrible suffering and death being inflicted on children. The tales were told by parents, therapists, and people in law enforcement. It was easy to drum up sympathy with anecdotes. Plus, it took some time before there were any scientific studies on the subject, not that they would have trumped the horror stories being told on a daily basis in the media. With the claim that breast implants were causing cancers, etc., the scientific studies also came late in the game, after people like Oprah and Jenny Jones had presented groups of women who were suffering from cancer or some other serious disease and who had been diagnosed after they'd had breast implants. Some might remember that Marcia Angell, former executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, brought the wrath of feminist hell upon herself in 1992 when she wrote an editorial challenging the Food and Drug Administration's decision to ban the manufacture of silicone breast implants. The scientific evidence wasn't there to justify the ban, she wrote. (Angell wrote a book about it: Science on Trial: The Clash of Medical Evidence and the Law in the Breast Implant Case.)

Imagine Oprah or any of the other talk-show folks trying to do the same thing for electro-sensitives as they did for seemingly normal people who told stories about baby-abusing Satanists or health problems they believed were caused by breast implants. One might say that they have tried, but it hasn't worked very well. In 1989, New Yorker magazine ran a series of scare stories about EMFs by staff writer Paul Brodeur. A few years later (January 23, 1993), the public fear that cellphones might be causing brain tumors was aroused by Larry King. His guest was David Reynard, who announced that he and his wife Susan had sued NEC and GTE on the grounds that the cellphone David gave Susan caused his wife's brain tumor.1,2,3,4 There was nothing but junk science to back up her claim, plus the fact that the tumor appeared near where she held the phone to her ear. She was diagnosed seven months after receiving her phone and died a few months after filing the suit. The suit was dismissed in 1995. A dozen similar lawsuits followed; all were dismissed.

Motorola stock dipped when the scare first emerged in the media, and there are still a few politicians who posture about legislation that would require "warnings" on electronic devices. There are also occasional protests from communities about installing Wi-Fi towers, but the sale of cellphones, Wi-Fi, personal routers, microwave ovens, toasters, etc. continues virtually unabated. The general public has been made wary by all the negative publicity, however, and many people take precautions that are probably unnecessary with regard to electronics.*

One area where the anecdotes about electronics don't seem to have had much effect, however, is on the public's view of electro-sensitivity. Here the reaction has been similar to that for MCS, multiple chemical sensitivity: neither is recognized as a valid diagnosis. Could Oprah change this? I doubt it, even with all the power she has to turn just about anything into an international cause. On the other hand, I don't think that the public's reception of these alleged sensitivities is due to a widespread interest in the science. I doubt if many people have read many scientific studies on either topic. Imagine Oprah trying to present electro-sensitives the way she presented women who had had breast implants. She can't. Because of their complaints, they couldn't appear in a studio with all its electronic gadgetry. Even going on location to some allegedly "EMF-safe" place, would pose insurmountable difficulties. Some sort of electronic devices would have to be used to record the stories. Showing people coughing or holding their heads and moaning as soon as you turn on your cameras is likely to generate laughter rather than sympathy. The reaction would be even less sympathetic if the sufferers turned up wearing tinfoil hats or other allegedly protective clothing. Even stories told in print media generate laughter rather than sympathy. The visual of a man screaming in agony when a toaster is plugged in just won't bring tears to anyone's eyes.

Finally, the worst part of it, as far as getting positive publicity for your cause, is that your main advocates are considered nutters by most rational people: the folks who sell protective jewelry and shields to ward off the evil rays of modern living. Imagine Oprah bringing on Cherie Blair who is wearing some sort of crystal around her neck to protect her from the evil rays being shot at her by the cameras and nearby computers and cellphones. Well, actually, I can imagine that, and I can imagine the show getting a high rating. But I don't think it would help the cause of the electro-sensitives. They're not fooled by the marketing slogans of the Q-Link folks. These protective devices might have electronic parts that could be dangerous to your health.

Note: After posting the above, I stumbled on the work of Dr. Magda Havas. She has posted a video in which she claims she has evidence of electro-sensensitivity that will be published in a peer-reviewed journal next summer (i.e., Journal of the Ramazzini Institute). She claims it is the first study of its kind. The study involved 25 subjects, mostly females, in Colorado. I look forward to reading the paper (if it's made available) and assume attempts at replication with larger samples will be done. A preliminary investigation of the Ramazzini Institute didn't yield much information. It's located in Italy and it's debunked aspartame. The fact that Havas would make grandiose claims based on a study of 25 subjects makes me suspicious of her qualifications as a scientist. A single study is rarely momentous. A small study is almost always insufficient to warrant a claim of having established a causal connection.

update (11 Nov 2010): Magda Havas’ New EHS Study Has Serious Flaws "A very recent study by Dr. Magda Havas et al. sharply contradicts accepted studies on electrohypersensitivity (EHS). This study purports to show that the heart rate of electrosensitive subjects is subject to dramatic increases in the presence of EMF from a cordless phone....The experimental setup in the Havas study completely ignored ... warning[s] about electrical interference producing artifacts in the heart rate measurements. This includes the specific warning about keeping 'transmitting devices' at least 10 feet away, and especially the warning that 'artifacts are easily seen on a graph which plots the IBI values over time as sudden very high rises or very low drops.' This is precisely what is seen in the Havas charts!!"
__________

* I live in a University town, but we still had an organized protest against Wi-Fi towers because there was fear that they would be hazardous to our health. Even so, our city leaders are hot in pursuit of Google's experimental high-speed Internet network. There was another protest here about towers that was quite sensible, however. The city had an agreement with New Path to install towers in various places around town (some on private property without discussion with the owners), but had failed to have a public discussion of the matter before proceeding.

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