Is Not a Valid Diagnosis
Stephen Barrett, M.D.
Electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS)—also called electromagnetic sensitivity (EMS)—is an alleged condition in which people believe that many common health problems are caused exposure to electromagnetic fields. The symptoms, which can vary considerably from person to person, include headaches; fatigue; anxiety; sleep disturbances; palpitations; irregular heartbeat; shortness of breath; skin symptoms such as prickling, burning sensations and rashes; muscle aches and pains, and many other ailments. The alleged sources include power lines, cell-phone towers, wi-fi networks, fluorescent lights, microwaves, mobile phones, chargers, and other electronic devices.
EHS is not recognized by the scientific medical community as a disease. The World Health Organization has concluded that (a) although the purported symptoms are real, there is no scientific evidence of a causal link with EMF exposure and that (b) lowering internationally accepted EMF limits is unlikely to reduce the prevalence of symptoms . In 2009, the Swedish Radiation Protection Authority noted:
There is no evidence that RF [radiofrequency] exposure is a causal factor. In a number of experimental provocation studies, persons who consider themselves electrically hypersensitive and healthy volunteers have been exposed to either sham or real RF fields, but symptoms have not been more prevalent during RF exposure than during sham in any of the experimental groups. Several studies have indicated a nocebo effect, i.e. an adverse effect caused by an expectation that something is harmful. Associations have been found between self-reported exposure and the outcomes, whereas no associations were seen with measured RF exposure .
During the same year, the Health Council of the Netherlands reached a similar conclusion: "There is no causal relationship between exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields and the occurrence of symptoms. However, there is a relationship between symptoms and the assumption of being exposed and therefore most likely with the risk perception."  In 2010, a British team that evaluated 31 studies concluded that people who reported hypersensitivity were no better than nonsensitive individuals at detecting EMF under blinded conditions .
In 2012, Bad Science Watch issued a position paper which expressed concern about the dangers of wi-fi opposition: (a) low-income individuals and students might be denied access to educational resources, taxpayers might have to pay to expensive reversion to wired networks, and (c) quack diagnoses and treatments related to anti wi-fi claims .
Two Recent Court Cases
In 2012, a New Mexico judge dismissed a lawsuit in which the plaintiff claimed to have been harmed by neighbor's electrical equipment. The lawsuit, brought by Arthur Firstenberg, charged that his health had been seriously impaired by electromagnetic fields generated by cordless telephones, dimmer switches, chargers, Wi-Fi and other computer equipment, and other devices while one defendant rented a neighboring house. The defendants were the house's owner, Robin Leith, who owned the house, and Raphaela Monribot, the renter. The judge summed up the situation this way:
Plaintiff suffers a variety of adverse health effects, some very serious, which he claims arose from his electromagnetic sensitivity ("EMS").. . . Plaintiff further contends the adverse health effects he sustained were triggered by exposure to electromagnetic fields generated by the utilization of electrical equipment6 by his neighbor, Defendant Monribot, during her tenancy in Defendant Leith's house. The electronic devices about which Plaintiff complains include cordless telephones, computer equipment, household Wi-Fi routers and modem(s) for a computer, dimmer switches, chargers for electronic equipment, a microcell, and so forth—all commonplace devices ubiquitous in our community. Plaintiff claims that his symptoms were much worse during Defendant Monribot's tenancy in the house, but Defendant Leith has attested that she used similar equipment when she lived in the house prior to Defendant Monribot. Plaintiff's house was at one time commonly owned with Defendant Leith's house. The two houses continue to be connected by a single electrical drop which comes from the transmission pole to the Leith house and then to the Firstenberg house. In addition, the two houses have common water and gas pipes .
Firstenberg, who founded the Cellular Phone Taskforce in 1996, has been crusading against the use of wireless networks. The group's Web site attributes more than 75 types of diseases, conditions, and symptoms to EHS . His claims in this case were supported by Erica Elliot, M.D. and Raymond Singer, Ph.D. Elliott, who believes that she suffers from EMS, had treated Firstenberg for several years. Singer, who represents himself as a neurotoxicologist, said that his opinions were supported by tests he had administered to Firstenberg. The defendants countered by pointing out that Elliott's opinions were based on self-serving statements from Firstenberg and that Singer's tests were improperly designed . The judge agreed, excluded their testimony as experts, and concluded:
- The weight of evidence indicates that experimental and epidemiologic studies have failed to provide adequate support for a causal relationship between electromagnetic fields and complaints of "EMS."
- Experimental studies have found no reliable evidence that people who claim to be sensitive actually experience any unusual physical reactions when exposed to electromagnetic fields.
- Since Firstenberg could not demonstrate causation, his case must be dismissed .
The defendants were ably represented by the Graeser Law Firm of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
In 2015, the parents of a 12-year-old boy sued the Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts, alleging that the school's wi-fi network was making the boy ill and that the school had failed to make reasonable accommodations to protect him. In a letter sent to the Fay community, Head of School Rob Gustavson reported that after the parents had expressed concern:
- The school obtained an assessment from Isotrope, LLC, which specializes in measurement and analysis of radio communication signals and evaluation of emissions safety compliance.
- Isotrope was one of the firms recommended as an expert source by the parents.
- Isotrope's assessment, completed in January 2015, concluded that the levels of access point emissions, inside the school and on the grounds, were substantially less than one ten-thousandth (1/10,000th) of the applicable federal and state safety limits and that even if the more restrictive safety limits adopted in certain countries were applied, the radiofrequency equipment emissions at the school would still be compliant by substantial margins .
Although the school attempted to reassure the parents, they apparently were not persuaded and filed a lawsuit . The suit claimed that the boy suffers from EHS and developed progressively severe headaches, nose bleeds, dizziness, chest pains, and nausea after the school upgraded its wi-fi system in 2013. The suit also states that after learning about EHS, the parents consulted Jeanne Hubbuch, M.D., who confirmed this alleged diagnosis, wrote letters to the school, and submitted a declaration in support of the suit. Hubbuch's Web site states that she is (a) board-certified in family practice and environmental medicine," (b) practices "integrative," "functional," and "biologic" medicine, and (c) "deals with the underlying causes instead of symptoms of a disease." The treatments listed on her Web site include chelation therapy, "complex homeopathy" for cancer support, and many other highly questionable approaches. She is certified by the American Board of Family practice, but her "certification in environmental medicine" comes from the American Board of Environmental Medicine, which is not a recognized specialty board.
People alleging EHS can cause serious emotional and economic harm to their community. I hope that the judge who hears this case will do as good a job as the one who ruled against Firstenberg.
- Mild KH and others, editors. Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity. Proceedings International Workshop on EMF Hypersensitivity in Prague, Czech Republic, October 25-27, 2004. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2006.
- SMM independent Expert Group on Electromagnetic Fields. Recent Research on EMF Risks. Sixth annual report, December 2009.
- Electromagnetic Fields: Annual Update 2008. Health Council of the Netherlands, March 2009.
- Rubin GJ and others. Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: a systematic review of provocation studies. Psychosomatic Medicine 67: 224-232. 2005.
- Newman G. and others. Position paper on electromagnetic hypersensitivity (idiopathic environmental intolerance to electromagnetic fields. Bad Science Watch, Toronto, Canada, updated Jan 27, 2013.
- Singleton SM. Order on motion to exclude expert testimony under Daubert/Alberico. Arthur Firstenberg v. Raphaela Monribot and Robin Leith. First Judicial District Court, Santa Fe County (New Mexico), Sept 18, 2012.
- Electromagnetic sensitivity. Cellular Phone Taskforce Web site, accessed Nov 9, 2012.
- Amended motion to exclude opinion testimony of plaintiff's experts Erica Elliot, M.D and Raymond Singer, Ph.D. Arthur Firstenberg v. Raphaela Monribot and Robin Leith. First Judicial District Court, Santa Fe County (New Mexico), June 5, 2012.
- Gustavson R. Fay School's statement on the wifi lawsuit. Fay School Web site, Aug 25, 2015.
- Verified complaint. G (fictitious name) et al. v The Fay School and Robert Gustavson. U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Case No 4:14-cv-40116-TSH, filed Aug 12, 2015.
This article was revised on August 28, 2015.