• The zone around this telescope is one of the few regions in the world free from electromagnetic fields.
A growing number of people are blaming their health problems on mobile phones and television, saying they are allergic to electromagnetic fields. But is it all in their heads?
Airdate: 
Thursday, April 23, 2015 - 19:30
Channel: 
SBS Two

"Every single aspect of my life has been destroyed. Every single aspect."

Bruce Evans has been living with electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) since 2007. While there is no medical diagnosis for the condition, it is characterised by a range of symptoms which sufferers attribute to exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF), particularly those caused by broadcasting devices.  The most common symptoms include dermatological symptoms, nausea, headaches, and tinnitus.

"No one understands our condition or the situation we're in," he said. "It's an invisible sort of thing. You can't see what’s happening to us - you can only see our reaction to it.”

"People just don’t understand and that leaves you very much on your own."

As societies industrialise and the technological revolution continues, there has been an unprecedented increase in the number and diversity of electromagnetic field sources, and a corresponding increase in concern about possible health risks.

While the World Health Organisation recognises that the symptoms experienced are certainly real, “there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure”.

Bruce first felt symptoms when he was living in Collingwood, Melbourne, after he started using an iPhone. "It was like someone stuck an ice pick in the side of my head," he says.

He was slow to accept the label of EHS, but the connection became too strong to ignore. “Things just gradually got worse and there was always a correlation between exposure and symptoms… You try to explain it to people and they just think you’re a lunatic, but it’s very real," he says.

"I might be in a pub. And because everyone would be on their phones texting all of that kind of stuff, I’d start getting a headache. If it is a low level frequency radiation, I sort of feel heaviness all over my body like someone has poured cold water on my brain, like my brain’s got hyperthermia or something. If it’s a high frequency it’s a very sort of sharp pain."

"I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything…I was a prisoner in my room for about two years."

Australia does not recognise EHS as a condition or disability. “I went to every type of therapy you could imagine and all of them started from the premise that I had some sort of psychological problem or an emotional issue - it’s just absolute bulls--t. I’m not an emotionally weak person.  I don’t suffer from depression.”

In 2002, Sweden became the first country to formally recognise EHS as a physical impairment, largely because of the efforts of Olle Johansson, Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the Karolinska. He has long warned about the health impact of exposure to electromagnetic fields, and places the number of electrosensitive people in Sweden at about 250,000.

"There is no evidence that the radiation from electromagnetic sources such as mobile phones computers don’t harm us. There are studies that have lacked to show an effect but that’s not the same as proving safety."

Rodney Croft, Director of the Australian Centre for Radiofrequency Bioeffects Research, has been coordinating studies in to radiofrequency effects on brain function. "There are certainly people around the world who are convinced that this is a big problem," he said. But he is unequivocal that no connection between the described symptoms and exposure to EMF has been found. 

“So far we’ve not been able to find an effect of electromagnetic radiation on the kind of symptoms that people report, and this is very much consistent with what’s been found around the world. We don’t have any reason to think that there is any relationship between the symptoms and radiation.”

He recognises that being unable to locate effects of EMF does not equate to proof of safety. “It’s important to remember that science can never demonstrate that anything is safe. Be it orange juice or air, we are never going to be in a position to show that anything is safe and thus we cannot conclude that there is no relationship between electromagnetic radiation and peoples health.”

“If there was even very weak evidence suggesting it was a problem, then we’d be a lot more concerned. But so far there has been lots of research conducted, looking at very different health effects, and we don’t see any evidence that it might be an issue. That doesn’t mean we should stop researching, but it certainly means at the moment we don’t have anything to be concerned about.”

Johannson said that those affected may be the “classical canary in a coal mine; they react with biological alternation when the rest of the population does not. That could very well be true, and it has been that case very many times in human history.”

Without further evidence, the best option for sufferers is alleviating symptons. “Treatment of their impairment is of course only through making their environment accessible,” said Johannson. “They do not have a disease, they do not have an overall diagnosis, and they’re not patients. They are normal healthy people from that point of view.  But in inferior environment they function less well."

Bruce relocated to his father’s farm in Benalla in regional Victoria, where he is able to function, but he believes the respite is temporary. "They’re closing every black spot, they’re eliminating every piece of refuge in the world," he says.

However, there is a region in the United States to which many sufferers of EHS are flocking. Green Bank West Virginia is home to one of the world’s largest telescopes. In order for it to operate without interference, the use of wireless communication devices is prohibited. Its inhabitants don’t have television or radio antennae, mobile phones, or wifi, and it’s become a haven for people with EHS.

"It’s a place you can be with people," said Diane Schou. “You don’t have to live in an isolated commune. I can go to the local restaurant. I can go and buy groceries.”

Diane Schou has a PhD industrial technology and biology. She describes herself as electrosensitive. She moved to Green Bank in 2002 after experiencing severe headaches.  Both she and her husband Bert believe these were triggered by emissions from a mobile phone tower near her home in Iowa.

"It was about two or three in the morning. I told my husband that I had a headache and I just couldn’t sleep and he said 'Well, we’re leaving'. Twenty minutes later we were out the door and I haven’t been back since," she says.

Diane travelled through Iowa and neighboring states Wisconsin and Minnesota. Her search for relief led her through most of the United States. "I was looking for absolutely no pain, no headache, no symptoms… In searching for a place without cellphones or cell towers, a park ranger told me about Green Bank."

Diane's symptoms lessened in the six-month period after moving to Green Bank. "People in Iowa who knew how ill I was are amazed by how much better I am," she says.

She admitted that it is difficult for visitors to accept life in the small town. "They go through a culture shock. We don’t have a Starbucks, we don’t have shopping malls, we don’t have many restaurants." Diane also doesn’t have central heating or a microwave.

"They go through a culture shock. We don’t have a Starbucks, we don’t have shopping malls, we don’t have many restaurants."

Diane estimates that about a third of the population in Green Bank are electrosensitive, having heard about the community as a place where they might live without their symptoms. "These are professional people who have come here to find a way to survive."

"We have something in common…this identification of electrosensitivity. We may not have the same symptoms, we may not react to the same things, but we understand and that is very important.  To be able to talk with someone who understands instead of someone saying, 'I don’t believe you, you’re just making it up'."

 

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