The Daily Mail brings us the story of Sarah Dacre who suffers terribly from a range of symptoms including “hair loss, sickness, high blood-pressure, digestive and memory problems, severe headaches and dizziness. ” Sarah believes the symptoms are caused by the effects of the ‘electrosmog’ in our environment, the electromagnetic radiation (EMR) given out by mobile phones and Wi-Fi networks. She is so troubled by these devices that she resorts to wearing a metallic shield over her head. She covers her rooms with tin foil and avoids electrical equipment at all costs.
Sarah is not the only person in this position. More and more people report suffering as a result of electrosmog. The comment section in the Mail article testifies to this. Support groups have been set up and campaigning groups, such a Powerwatch, are on the case. Alasdair Philips of Powerwatch is a regular commentator on the effects of EMR. The newspapers are full of alarming reports about the problem and Alistair is there to offer his views.
As you might expect, some people are eager to cash in on the problem, selling useless devices to cure the problem, such as the QLink, and alternative ‘gurus’ like Patrick Holford selling devices to detect EMR. This could all be quackery as no-one really understands the nature of the illness yet. It may be one illness really caused by EMR exposure, but it could also be a group of unrelated problems where people just believe that it is the EMR causing their symptoms.
People do get upset though if you call an illness psychosomatic. They equate the word with ‘not real’ and see it as a threat. That could not be further from the truth. No-one is doubting that the eletrosensitives are suffering and need help, it is just that we do not need take their explanation of their illness at face value. Part of the problem is that lots is known about EMR and its effects on matter and people, and it is difficult to think up plausible explanations that could account for the wide range of symptoms and types of exposure being reported. Conversely it is quite easy to see how people could falsely believe that EMR was the cause – and be quite passionate about it.
People like explanations in their life. If you are suffering from debilitating symptoms and your doctor, or even your high street quack of choice, has no explanation, then it is easy to see how you might latch onto a ready-made explanation. We are very good at deceiving ourselves, and in particular applying post hoc logic to explain events. “I felt terrible today. It was the neighbours with their Wi-Fi on”, “Big headache came on after all those mobiles around me in town”. And so on. This self-deception may well be part of the psychosomatic illness.
Now, helping these people will depend very much on understanding the nature of the problem. Are they really being hurt by mobiles? Or, is a more subtle psychological problem at the root? Is there another problem that is being masked by their insistence on being electrosenstive? These are answerable questions where we can use science, experiment and observation to help come to some conclusions.
However, for many of the campaigners and the sufferers, there is already and answer – and it is mobile phones, it is WiFi, it is kettles and computers and modern life. No debate.
Powerwatch are already convinced it is EMR that causes these symptoms and they campaign and advise in accordance with that belief. The problem is, that if they are wrong, then they will not help their supporters get better and they will expose them to the quacks that wish to exploit the situation. If the illness is psychosomatic in nature, then it is likely that some form of talking therapy may be more beneficial than calling on governments to ban mobile phone masts and Wi-Fi hotspots.
The Powerwatch position can be seen on its ‘Dispelling the Wireless Myths’ page. It tackles the supposed myth that ‘People only got affected when the scare stories started, it must be psychosomatic’. The page counters this myth by saying,
this is a quickly dispelled myth (often also referred to as a ‘nocebo’ effect — basically a negative ‘placebo’ effect). A quick look at some of the science:
and then goes on to list four papers that we are supposed to take as evidence that the psychosomatic answer is wrong. The trouble is that all four papers appear to have nothing to do with determining if electrosensitivity is caused by EMR or if it is psychosomatic. There are papers on fruit fly eggs, sperm mobility, test-tube cells and stork nesting habits. But none on looking at humans and their exposure to EMR.
This is strange because there are plenty of papers written on the subject. So why do not Alasdair Philips and his team mention them? In fact there are well over thirty published studies looking into this question. The studies typically ask electrosensitive volunteers to record their symptoms in the presence of suspect devices like mobile phones. The trick is though that the researchers and the subjects are not told if the devices are really on or not, i.e. the trial is blinded. The thirty or so studies all do things a bit differently, but around this general theme.
Now of the studies, only seven so far have shown there is a difference between on and off, that is, that the mobile phone had some sort of affect. However, five of these positive results could not be repeated by the same researchers and the other two are thought to be statistical flukes. In other words, the vast majority of the experiments have shown that electrosensitivity has not been demonstrated to be due to exposure to EMR emitting devices.
A systematic review of most of the studies that have been done concluded,
The symptoms described by “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” sufferers can be severe and are sometimes disabling. However, it has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF can trigger these symptoms. This suggests that “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” is unrelated to the presence of EMF, although more research into this phenomenon is required.
Why does Powerwatch not discuss this? Its a shame. If the people who care and campaign most on behalf of electrosensitive people are selective in their evidence, blind to alternatives and hold strong convictions, then people like Sarah Dacre in the Mail article may go on suffering. Rather than wearing that chain mail hood, perhaps Sarah may benefit from some other sort of therapy.
One thing I do on stories like this, is look for possible conflicting interests that may sway judgments. More often than not, it turns up interesting little facts that need a bit of thinking about.
In this case, I noted that Powerwatch recommend various products to help people like Sarah shield their house from EMR. Powerwatch provide a link to EMFields, a company that supplies all sorts of anti-EMR products. EMFields, also kindly provides a link to ‘consumer interest group Powerwatch that give good, practical advice’.
Now, doing a whois look up on both ‘consumer interest group’ Powerwatch and commercial trading business EMFields, shows that both domains are registered to an Alasdair Philips of Ely. Are they by chance related?