Yet the World Health Organization – the same agency that Brundtland once headed – reports “”there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure.”” WHO’s findings are corroborated by a 2008 study at the University of Bern in Switzerland which found “”no evidence that EHS individuals could detect [the] presence or absence”” of frequencies that allegedly make them sick.
A study conducted in 2006 at the Mobile Phone Research Unit at King’s College in London came to a similar conclusion. “”No evidence was found to indicate that people with self-reported sensitivity to mobile phone signals are able to detect such signals or that they react to them with increased symptom severity,”” the report said. “”As sham exposure was sufficient to trigger severe symptoms in some participants, psychological factors may have an important role in causing this condition.”” The King’s College researchers in 2010 concluded it was a “”medically unexplained illness.””
“”The scientific data so far just doesn’t help the electrosensitives,”” says Louis Slesin, editor and publisher of Microwave News, a newsletter and website that covers the potential impacts of RF-EMFs. “”The design of some of these studies, however, is questionable.”” He adds: “”Frankly, I’d be surprised if the condition did not exist. We’re electromagnetic beings. You wouldn’t have a thought in your head without electromagnetic signals. There is electrical signaling going on in your body all the time, and the idea that external electromagnetic fields can’t affect us just doesn’t make sense. We’re biological and chemical beings too, and we know that we can develop allergies to certain biological and chemical compounds. Why wouldn’t we also find there are allergies to EM fields? Shouldn’t every chemical be tested for its effects on human beings? Well, the same could be said for each frequency of RF radiation.””
Dr. David Carpenter of SUNY, who has also looked into electrosensitivity, tells me he’s “”not totally convinced that electrosensitivity is real.”” Still, he says, “”there are just too many people with reports of illness when chronically near to EMF devices, with their symptoms being relieved when they are away from them. Like multiple chemical sensitivity and Gulf War Syndrome, there is something here, but we just don’t understand it all yet.””
Science reporter B. Blake Levitt, author of Electromagnetic Fields: A Consumer’s Guide to the Issues, says the studies she has reviewed on EHS are “”contradictory and nowhere near definitive.”” Flaws in test design stand out, she says. Many with EHS may be simply “”too sensitized,”” she believes, to endure research exposure protocols, possibly skewing results from the start by inadvertently studying a less sensitive group. Levitt recently compiled some of the most damning studies of the health effects from cell towers in a report for the International Commission on Electromagnetic Safety in Italy.
“”Some populations are reacting poorly when living or working within 1,500 feet of a cell tower,”” Levitt tells me. Several studies she cited found an increase in headaches, rashes, tremors, sleep disturbances, dizziness, concentration problems, and memory changes.
“”EHS may be one of those problems that can never be well defined – we may just have to believe what people report,”” Levitt says. “”And people are reporting these symptoms all over the globe now when new technologies are introduced or infrastructure like cell towers go into neighborhoods. It’s not likely a transcultural mass hallucination. The immune system is an exquisite warning mechanism. These are our canaries in the coal mine.””
Swedish neuroscientist Olle Johansson was one of the first researchers to take the claims of electrosensitivity seriously. He found, for example, that persons with EHS had changes in skin mast cells – markers of allergic reaction – when exposed to specific EM fields.
Other studies have found that radiofrequency EMFs can increase serum histamine levels – the hallmark of an allergic reaction. Johansson has hypothesized that electrosensitivity arises exactly as any common allergy would arise – due to excessive exposure, as the immune system fails. And just as only some people develop allergies to cats or pollen or dust, only some of us fall prey to EM fields. Johansson admits that his hypothesis has yet to be proven in laboratory study.
One afternoon not long ago, a nurse named Maria Gonzalez, who lives in Queens, New York, took me to see the cell phone masts that irradiate her daughter’s school. The masts were the usual flat-paneled, alien-looking things nested together, festooned with wires, high on a rooftop across from Public School 122 in Astoria. They emitted a fine signal – five bars on my phone. The operator of the masts, Sprint-Nextel, had built a wall of fake brick to hide them from view, but Maria was unimpressed with the subterfuge. She was terrified of the masts. When, in 2005, the panels went up, soon to be turned on, she was working at the intensive care unit at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
She’d heard bizarre stories about cell phones from her cancer-ward colleagues. Some of the doctors at St. Vincent’s told her they had doubts about the safety of their own cellphones and pagers. This was disturbing enough. She went online, culling studies. When she read a report published in 2002 about children in Spain who developed leukemia shortly after a cell phone tower was erected next to their school, she went into a quiet panic.
Sprint-Nextel was unsympathetic when she telephoned the company in the summer of 2005 to express her concerns. The company granted her a single meeting that autumn, with a Sprint-Nextel technician, an attorney, and a self-described “”radiation expert”” under contract with the company. “”They kept saying, ‘we’re one hundred percent sure the antennas are safe,'”” Maria told me as we stared at the masts. “”‘One hundred percent sure! These are children! We would never hurt children.'”” She called the office of Hillary Clinton and pestered the senator once a week for six months – but got nowhere. A year later, Gonzalez sued the US government, charging that the Federal Communications Commission had failed to fully evaluate the risks from cell phone frequencies. The suit was thrown out. The judge concluded that if regulators for the government said the radiation was safe, then it was safe. The message, as Gonzalez puts it, was that she was “”crazy … and making a big to-do about nothing.””
I’d venture, rather, that she was applying a commonsense principle in environmental science: the precautionary principle, which states that when an action or policy – or technology – cannot be proven with certainty to be safe, then it should be assumed to be harmful. In a society thrilled with the magic of digital wireless, we have junked this principle. And we try to dismiss as fools those who uphold it – people like Gonzalez. We have accepted without question that we will have wi-fi hotspots in our homes, and at libraries, and in cafes and bookstores; that we will have wireless alarm systems and wireless baby monitors and wireless utility meters and wireless video games that children play; that we will carry on our persons wireless iPads and iPods and smart phones. We are mesmerized by the efficiency and convenience of the infotainment appendage, the words and sounds and pictures it carries. We are, in other words, thoughtless in our embrace of the technology.
Because of our thoughtlessness, we have not demanded to know the full consequences of this technology.
Perhaps the gadgets are slowly killing us – we do not know. Perhaps they are perfectly safe – we do not know. Perhaps they are making us sick in ways we barely understand – we do not know. What we do know, without a doubt, is that the electromagnetic fields are all around us, and that to live in modern civilization implies always and everywhere that we cannot escape their touch.
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