Electromagnetic field sensitivity is an empirical chimera.
Riding in on peer-reviewed research, but flunking every major test, the idea that wireless technology amounts to a modern health threat presents a conundrum to proponents and skeptics alike. With Wi-Fi networks blanketing homes, schools and even whole cities, they’ve become the latest flash point in a struggle that’s arced from power lines to microwaves, cell phones and even computers, spanning decades of debate.
To sufferers of EMF sensitivity, however, such academic battles are exasperating. To them, it’s as if their symptoms, and even their sanity, are under attack.
“A professor called it Compulsive Risk Assessment Psychosis, otherwise known as CRAP,'” said Rod Read of ElectroSensitivity-UK, a registered charity in Britain. “He says everyone is deluded. It insults and abuses people who are sick. I thought that went out with the Victorian era.
British author Kate Figes recently described a sensation akin to being “prodded all over your body by 1,000 fingers” when in the presence of a Wi-Fi signal. When Michael Bevington fell ill, he blamed a network recently installed at the prestigious school where he’d worked for 28 years: “Over the weekend, away from the classroom, I felt completely normal.
Plans for a Wi-Fi network at an Illinois school were scuppered after parents filed a lawsuit. The president of Canada’s Lakehead University banned Wi-Fi on campus, likening it to second-hand smoke. In March, Toronto’s public health department questioned plans to install a citywide network.
“It’s the whole insidious and invisible exploitation of the EM spectrum,” said Read, who estimates between 1 percent and 3 percent of the population may be susceptible. “To the sensitive, it’s like being shouted at all the time.”
Sufferers report headaches, nausea, stomach upsets, tinnitus, brain fog and short-term memory among the symptoms, Read said. Skeptics, however, suspect that blaming EMF sensitivity for their ills amounts to an easy answer to almost any medical problem.
There is no known mechanism by which EMF from any source — power lines, cell phones or Wi-Fi networks — can cause health problems of any kind,” said Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine. “In fact, there is nothing that even needs explaining.”
While some groups focus on nonspecific symptoms, others claim links to more severe conditions such as cancer.
We’re in it for a long fight,” said Cindy Sage of Sage EMF Design, a California environmental consulting firm that profiles locations for their EMF characteristics. “Around the world, we’ve seen the affected giving up hope. But they’re burning down cell towers in Israel, dismantling them in Ireland, taking it to a civil disobedience level when they can’t get their governments to respond.
Scientists recognize the dangers of high-frequency ionizing radiation, such as gamma rays unleashed by nuclear fallout. Non-ionizing radiation, however, such as Wi-Fi signals, cellular networks, television broadcasts and visible light, cannot break down atomic bonds and has long been considered safe.
“The fields that are induced by Wi-Fi transmissions are well below those that could cause problems to humans,” said Chris Guy, head of The University of Reading’s School of Systems Engineering. “The maximum power that is allowed to be transmitted by any Wi-Fi unit is one-tenth of a watt.
EMF sensitivity advocates, however, believe studies reveal that even these low-frequency, low-power fields can cause subtle damage to human tissue, citing evidence of cell death, faster-growing tumors and DNA damage.
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