Electrohypersensitivity: handicap often mistaken for a psychiatric disorder
Would recognizing electrohypersensitivity (EHS) as a medical disease do more harm than good?
• EHS recognized as a handicap and occupational disease
• Would an official medical diagnosis lead or not to more psychiatric treatements?
• Mental diagnosis results from lack of medical recognition
• Sweden is not a paradise for the electrohypersensitive
• Lack of accommodation despite recognition of the handicap
• Historical background (from Tesla to Schliephake and Bevington)
• 2016 EUROPAEM Guidelines to prevent, diagnose and treat EMF bioeffects
• WHO opinion on EHS not updated since 2005
• Anxiety and depression: cause or consequence of EMF exposure?
• Belpomme and National Academies of Science findings
It’s the Fall of 2010 and Quebecer Jean Gagnon has just been interned against his will for nine days at Montmagny hospital. “Tell me about your waves”, asks a judge who must decide if Gagnon will be observed another 21 days, as requested by a psychiatrist who concluded he has “psychotic delusions concerning evil waves”.
Gagnon had entered the hospital emergency ward voluntarily to find out why he was suffering from acute head and leg pain. “My head felt like it was in a vise. It began when I was cooking tomatoes on all four kitchen rings”, the retired mechanic explained in an interview.
When his symptoms began, he knew nothing about electromagnetic fields (EMFs) produced by wired and wireless electrical technologies. Reading and worrying about their possible health effects got him into more trouble.
“They gave me Haldol, Ativan and Seroquel when I entered the psychiatric ward, he recalls. Fortunately, this was the only medication I accepted. I would never have been able to plead a coherent speech in court to ensure my defense. After 15 minutes of hearing, the judge concluded that I had no delusional speech and ordered my release on the spot. I was really afraid to go back to the hospital. From then on, I focused all my energies on understanding the situation. Now, 12 years later, I have come to understand that the biggest source of this poison is the electrical grid.”
Gagnon notably credits a Health Canada scientist who recommended he read a Canadian Human Rights Commission report, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities, authored by Margaret E. Sears Ph.D. in May 2007.
Two environmental physicians later confirmed that his years of exposure to exhaust fumes and solvents made him first hypersensitive to chemicals and later to EMFs. His professional asthma triggerred by chemical sensitivities had led him to stop working as a mechanic and to become Service Manager for a construction and agricultural power equipment dealership.
Gagnon eventually discovered that his home, property and neighborhood are highly polluted with EMFs. “Thanks to all those who have been involved in this issue for decades, my knowledge has evolved a lot, allowing me to highlight EMF sources unsuspected by the majority of people. These sources are unfortunately publicly and legally contested by the polluters generating them, whether they are suppliers of “dirty” electricity, including high transient frequencies and harmonics, parasitic earth currents and flicker from fluorescent and other digital devices, or wireless telecommunication providers. All of them refuse to admit and correct the situation.” (Here are videos he made to document the problems.)
Recognized as a handicap and occupational disease
This despite the fact that more and more people are realizing their wellbeing depends on their exposure (or lack of exposure) to EMFs from wired and wireless technologies. Most are being told it’s all in their head by health professionals and their acquaintances. And several have been interned like Gagnon by physicians unaware of electrohypersensitivity (EHS) which has been recognized worldwide as a handicap. In 2000, the Nordic Council of Ministers of countries such as Norway and Sweden recognized “electromagnetic intolerance” as an occupational disease. While classifying it under ‘’Conditions with aetiology attributed to environmental factors – mechanisms not yet understood”, it confirmed that its “symptoms disappear in non-electrical environments”.
Jean Gagnon concurs: “There is no doubt that after replacing my digital (DECT) cordless phone with a corded one as well as the compact fluorescent light on my desk lamp with regular bulbs, my health has improved. I have also reduced my exposure to cell phones and Wi-Fi and I avoid radiation from microwave ovens. Along with some other small attention to dirty electricity, these beneficial changes have reduced the frequency and intensity of my symptoms”, which also include tinnitus and problems concentrating, he wrote in a 2013 testimony before the Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel Reviewing Health Canada’s Safety Code 6 (recommending limits for human exposure to radiofrequency EMFs).
In December 2005, a World Health Organization (WHO) backgrounder on electromagnetic hypersensitivity concluded that EHS is not an official medical diagnosis. Some say recognition of the handicap is sufficient to provide proper accommodations and avoid victims being committed in psychiatry while others say classifying it as a medical disease is preferable to avoid such medical errors. This debate is particularly raging in Sweden.
Would an official medical diagnosis lead or not to more psychiatric treatements?
Swedish neuroscientist Olle Johannson, who in the late 1970s coined the term “screen dermatitis” to explain skin lesions suffered by electrosensitive workers sitting daily in front of computer monitors, explained his position in a 2006 paper, Electrohypersensitivity: State-of-the-Art of a Functional Impairment: “In Sweden, impairments are viewed from the point of the environment. No human being is in itself impaired, there are instead shortcomings in the environment that cause the impairment (as the lack of ramps for the person in a wheelchair or rooms electrosanitized for the person with electrohypersensitivity). This environment-related impairment view, furthermore, means that even though one does not have a scientifically based complete explanation for the impairment electrohypersensitivity, and in contrast to disagreements in the scientific society, the person with electrohypersensitivity shall always be met in a respectful way and with all necessary support with the goal to eliminate the impairment. This implies that the person with electrohypersensitivity shall have the opportunity to live and work in an electrosanitized environment. This view can fully be motivated in relation to the present national and international handicap laws and regulations, including the UN 22 Standard Rules and the Swedish action plan for persons with impairments…”
Recently, Johansson sent me a commentary by a Swedish vicar, Johann Bonander, who previously worked with disability associations as a project manager at the City of Stockholm’s Social Services, from 1999 to 2006. Bonander echoed Johansson’s view that the plight of people with EHS could be much worse if the condition was an official medical diagnosis. He wrote: “According to the WHO, and the conference in Prague 2004 (International Workshop on Electromagnetic Field Hypersensitivity, Prague, Czech Republic, October 25-27, 2004), the result will probably be that the medical diagnosis and the disease perspective one was aiming for will be found in the psychiatric diagnosis catalogue, i.e. the electrohypersensitive person will be said to be imagining his/her symptoms. Olle Johansson, then at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, attended the conference. He has told me that in this conference demands were made by certain attending medical doctors to designate the persons with the functional impairment electrohypersensitivity as patients and that several of these doctors also wanted to designate electrohypersensitivity as a psychological/psychiatric disorder. Only two people protested against this, according to Olle Johansson: Dr. Bruce Hocking from Australia, and himself.”
Mental diagnosis results from lack of medical recognition
But former Swedish reporter Mona Nilsson, who chairs the Swedish Radiation Protection Foundation, charges that Bonander’s and Johansson’s approach has failed the EHS community. “Olle Johansson is distributing an erroneous image of Sweden and the functional impairment EHS when he writes (in the paper Electrohypersensitivity: a functional impairment due to an inaccessible environment, published in 2015): “The Swedish view provides persons with this impairment a maximal legal protection”. The only ones benefiting from this argument is the industry which systematically opposes any recognition of health effects from EMF exposure, be it cancer, EHS or other diseases. People with EHS, which should be called “EMF illness”, currently receive little or no help from authorities in Sweden to help protect themselves from the cause of their illness as long as they have no diagnosis from a physician that their symptoms/disease are caused by microwave radiation, magnetic or electric fields. A person who becomes ill from EMF exposure and seeks help from a physician mostly gets a mental illness diagnosis. A person who becomes ill from a base station near his/her residence cannot expect any assistance from authorities. They claim one cannot get ill from radiation from base stations. They assert the medical community does not recognize this as an illness, nor do the authorities, and that there is no scientific evidence to support any link between any illness and exposure to EMF.
EHS people in Sweden are denied basic rights because they do not have a medical diagnosis supporting that their ill health is caused by the EMFs. There is no contradiction between medical diagnosis and functional impairment – on the contrary most functional impairments have a medical diagnosis as a basis, as should EHS.”
Olle Johansson declined our invitation to comment.
Sweden is not a paradise for the electrohypersensitive
In a letter Nilsson sent to her readers on July 31, 2021, she further criticized Johansson’s approach: “Olle Johansson has repeatedly during many years argued against a medical diagnosis for symptoms and ill health caused by EMF. Instead he has claimed that the “functional impairment” diagnosis is a wonder diagnosis that will solve all problems for everybody, particularly for people that are badly ill from exposure to the ever increasing EMF in our environment. At numerous occasions he has described Sweden as a paradise for electrohypersensitive (EHS) sufferers, where the functional impairment is claimed to be fully recognized as a diagnosis for EHS. He even warns against the danger of the medical recognition : “In the event that the dangers of electromagnetic radiation and health effects are handed over to the medical establishment and Big Pharma, it may turn out to be yet another weapon to be used against the sufferers, rather than supporting their rightful demands.” That is pure nonsense in view of the reality”, Nilsson wrote.
She rather agrees with Swedish physicians Lena Hedendahl and Lennart Hardell who wrote with their colleague Michael Carlberg: “It is important to work toward getting objective diagnostic criteria for EHS, and have it recognized and officially accepted as hypersensitivity, an illness caused by exposure to EMFs. Thus, it is necessary to give an International Classification of Diseases to EHS. If and when EHS is accepted as a diagnosis by society and the medical profession, measures can be taken especially in consideration for this group of people with EHS regarding healthcare, accommodation, school, and work.”
Lack of accommodation despite recognition of the handicap
American medical writer Susan Foster, a longtime expert on EMF bioeffects, agrees with Mona Nilsson: “In Sweden functional impairment does not allow financial benefits to the disabled. Therefore they remain in substandard housing and medical circumstances, left with decreasing options. In the United States we have not officially accommodated individuals for EHS/EMS yet, even though the U.S. Access Board – the independent federal agency that instructs other federal agencies on how to accommodate the disabled – has classified this constellation of neurological and immunological symptoms as Electromagnetic Sensitivities, or EMS, for 20 years. We know that between .5% and 30% of our population is somewhere on the EMS/EHS spectrum. Any country's failure to accommodate those with a disability that happens to be inconvenient for the telecommunications industry defines that nation's priorities. That includes the US. Those with EMS disability are an inconvenient truth.”
Affecting people to varying degrees, EHS was notably experienced in the early 1900s by the inventor of alternating current, Nikola Tesla, who suffered from “an acute sensitivity of all the sense-organs.” EHS was first medically described under another name in 1932 by German physician Erwin Schliephake, who used short-wave therapy in his medical practice. “He published scientific data in a German medical weekly about his patients that were experiencing unusual symptoms around radio towers. He called this condition “microwave” or “radio wave sickness”, explains California engineer Jeromy Johnson who is an EMF solutions consultant recovering from EHS. The symptoms he observed were: Headaches to the point of intolerability; Severe tiredness and fatigue during the day; Fitful sleep at night; High susceptibility to infection.”
British teacher Michael Bevington had never heard of EHS until he developed “dizziness, nausea, headaches, heart palpitations, pains around the body, etc.” after a Wi-Fi system was installed at work. Since late 2008, he is Chair of trustees for the British charity Electrosensitivity UK which helps people with EHS and informs the public about the health risks of EMF exposure. In a 2019 article published in the Journal of Environment and Health Science, Bevington wrote that the prevalence of EHS “is between about 5.0 and 30 per cent of the general population for mild cases, 1.5 and 5.0 per cent for moderate cases and < 1.5 per cent for severe cases”.
2016 EUROPAEM Guidelines to prevent, diagnose and treat EMF bioeffects
Indeed, in today’s wireless world, millions of people complain of EHS, yet few physicians are aware that in 2106, the European Academy for Environmental Medicine published a Guideline for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of EMF-related health problems and illnesses. Its 15 authors stated: “We recommend treating EHS clinically as part of the group of chronic multisystem illnesses (CMI), but still recognizing that the underlying cause remains the environment... The primary method of treatment should mainly focus on the prevention or reduction of EMF exposure, that is, reducing or eliminating all sources of high EMF exposure at home and at the workplace (as well as) schools, hospitals, public transport, and libraries to enable persons with EHS an unhindered use (accessibility measure). If a detrimental EMF exposure is reduced sufficiently, the body has a chance to recover and EHS symptoms will be reduced or even disappear. Many examples have shown that such measures can prove effective. To increase the effectiveness of the treatment, the broad range of other environmental factors that contribute to the total body burden should also be addressed. Anything that supports homeostasis will increase a person’s resilience against disease and thus against the adverse effects of EMF exposure.”
They notably quote Martin Pall’s 2015 review in the Journal of Chemical Neuroanatomy, Microwave frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs) produce widespread neuropsychiatric effects including depression. A Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry at Washington State University, Pall wrote : “Soviet and Western literature shows that much of the impact of non-thermal microwave exposures in experimental animals occurs in the brain and peripheral nervous system, such that nervous system histology and function show diverse and substantial changes. These may be generated through roles of voltage-gated calcium channel (VGCC) activation, producing excessive neurotransmitter/neuroendocrine release as well as oxidative/nitrosative stress and other responses. Excessive VGCC activity has been shown from genetic polymorphism studies to have roles in producing neuropsychiatric changes in humans.”
WHO opinion on EHS not updated since 2005
Several independent experts in the biological effects of chronic exposure to EMFs want the WHO to update its 2005 backgrounder and recognize EHS as a medical disease based on the latest science. The WHO wrote in this 17-year-old opinion: “The majority of studies indicate that EHS individuals cannot detect EMF exposure any more accurately than non-EHS individuals, the backgrounder says. Well controlled and conducted double-blind studies have shown that symptoms were not correlated with EMF exposure.”
WHO continued : “It has been suggested that symptoms experienced by some EHS individuals might arise from environmental factors unrelated to EMF. Examples may include “flicker” from fluorescent lights, glare and other visual problems with VDUs, and poor ergonomic design of computer workstations. Other factors that may play a role include poor indoor air quality or stress in the workplace or living environment.
There are also some indications that these symptoms may be due to pre-existing psychiatric conditions as well as stress reactions as a result of worrying about EMF health effects, rather than the EMF exposure itself.”
Anxiety and depression: cause or consequence of EMF exposure?
However, a comprehensive French government opinion on EHS published in 2018 was more qualified: “psychiatric disorders are not more frequent in these people than in the general population. In conclusion, the level of evidence is sufficient to say that - in EHS, as in many other disorders - there is a significant psychological component. This is characterized by anxiety and/or depression, which are more frequent and more intense than in control populations, without it being possible to say at present whether these states are the cause or the consequence of EHS”.
Belpomme and National Academies of Science findings
More recently, in 2021, French oncologist Dominique Belpomme led a group of 32 international experts requesting that the WHO acknowledge EHS as a distinct neuropathological disorder and includes it in its International Classification of Diseases based on molecular biomarkers and imaging. In 2017 Dr. Gunnar Heuser published his results of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans in self-described EHS individuals. Brain abnormalities were found among all 10 subjects who underwent the scan. “As helpful as this result may be to proving the existence of electrosensitivity, Susan Foster explained, the Functional MRI is a test that may accelerate EHS/EMS symptoms and sensitivities in patients, so extreme caution should be used if considering using fMRI for diagnostic purposes.” Similar scans helped convince the authors of a 2020 report by the American National Academies of Science that symptoms experienced by U.S. diplomats in Cuba were “most likely caused’” by directed microwave weapons.
In 2004, Dr. Gunnar Heuser and Susan Foster conducted a SPECT brain scan pilot study of six firefighters who had been exposed to a 2G cell tower in front of their station for five years. Brain damage was found in all six men. Some 23 of the 25 firefighters who rotated through the station experienced adverse neurological symptoms after the tower was activated.
Gagnon hoping precaution will prevail
Jean Gagnon hopes health authorities will study the latest science more closely, such as the research summaries published by University of Washington Professor Emeritus of Bioengineering Henry Lai.
“Personally, Jean Gagnon concludes, I maintain that it is necessary to inform, educate, refuse and denounce these poisons, and avoid exposing oneself as much as possible. Do not hesitate to ask for help and share your experiences. It is not a mental illness, but rather an environmental one if it is one at all. For me it is above all an intolerance to a toxic product. The only solution is to stay away from it or to fight back to stop the exposure and to have the EHS handicap AND disease recognized.”
For more, read Michael Bevington’s ‘Proof of EHS beyond all reasonable doubt’. Comment on: Leszczynski D. Review of the scientific evidence on the individual sensitivity to electromagnetic fields (EHS). Rev Environ Health 2021; https://doi.org/10.1515/rev