Hypersensitivity or electrical sensitivity (or electrical hypersensitivity - EHS) is a condition reported by some people where they are extremely sensitive to electric or magnetic fields, reacting to even quite low levels in various ways such as headaches and stress, ranging up to nausea, skin rashes, and even bleeding.
Hypersensitivity is one of the more controversial areas of EMFs. There are many, many people who firmly believe that their symptoms are caused by EMFs (mainly radiofrequency EMFs from cell phones, masts, wifi etc, but sometimes from power-frequency EMFs as well). But scientific tests and reviews of the evidence have concluded that the evidence does not seem to link the symptoms to actual EMF exposure.
The mainstream scientific view is probably therefore that the symptoms are triggered by the sufferers' perception that they are being exposed rather than the actual exposure. But sufferers often react negatively to this suggestion - it makes them feel that, not only is their condition being denied, but they are being accused of making things up, or of having a mental problem.
See below for some of the key studies and reviews. The most recent such review, from SCENIHR, states:
However, research conducted since the previous SCENIHR opinion adds weight to the conclusion that RF exposure is not causally linked to these symptoms, but awareness of or belief in presence of exposure is sufficient to trigger the symptoms.
Key scientific studies and reviews
Review by Rubin et al
In 2005, a review was published (see bottom of page). It concludes that:
“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.”
Review by HPA
It was commissioned by HPA from an outside expert, Dr Neil Irvine, in response to criticisms that the last major HPA review of EMFs, in 2004, gave insufficient weight to electrical sensitivity. The report centres on power-frequency fields, with passing reference to radio frequencies.
The report is specifically cast as NOT being concerned about aetiology – what causes the symptoms – but instead as being about understanding and describing the symptoms. On aetiology, the report does however note:
“a recent review [ie NRPB 2004] .. found no compelling causal evidence for health effects…”
“the use of the term ES [electrical sensitivity] in this review does not imply the acceptance of a causal relationship between symptoms and attributed exposure, however.”
“While sufferers and their support groups are firmly convinced of a causal relationship with EMFs, the majority of mainstream scientific opinion does not consider there to be robust evidence of such a relationship. This position is supported by a recent systematic review of 31 blind or double-blind provocation studies…”
The report thoroughly reviews the existing literature of electrical sensitivity. Much of the literature comes from Nordic countries and Sweden in particular.
On treatment, the report is cautious about methods advocated by sufferers and their support groups, but suggests “some success” for psychologically based management strategies, and suggests the reported success of other strategies may be “more to do with offering a caring environment as opposed to a specific treatment.”
Factsheet from WHO
“EHS is characterized by a variety of non-specific symptoms that differ from individual to individual. The symptoms are certainly real and can vary widely in their severity. Whatever its cause, EHS can be a disabling problem for the affected individual. EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem.”
The view of SCENIHR
SCENIHR is the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks. In their opinion on EMFs in 2007 they stated:
“A variety of symptoms (dermatological symptoms such as redness, tingling and burning sensations as well as neurovegetative symptoms such as fatigue, headache, concentration difficulties, nausea, heart palpitation) have been suggested to be caused by ELF field exposure. The term "electromagnetic hypersensitivity" (EHS) has come into common usage based on the reported experience by the afflicted individuals that electric and/or magnetic fields, or vicinity to activated electrical equipment trigger the symptoms.
A relationship between ELF field exposure and symptoms has not been shown in scientific studies. From these results it seems clear that ELF is neither a necessary nor a sufficient factor to trigger health complaints in individuals reporting EHS. Whether ELF may be a contributing factor under some conditions remains to be determined.”
In their 2014 preliminary opinion they state:
Symptoms that are attributed by some people to RF exposure can sometimes cause serious impairments to a person’s quality of life. However, research conducted since the previous SCENIHR opinion adds weight to the conclusion that RF exposure is not causally linked to these symptoms, but awareness of or belief in presence of exposure is sufficient to trigger the symptoms. This appears to be true for the general public, children and adolescents, and people with IEI-EMF. Recent meta-analyses of observational and provocation data support this conclusion.
In their 2015 Opinion they state:
The studies published since the 2009 Opinion show discordant results. However, observational studies suffered from weaknesses and do not provide convincing evidence of an effect of ELF exposure on symptoms in the general population and most experimental evidence also points to the absence of any causal effect.
Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: a systematic review of provocation studies.Rubin GJ, Munshi JD, Wessely S.
BSc, Mobile Phones Research Unit, New Medical School Building, Bessemer Road, London SE5 9PJ, UK. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Objectives: The objectives of this study were to assess whether people who report hypersensitivity to weak electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are better at detecting EMF under blind or double-blind conditions than nonhypersensitive individuals, and to test whether they respond to the presence of EMF with increased symptom reporting. Methods: An extensive systematic search was used to identify relevant blind or double-blind provocation studies. This involved searching numerous literature databases and conference proceedings, and examining the citations of reviews and included studies. The results of relevant studies were tabulated and metaanalyses were used to compare the proportions of "hypersensitive" and control participants able to discriminate active from sham EMF exposures. Results: Thirty-one experiments testing 725 "electromagnetically hypersensitive" participants were identified. Twenty-four of these found no evidence to support the existence of a biophysical hypersensitivity, whereas 7 reported some supporting evidence. For 2 of these 7, the same research groups subsequently tried and failed to replicate their findings. In 3 more, the positive results appear to be statistical artefacts. The final 2 studies gave mutually incompatible results. Our metaanalyses found no evidence of an improved ability to detect EMF in "hypersensitive" participants. Conclusions: 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.
The status of hypersensitivity in Sweden, Finland and France
In Sweden, hypersensitivity is categorised as a "functional impairment" rather than as a disease.
It is not entirely clear exactly what the implications of this are, or whether it implies that hypersensitivity is actually caused by exposure to EMFs or not. It is stated that hypersensitivity has not been accepted as a work injury by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare.
But it does seem to mean that the focus shifts from the person to the environment. With a disease, you tend to ask "what can we do to treat this person?", whereas with a functional impairment, you tend to ask "what can we do to modify the environment so that this person is not restricted so much?".
The Swedish Association for the ElectroSensitive is one of 43 officially recognised disability/handicap organisations in Sweden.
In Finland, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health has added environmental intolerances including electromagnetic hypersensitivity to Finnish ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases) classification.
The classification promotes treatment of the patients and compilation of statistics for environmental intolerances. The classification does not give an entitlement to social security benefits.
STUK have a page about hypersensitivity
In France, a legal case was reported in August 2015. A decision had been made not to pay social welfare family allowance to a lady with hypersensivity symptoms. She appealed against the decision to a court. The court decision recognized that the lady had a sufficient handicap to receive financial help from the social welfare family allowance. As far as we understand, the court decision does not comment on whether the handicap is linked to EHS or not.
European Economic and Social Committee
The EU's European Economic and Social Committee have decided to create an Opinion on hypersensitivity (they are using the acronym EHS, electromagnetic hypersensitivity). This is in response to their perception of growing concerns among the European public, and would serve to raise the profile of the issue, and specifically to encourage the Commission to initiate some action.
A workshop took place on 4 November 2014 in Brussels, Following that, a working group will develop a draft text of the Opinion, with a view to it being adopted in January 2015. At the January Plenary, the Committee adopted a Counter Opinion, from which the following quote is taken:
3.4 EMS sufferers continue to argue that action on their problem, both by Member States and the EU, falls far short of what they believe is necessary. Most public health authorities, however, do not agree ... The great majority of independent trials to date have found that self-described sufferers from EHS cannot distinguish between exposure to real and false (meaning zero) electromagnetic fields. "Double-blind" experiments suggest that people who report electromagnetic hypersensitivity are unable to detect the presence of electromagnetic fields and are as likely to report ill health following a zero exposure, as they are following exposure to genuine electromagnetic fields (British Medical Journal 332 (7546): 886–889).
This condition is sometimes called "electrosensitivity" or "electrical hypersensitivity". Some people think you shouldn't call it that because it implies it definitely is caused by EMFs, and as you can see from this page, that is disputed. A medical term is "ideopathic environmental intolerance". We stick with "hypersensitivity" because that is what the sufferers themselves call it. But terminology, particularly around "disability" and "handicap", can be sensitive, and we apologise if our use of terms offends anyone.