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When we think about environmental illness, we normally think about Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) or Fibromyalgia. Not much is said about Electrical Sensitivity (ES), which has been around at least as long as these other conditions and is an integral part of the environmental exposures that are making people ill. ES is caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs), which are waves of energy generated by all electrical sources. Common electrical sources of EMFs are all manner of ordinary domestic and office equipment such as microwave ovens and computers screens, as well as electrical transmission systems (power lines on pylons), mobile phones and masts and even household electrical wiring. All these sources create radiation. Currently EMFs are being associated not only with electrical sensitivity but also immune system disorders, cancer, depression, suicide, miscarriage, Alzheimer’s disease and birth defects.
Although less is known about ES, people who experience this report that they develop in much the same way as MCS. An initiating exposure to an electrical field causes the sensitization, which then sets the person up to experience negative health effects in response to any future contact with electrical fields or radiation. Avoidance of electrical fields is then necessary in order to avoid debilitating health reactions. ES is more well known is Europe, due in part to a large active support group in Sweden, a country which has had a large number of cases, primarily related to computer use.
A new book, “The Invisible Disease”, by Gunni Nordstrom (available online at amazon.com or overstock.com), looks at the growing number of ES cases worldwide linked to the increased use of modern appliances. In this book, Nordstrom, a Swedish investigative journalist, makes the connection between a range of illnesses and the chemicals used in the manufacture of modern appliances. She examines the relationship between ES and MCS, highlighting the synergistic effect of EMFs and chemical emissions occurring together. In fact, most heavily used appliances, like computer monitors, televisions and cellular phones, contain dangerous chemicals which are released at the same time the person is exposed to the EMFs. The out-gassing occurs on two levels, first chemicals are released from the new plastics, fire retardants and other materials in the casing and then when the machinery heats up, dangerous chemicals used in the manufacture of electronic circuit boards are also released.
Many people have become ill when exposed to these EMFs, but at a much higher ratio when the equipment is new due to the added chemical emissions. Symptoms of ES may include but are not limited to: headache, eye irritation, light sensitivity, dizziness, nausea, skin rash, facial swelling, weakness, fatigue, pain in joints and/or muscles, buzzing/ringing in ears, skin numbness, abdominal pressure and pain, breathing difficulty, and irregular heartbeat. Additional symptoms have been reported in some individuals such as paralysis, balance problems, body and/or muscle spasms, convulsions, confusion, depression, difficulty in concentrating, seizure, sleep disturbances, and memory difficulties. Many of these symptoms can be found in those suffering from MCS. Like MCS, the most effective treatment is avoidance.
The first known cases of extreme ES were reported from radio operators in the 1950s and since then similar problems have been reported from such sources as computer terminal (monitor) operators, workers in the semiconductor industry, cellular phone users and people living close to power lines and cell phone towers. In typical MCS fashion, the industries involved have downplayed the dangers, the medical establishment has denied the existence of ES, and disabled workers have struggled to get any form of compensation. Research showing the dangers has been discredited by industry spokespeople and researchers have had difficulty getting funding. Like MCS, those afflicted have retreated to lives of quiet desperation in controlled environments.
The cellular phone manufacturers, for instance, have denied that the radiation in their products is dangerous to human health and have classified ES as a psychosomatic condition. So, once again, we humans are unknowingly subjected to a huge experiment in which the stakes can be very high. In Finland, which has the highest density of mobile phones in the world, there is hardly any information available about the health risks. Nearly every schoolchild owns a mobile phone and Nokia directs it’s marketing to this group. Nokia has ignored warnings from researchers that children’s brains should not be exposed to this form of radiation, despite public warnings to this effect in the UK and Germany. Ironically, the only issues that have been discussed in the Finnish media are that the cell phone towers ruin the landscape and that telephone calls disturb classroom concentration.
Another cause for concern is the exponential growth in wireless internet services. While the transmission of radio waves is not new, the radiation in wireless internet transmissions is at a much higher level. Wireless internet services transmit radio waves in a specific area allowing anyone with a computer to access the internet without needing a cable. Wireless “hot spots”, as they are called, have been set up in many corporate buildings and private homes where several computers want to share the internet service. The trend becomes more disturbing when you consider that “hot spots” have also been set up in public places like hotels, retail stores, coffee shops and classrooms. For the most part, a sensitive individual can avoid these existing “hotspots”, but recently the city of Philadelphia was considering making the entire city a “hot spot”, providing wireless internet access for all while exposing the entire population to potential health risks.
So how can you protect yourself from dangerous EMFs without giving up all your necessary appliances? The good news is that by making better choices, limiting your exposures and a little bit of common sense, you can protect yourself from these dangerous fields. Electromagnetic fields can be measured by using a gauss meter available from Less EMF (www.lessemf.com/gauss.html or 1-888-LESS-EMF) starting at about $25. This will help you determine which of your appliances are the worst offenders and a safe distance to keep from them. In general readings below 1.0 milligauss are considered safe, but this will differ according to your sensitivity. Let’s discuss the appliances that you use most:
The main culprit here is the monitor. Conventional monitors generate high levels of EMFs and have caused a lot of health problems. The new LCD screens generate a much smaller amount of radiation and are a lot safer, but it is still advisable to try to sit at a distance of 2-3 feet. One option is a laptop, which comes with an LCD screen, but you don’t want to get too close to it because the housing, which contains the keyboard, is a source of EMFs. To use a laptop, get an external keyboard and mouse so that you can keep a safe distance from the laptop. Another good option is a desktop computer with an LCD screen. Keep the computer tower, printer, or any other attachments as far away as possible. Extra long cords or extensions can be purchased for this purpose. An optical mouse is not recommended, because the internal chip emits EMFs and do not use anything wireless (keyboard, mouse or internet service).
With any new equipment, you may need to let the materials outgas before it is safe to use. Out-gassing the internal components is a lot trickier, because some of the emissions will only occur once the machinery heats up. This makes a good case for used equipment, but you can also leave the equipment on in a closed room for a few days to hasten the internal out-gassing. A safer alternative is a company called Technology Alternatives Corporation (1-800-222-3003 or www.safelevel.com) which sells low and no radiation computers and can provide a shielding service for existing computer monitors and laptops.
Cell phones have a high degree of radiation and should only be used for emergencies preferably with a headset. Cordless phones also use radiation, so avoid these where possible or at the very least use one with a frequency of 900Mhz instead of the new 2.4Ghz and higher, and use a headset or speakerphone. Use a regular wired phone wherever possible, the oldest phones containing the least amount of circuitry. To be really safe you can purchase a Low EMF phone from Less EMF www.lessemf.com or 1-888-LESS-EMF.
Standard TVs generate a lot of EMFs, but most people with ES can tolerate these by sitting as far back as possible. New standard TVs should be used with caution because they contain lots of plastics, fire-retardants and other dangerous chemicals, many of which will only outgas once the circuits heat up. The new LCD televisions give off very little EMFs and there is much less material used in their construction. However, this new technology is very expensive, especially for the bigger units.
Do not use any fluorescent or halogen lamps, because of strong EMFs, flickering and components that outgas. Avoid lamps with plastic-type covers, because these will outgas as the light bulb heats up.
Microwave ovens, hairdryers, vacuum cleaners and electric blankets are among the worst offenders because they are used often and at close range. (Less EMF also sells a low EMF hairdryer). Personal appliances like electric toothbrushes and wireless razors are sources of radiation and are not recommended.
Don’t think all appliances are unsafe. As you move away from these appliances, the EMFs will weaken considerably, making many appliances safe at a distance of 3 feet. Of course, this could vary with your degree of sensitivity. To determine a safe distance, you can use a gauss meter, discussed previously.
EMFs pass right through walls, so check out what's on the other side of your bed. It could be a cordless electric toothbrush, or a television set, or the electrical wiring in the wall itself radiating EMFs into your bedroom. To be safe, use a gauss meter to measure EMFs near your pillow. If the measurement is too high, consider moving your bed to another side of the room.
Eliminate wires running under your bed.
Move any electrical appliances off your bedside table and onto the floor as these are too close to your head for comfort.
Make sure that other electric items like air purifiers, space heaters and stereo systems are a safe distance from your bed.
Nordstrom, Gunni, The Invisible Disease, O Books, 2004
Reed, John, “Solutions to Complex EMF Problems”, Our Toxic Times, September 2004, 29-31
Johansson, O., Blennow, M., et al., A Wireless Future – at what cost?, GöteborgsPosten, 27 December 2000
Are Cell Phones Safe?, Consumer Reports, 2/03
Grant, Lucinda, Electrical Sensitivity as an Emerging Illness, Townsend Letter for Doctors & patients, #179, 1997
Are EMFs Hazardous to Our Health? - Dr Mercola's website.
ElectoSensitivity - UK - UK Association for the Electrically Hypersensitive
The Environmental Resource - Electrical Sensitivity
The EI Wellspring - Coping with Chemical & Electrical Sensitivity
FEB - Swedish Association for the ElectroSensitive
EMR Network - Citizens & Professionals for the Responsible Use of Electromagnetic Radiation
Disclaimer: Electrical Sensitivity is a complex issue and the information in this document has been simplified to educate the reader, but it is not a substitute for medical, legal or other professional advice.
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