the daily stirrer

Is Technology Killing Us? Electrosensitivity, the 21st century disease

by Ian R Thorpe
Is modern life making us ill? Yes, say those who suffer from electrosensitivity. Are they cranks, or should we all be throwing away our mobile phones? Well that might be a bit extreme, but maybe we should be thinking about how we use all our wireless gadgets.
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Is Technology Killing Us? Electrosensitivity, the 21st century disease

by Ian R Thorpe

Tim Hallam, does not wear a tinfoil hat. Tim sleeps in a custom-made silver-coated sleeping bag however. It helps block out electromagnetic fields.

A tall enough gangly man he sleeps in a small bedroom that sems as if it was designed for a doll's house. The narrow bed is covered with a silver mosquito net, except protection from malaria carrying mosquitos is not a high priority in Britain and why would such a net be made of a fine metal mesh? Even stranger the door and the ceiling are lined with tinfoil. There is also a layer of conductive foil beneath the wallpaper and under the wood-effect flooring. He says, "The room is completely insulated; the edges are sealed with aluminium tape and connected with conducting tape The whole room is a Faraday cage. Grounding helps with the low frequencies radiation, apparently. The high frequencies just bounce off the outside."

Now many readers who are naive enough to think the government is their friend and would never tell them anything that is not absolutely true will probably have decided Tim is one of those nutty conspiracy theorists who believes evil forces are beaming electronic signals into our brains so that they may control our thoughts.

In fact Tim is trying to escape atmospheric manmade radiation caused by Wi-Fi, phone signals, radio, even TV screens and fluorescent bulbs because he suffers from a condition known as electrosensitivity. He reckons to have spent about £1,000 on insulation, taking photographs at every stage to share with others via ElectroSensitivity UK, the society for sufferers. He found the whole process stressful, especially after a summer sleeping in the garden of his shared house in Leamington Spa to escape a new flatmate's powerful Wi-Fi router. How did he feel about the flatmate at the time? "Oh, I hated him. It wasn't really him, of course. But I was so angry." Among the symptoms Tim experiences – headaches, muscular pain, dry eyes – there are memory lapses and irritability. He now says his bed is the single most important thing he owns. "I climb in and zip it up so I'm completely sealed. Inside, I sleep extremely well. Without it, my sleep is fragmented, and without sleep, then lots of other things go wrong."

The effectiveness of the tinfoil as an insulator is surprising, using a radiation detector called Elektrosmog, manufactured in Germany Tim likes to show people the difference in radiation levels in his room with the door open and then closed. Once the door is shut the room is radiation free.

A 1970s BBC science-fiction serial called The Changes, imagined a future after humans became allergic to electricity. Could it be coming true? High voltage overhead cables were depicted as the greatest danger. This was not entirely a fiction, since the 1960s, low frequency radiation from overhead cables had been associated in many studies - see for yourself [ here ] and [ here ] and [ here ] or do a little research of your own, try searching with with the phrase "overhead cables" and add keywords like illness, cancer, "harmful effects". The idea that electromagnetic fields affect our health took root in the 1960s. A US doctor named Robert O Becker began to campaign against high voltage overhead power lines, appearing on the US TV show 60 Minutes to talk about his concerns. Professor Andrew Marino, now of Louisiana State University, was Becker's lab partner. Marino says, "He's the reason nobody wants to live near power lines."

Naturally the Science Inquisition denounced him as a heretic and produced hundreds of research papers funded by corporate money to refute his claims. Their studies were carried out over too short a period, a short, sharp burst of intense radiation is probably less harmful than prolonged exposure to low levels of radiation (How a banana a day is more harmful that Fukushima nuclear power station disaster)and as usual ingored the word that invalidates so much modern scientific research, susceptibility. Different people have widely diverse levels of tolerance.

If electromagnetic radiation is dangerous to humans (nobody would claim radiation from nulclear waste of fall out from a nuclear weapon is safe and basically it's the same stuff), there are far more risks now than 40 years ago, thanks to the telecommunications industry. More than a billion people worldwide own mobile phones. In the UK, there are more mobile contracts than people. The new 4G spectrum will cover 98% of the country, erasing all but the most remote "not spots".

Dr Mireille Toledano runs Cosmos, a 30-year, five-nation study into the effects of telecoms radiation on humans. She knows how rapidly things are changing. In 2000, a 10-year study into mobile phones and brain tumours pegged heavy use at 30 minutes a day. In the UK, Toledano says, "heavy use is now defined at 86 minutes a day; 30 minutes is in the median range. Across the whole [international Cosmos study], the top 10% of users have now clocked up 4,160 or more hours."

The earlier study found no evidence linking phone use and cancer in the short term, yet as our love affair with technology keeps deepening, anxieties grow. Two years ago, the European Assembly passed Resolution 1815, which, among other things, calls for restrictions on Wi-Fi in schools and the use of mobile phones by children. The World Health Organisation has classified electromagnetic fields of the kind used in mobile telephony as Group 2b carcinogens – that is, as possibly cancerous.

The issue of electromagnetic sensitivity is highly political. It places sufferers and the general public who may not yet be suffering actual harm on one side of a battle line while on the other side are big business that profit from promoting the use of technology and the governments that profit from leasing wavelengths. The phrase, " canaries in the coal mine" describes the situation of the public, even if we choose not to use a mobile phone or to shun wi fi in our homes (old fashioned copper cable is highly efective) electrosensitivity sufferers, with a radpid increase in their numbers to inform them, believe we are approaching a tipping point. Tim Hallam worries about the effects of electromagnetic fields on the most vulnerable: on his sister's young family; on children in schools bathed in Wi-Fi rays; or old people in sheltered accommodation, each with their own internet router. "I think it's affecting everyone's cells. There are test-tube experiments which show it damages DNA and affects the blood-brain barrier. I think there's going to be a surge in the people who are sensitive in years to come."

Yet electro hypersensitivity syndrome is controversial. Sweden recognises EHS as a "functional impairment", or disability, but it is the patients, not doctors, who make the diagnosis. The fact is, everyone who suffers from EHS is self-diagnosed – and each has their own story to explain the cause of their problems. This is partly because as with so many things in modern life, many factors could be at work and partly because The Science Inquisition will launch a witch hunt against anybody they can exert influence over who dares to challenge the usual "nothing to worry about, it's just nutty conspiracy theorists" delection of serious debate.

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