A Primer On Electromagnetic Sensitivity 
by Michael P. Milburn, PhD.
UPdate Winter 1997

     There are a growing number of reports from people around the globe on sensitivity to electromagnetic fields - areas of electric and magnetic energy that surround everyday devices like televisions and hair dryers.  There is a great similarity between the symptoms experienced: often there appears to be a link to chemical sensitivity.

     While most individuals still have trouble getting recognition or treatment for this condition, it has attracted the attention of some researchers.  Several conferences have been held specifically addressing the problem, but scientific understanding and solutions seem a long way off.  It is ironic that the first reported case of electrical sensitivity was that of Nikola Tesla, the Croatin-born American electrical engineer who played a crucial role in the development of modern electronics.

Employment Triggers
     Ottawa resident Pamela Schreiner describes herself as electrically sensitive.  She reports “brain fog” and headaches brought on by sitting in front of a computer screen and feels her electrical sensitivity (ES) was triggered by employment in Vienna, Austria, where she worked for several years surrounded by computer displays in an office close to an electric railway.  She felt very uncomfortable sitting at her desk and at that time lost half her hair.  Pamela also reports being chemically sensitive, noting reactions to perfume and outgassing offices.  “Regular doctors have no idea what to do about ES”, claims Pamela who sought the help of an environmental medicine specialist.  Based on her experiences, she believes “that there is a lot more hope in getting help from complementary medicine with the new ailments we now have in this modern world.”  She has made improvement in her condition after a variety of treatments, including removal of amalgam dental fillings.

     In April of 1994, Ruth Swisher-Schultz, a registered nurse and a University of Wisconsin at Whitewater health administrator, was stricken with headache, dizziness, and nausea to the point where she could no longer function at her workplace.  Ruth links her sudden illness to two events in her Health Center building:  a new energy efficient lighting system had just been installed, and the building had been evacuated due to a “chemical smell”, both around the time her problems appeared.

     In the first hour of working under the new fluorescent lights, she developed a headache and felt uncomfortable.  Symptoms were relieved by turning the lights off in her office, but after exposure in other areas of the building, her symptoms were exacerbated.  Ruth was eventually unable to continue working in her building, and exposures had a cumulative effect.  Her health complaints did not fully resolve, even at home.

     Ruth managed to return to work and cope with her sensitivity by reducing exposure to electromagnetic fields and seeking treatment from an environmental medicine specialist, who treated her for chemical sensitivity, rather than for the electrical sensitivity directly.  Another nurse, who reported a problem with the new lighting, had to give up her hobby as a seamstress, unable to work at her electric sewing machine.

Microwave News
     A New York City-based periodical reporting on research, policy and politics surrounding the human interaction with non-ionizing electromagnetic energy - cited the case of Per Segerback, an engineer at Ellemtel, a Swedish telecommunications firm.  Segerback, one of the most severe of a number of cases of electrical hypersensitivity at the company, progressed from mild computer-induced symptoms like slight nausea and eye irritation in the mid 80’s, to more severe symptoms in the late 80’s.  After spending long hours at his computer workstation, the engineer was stricken with nausea, dizziness and burning skin.

     By early 1990, Segerback was forced to take sick leave.  His condition had deteriorated to the point where hew as unable to sleep in his own electrically-heated home, retiring instead outdoors to a car - even during the cold Swedish winter.  Once, he took vacation with his family on an isolated electricity-free island, but was forced to cut the holiday short because sheep on the island were controlled with an electrified fence.

     Microwave News reported that he has improved, but still cannot live a normal life.  “While he has been able to return to work and is a valued Ellemtel employee, Segerback is limited to a daily routine in which he is confined to moving between a shielded room in his home and a similarly protected office.”  He travels to work in an old Mercedes that, because of its extra length, allows him to sit farther back from the fields created by the engine, and he carefully follows a route away from power lines and transformers.  Helped by engineers from his company, Segerback lowered the fields in one of his home’s rooms to a tolerable level by covering windows and doors with aluminum blinds, ceiling, walls, and floors with special field-reducing sheets, and changing both the wiring and plumbing.

     Based on his wife Ruth’s series of negative experiences with conventional medicine, James Schultz reports that “the mainstream American medical establishment, despite an awareness [of numerous research studies], apparently chooses to view individuals with ES as candidates for neuropsychiatric evaluation”.  In my opinion, it is not the psychological health of those afflicted with electrical sensitivity that needs further study but the mindset of those who choose the road of denial.  Perhaps it is as 19th century philosopher William James said:  “When a thing is new people said - ‘It is not true’.  Later, when its truth became obvious, people said - ‘Anyway, it is not important’.  And when its importance could not be denied, people said - ‘Anyway, it is not new’”.

Clinical Research
     Despite the fact ES is still in the first of the three stages described by William James, some pioneering medical and scientific people are tackling the problem.  William Rea, a medical doctor specializing in the treatment of chemical and electrical sensitivity at the Dallas-based Environmental Health Center, has carried out clinical research on electromagnetic hypersensitivity.  In a 1991 paper published in the Journal of Bioelectricity, for example, Rea and his colleagues reported on an effective method to evaluate electromagnetic field sensitivity of patients.  The scientists and medical personnel created a special environment with low background levels of chemical and electrical contamination.  They tested patients for sensitivity to individual frequencies of electromagnetic energy over a wide range.  Reactive patients were repeatedly sensitive to the same frequencies, leading Rea to conclude that “this study gives strong evidence that electromagnetic field sensitivity exists and can be elicited under environmentally controlled conditions”.

     Supported by the British Environmental Medicine Foundation, Jean Monro, medical director of the Allergy and Environmental Medicine Unit in The Lister Hospital, London, and Cyril Smith, an electrical engineering professor at Salford University, studied the diagnosis and therapy of electrical hypersensitivity.  They used a special test room, exposing patients to individual frequencies in a manner similar to that of Rea and his colleagues in Dallas.  They found people reacted to some frequencies, and that other frequencies “neutralized” all symptoms.  According to Smith and Monroe, “The patients usually find the experience of having their symptoms turned on and off by an external agency quite comforting, particularly if they have been told by many doctors for many years that, ‘It is all in your mind!’”

     One of the most interesting things about this British research was the observation of a cyclical recurrence of symptoms and their neutralization.  That is to say, as patients were tested, starting from low and going to higher frequencies progressively, there would be points that would trigger symptoms and others where they were improved.  There was a precise mathematical relationship (it was logarithmic) between the neutralization frequency and the sequence number (i.e. first, second, third, etc., neutralization frequency).  As the researchers claim, “Such an unusual mathematical function would be almost impossible for a patient to generate by mental arithmetic”, something with which anyone who has studied logarithms would surely agree!

The author would like to hear from anyone with an interest in ES.  He can be contacted through UPdate, or by email at: 103362.3404@compuserve.com

Useful Contacts
Swedish Association for the Electrically and VDT Injured (FEB) Daltorpsgatan
7, S-41273 Goteborg, Sweden  Web page http:www.feb.se

Microwave News
PO Box 1799 Grand Central Station
New York, NY 10163, USA

EMR Alliance
410 West 53rd Street, Suite 402
New York, NY 10019, USA

Arbeitskreis fur Elektrosensible i. V Action Group for Electrically Sensitive Aleestrasse
135 D-44793 Bochum, Germany

Michael P. Milburn, PhD. is a biophysicist and Canadian authority on the effects of non-ionizing radiations.  He is the author of Electromagnetic Fields and Your Health (New Star Books, Vancouver) with Maren Oelbermann.  His consulting firm, ELMAG Research, is based in Waterloo, Ontario.