Electrosensitivity is an alleged energy allergy — a painful, enervating reaction to electromagnetic fields and radiation. It is the basis for paranoia particularly about the health effects of Wi-Fi networks, power lines, and cell phones — fears that top the charts of human irrationality.
Many EMS believers emphatically assert that sources of radiation cause them immediate, acute discomfort — and there’s little doubt that they are suffering, but it is either an unrelated medical condition and/or psychosomatic.1 There are many alternative explanations for their experiences. Nocebo — suffering from belief, and the opposite of a placebo — is a surprisingy potent phenomenon.2 And it’s also probably possible for pain to be a learned response to specific stimuli.3
Of course, there are also many people who believe in electrosensitivity without suffering serious symptoms. They worry about it, and use it a scapegoat for a wide range of health problems without, but it’s not at the epicentre of disabling chronic illness.
Electrosensitivity has been thoroughly debunked, but most effectively by a group of electrosensitives who claimed to be tortured by a radio tower… that had been switched off for six weeks.”4
Not that electrosensitives are above believing that they can be afflicted by inert equipment! A massage therapist I know described a client who not only refused an electric heating pad, but didn’t even want to be close to the unplugged device. This isn’t a garden variety silly belief: it’s a total logical meltdown. If people could actually be so sensitive to electromagnetic fields that they could be hexed by a heating pad’s vibes (let alone an unplugged one), none of them would last a day anywhere in the modern world. It would be an electrosensitive holocaust. They’d vanish in a poof of oversensitive smoke, moths flying into a bonfire!
Meanwhile, ironically, some people believe in magnetic therapy and pay good money to zap themselves with transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machines and lasers! All forms of radiation, of course. People are weird.
A couple of EMS-inspired lawsuits have both failed, one of them because the judge was convinced that EMS is nonsense (while the other was more of a dismissal based on a technicality).
This topic is tangentially related to massage therapy because so many massage therapists believe are keen on healing with life energy. Therapeutic touch is hands-off aura massage, actual touch not included. It is the main example of so-called “energy medicine” and a close cousin of Japanese reiki. It is naked quackery. Auras do not exist and cannot be felt, let alone manipulated therapeutically. See The Myth of Healing Hands for more about that.
Belief in an organizing biological force may be bogus, but it’s easy to see how it almost requires belief in disorganizing forces — bad vibes! Most people who believe that you can heal people by manipulating their chakras also believe that artificial radiation is disruptive. And so a lot of massage therapists believe they are electrosensitives — both positively and negatively — and are actively spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt about artificial energy.
This is an old problem
People had similar fears about power lines and light bulbs more than a century ago, for what that perspective is worth.
Tech spooks people! Always has, probably always will. Nor is that even a particularly irrational fear; in the big picture, it makes sense to be cautious with things we don’t understand. Vintage electrical equipment was actually rather hazardous. So in a way this kind of a bullshit comparison! But not entirely, and it’s certainly interesting.
Closely related: the cancer risks of cell phones, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth
Can you catch cancer from your wireless gadgets? Bottom line: super unlikely. Showering is probably more likely to kill you. Driving definitely is.
There’s near perfect overlap between electrosensitivity paranoia and the fear that cell phones and other wireless gadgets cause cancer. This section was inspired by a discussion with a friend who was anxious about the risks a “powerful” new Wi-Fi router. I decided to dig a little further into this dark topic.5 I do not expect this high-level summary to convince anyone who is convinced that gadget radiation is dangerous, but I sincerely hope that it can reassure a few readers who don’t already have that strongly held opinion.
Dr. Steven Novella summarized the cell phone radiation issue expertly in 2010. That’s quite a while ago now, but very little has changed since then (and I know that Dr. Novella has kept up with the topic and would certainly acknowledge any troubling developments):
Cell phones are an increasingly common tool of modern society. It is certainly necessary and valid to carefully study their safety and monitor for possible adverse health outcomes from their regular use. I am reassured by the current evidence, however, that there is no large risk from cell phones. There is either no risk or a very small long term risk.
Consider, however, that you are probably at greater risk of premature death from using your cell phone while driving, or from driving at all. So as individuals we always need to balance a small risk against the convenience of new technology. The better data we have and the better we understand that data – the better we will be able to make informed decisions for ourselves.
New Data on Cell Phones and Cancer, 2010
Consumer electronics produce extremely low-energy radiation only, even by the standards of non-ionizing radiation (which is already weaker radiation by definition). It just doesn’t have the juice to knock the electrons off anything, so it has no atomic/chemical game — it cannot change anything in living tissue. And you cannot hurt what you cannot change.
For contrast, x-rays are high energy — high enough to not just pass through tissue, but to leave a trail of broken molecules along their path.
Gadget usage is much more common than tumours, so a predictably high percentage of people who get brain cancers are also going to be, say, chronic Bluetooth headset users — and those inevitable statistical collisions are great nightmare fuel for people, but they mean nothing. In other words, it means nothing if you know someone who was a hardcore headset wearer and died of brain cancer. If our gadgets were causing brain tumours, there would have been a truly mighty wave of cancers over the last 10-20 years, and that just has not happened. The epidemiological data shows no clear signal — and that is the main way that we know these devices cannot possibly be very dangerous.
But didn’t 250 scientists sign a petition warning us about the dangers of EMF?
Yes, 250 foolish scientists did that — thanks a lot, foolish scientists! Not helping!
That many scientists signing a petition doesn’t mean much of anything in itself; it does not represent a scientific consensus. You can find 250 scientists who will sign a petition taking the contrary position on almost any controversial subject. There is a long, inglorious history of scientists signing petitions of highly variable value.
The science was not on the side of the scientists in this case.
About Paul Ingraham
I am a science writer in Vancouver, Canada. I was a Registered Massage Therapist for a decade and the assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve had many injuries as a runner and ultimate player, and I’ve been a chronic pain patient myself since 2015. Full bio. See you on Facebook or Twitter., or subscribe:
What’s new in this article?
Jul 8, 2022 — Added more information about non-ionizing radiation and the epidemiology data on wireless gadgets and cancers.
2018 — Added brief note about EMS-inspired lawsuits.
2012 — Publication.
- Sensitization in Chronic Pain — Pain itself can change how pain works, resulting in more pain with less provocation
- Chronic Pain as a Conditioned Behaviour — If pain can be learned, perhaps it can be unlearned
- Placebo Power Hype — The placebo effect is fascinating, but its “power” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
- A Rational Guide to Fibromyalgia — The science of the mysterious disease of pain, exhaustion, and mental fog
Michael McKean’s portrayal of an electrosensitive character in AMC’s TV Series Better Call Saul is truly great work, and it’s also an excellent drama overall.
What’s new in this article?
2020 — Several minor improvements. Some detail was moved to foonotes. Added more information about the role of psychology in EMS.
2012 — Publication.
- Many causes of chronic pain are subtle, and often go undiagnosed for years, or even entire lifetimes (see 35 Surprising Causes of Pain). The sheer number of such sneaky pathologies is not widely appreciated, and neither is the effect that it could have on someone’s mental health. Imagine how medically “paranoid” it might make a person you to be haunted by unexplained pain! Pure psychsomatic illness and pain probably exist, but are relatively rare. Much more often, it’s a witch’s brew of genuine medical distress and psychsomatic complications.
“Nocebo” is roughly the opposite of placebo: harm powered by belief, instead of relief. Latin for “I shall harm” (which I think would make a great supervillain slogan). It refers to the harmful effect of … nothing but the belief in or fear of a harmful effect. Give someone a sugar pill and then convince them you actually just fed them a deadly poison, and you will probably witness a robust nocebo effect. Nocebo is one of the chief hazards of excessive X-raying and MRI scanning: showing people hard evidence of problems that often aren’t actually a problem is a great way to make them suffer.
- Can chronic pain be a “learned response” (classical conditioning) to things that shouldn’t hurt, like Pavlov’s dogs salivating to the ring of a bell? It’s an interesting idea, with obviously optimistic implications, because what is learned might also be un-learned. If so, it’s a bit of a brain hack, a clever and surprising solution around one of the hardest problems there is. It’s a bit unlikely, but so interesting that it’s worth discussing and exploring. See Chronic Pain as a Conditioned Behaviour: If pain can be learned, perhaps it can be unlearned.
Doctorow, Cory. Electrosensitives tortured by a radio tower that had been switched off for six weeks. Jan 15, 2010. BoingBoing.net.
Naturally they dispute that’s what really happened, but only in the exhausting, kooky detail so charmingly characteristic of tinfoil hattery. When you start reading up on stories like this in detail, it becomes clear that frank mental illness — full blown paranoid delusions — should also be considered a possible explanation for the EMS phenomenon.
- Only a little! This is not a comprehensive analysis; there are no citations to primary research, because I am well out of my lane here. But I did run it by an expert, Dr. Rob Tarzwell, a nuclear medicine specialist who has forgotten more about radiation than I will ever know, just to make sure I didn’t make any obvious mistakes. (And I got a hearty thumbs up.)