Electrosensitivity is an alleged energy allergy — an allergic 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. There’s little doubt that the afflicted are suffering, but it is either an unrelated medical condition or psychosomatic. Electrosensitivity has been thoroughly debunked, but most effectively by this incident: “Electrosensitives tortured by a radio tower that had been switched off for six weeks.” (Naturally they dispute that’s what really happened, but only in the exhausting, kooky detail so charmingly characteristic of tinfoil hattery.)
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 themself with transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machines! 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.
If Wi-Fi actually needed warnings like this, the world would have already been brought to its knees by a pandemic of Wi-Fi powered illness.
Closely related: cell phones and cancer
There’s also strong overlap between electronsensitivity paranoia and the fear that cell phones cause cancer. It’s likely that a very high percentage of electrosensitives also believe that EM fields and radiation will cause cancer. Dr. Steven Novella summarizes the issue expertly:
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.
P.S. I am really enjoying Michael McKean’s portrayal of an electrosensitive character in AMC’s TV Series Better Call Saul. Truly great work, and an excellent drama overall.
About Paul Ingraham
I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.
What’s new in this article?
2018 — Added brief note about EMS-inspired lawsuits.