Friday, April 10, 2015

Journalists puzzle over sufferers with symptoms imagined to stem from electromagnetic radiation

Journalists puzzle over sufferers with symptoms imagined to stem from electromagnetic radiation

Though science shows that causes must lie elsewhere, the electronic age often takes the “electrosensitivity” blame.

In February, a publicist enthused online over the “latest news” about the TV show Better Call Saul: “Hotshot lawyer Chuck has taken a sabbatical to deal with a debilitating and unspecified condition. While it’s not explicitly named in the show, it appears that Chuck is lumbered with EHS (electro-hypersensitivity) or ES (electrosensitivity) as some sufferers call it.” By hyping the condition to hype the show, the publicist joined others in the media who spread misinformation about imaginary dangers from non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation.
Soon the Guardian brought in the actual science under the headlined question “Better Call Saul: Is electromagnetic hypersensitivity a real health risk?” No, it’s not, according to multiple scientific investigations, though that doesn’t mean people aren’t afflicted somehow while steadfastly believing that electromagnetic fields (EMF) inflict their maladies. The Guardian, noting that some journalists and politicians regularly mislead the public about the actual science or omit it altogether, described the affliction:
It’s an unusual condition, but Chuck is not alone. In the UK, around 4% of people report that they experience unpleasant symptoms due to exposure to electromagnetic fields given out by mobile phones, Wi-Fi routers, TVs and so on. In severe cases, it can ruin people’s lives, making them unable to work in computer-filled offices, enter shops with fluorescent lights or visit friends or family whose homes are filled with electronics. In the most extreme—and rare—cases, affected people withdraw from modern society almost entirely, living in isolated caravans or remote communities in “EMF-free zones.”
Whatever it’s called—electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) or just electrosensitivity—it’s not a new biophysics issue. In 2005, the World Health Organization found that the most commonly experienced symptoms attributed to it include dermatological ones (“redness, tingling, and burning sensations”) as well as “neurasthenic and vegetative” ones (“fatigue, tiredness, concentration difficulties, dizziness, nausea, heart palpitation, and digestive disturbances”). But the WHO stipulated that these are “not part of any recognized syndrome,” and concluded:
EHS is characterized by a variety of non-specific symptoms that differ from individual to individual. The symptoms are certainly real and can vary widely in their severity. Whatever its cause, EHS can be a disabling problem for the affected individual. EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem.
In 2010, the journal Bioelectromagnetics reported that despite sufferers’ certitude “that their symptoms are triggered by exposure to electromagnetic fields, repeated experiments have been unable to replicate this phenomenon under controlled conditions.” In 2013, the PLOS ONE article “Idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields: A content analysis of British newspaper reports” said that “double-blind experiments have found no convincing evidence that electromagnetic fields cause these symptoms.” It condemned “widespread poor reporting” in the media.
Sometimes articles about electrosensitivity briefly acknowledge the science while concentrating on implying or even promoting acceptance of sufferers’ beliefs. Last month under the headline “What it’s like to be allergic to Wi-Fi,” New York Magazine published an interview with one of “those who suffer from acute symptoms” and who “would beg to differ” with the science. Figuratively, the magazine gave the interviewee a microphone so she could differ at length.
In 2011 at the Telegraph, the article “Meet the woman allergic to electricity” carried the subhead “A British woman cannot use an electric kettle, keeps her washing machine in a concrete outhouse and cannot have neighbours with wireless internet because she is allergic to electricity.” Allergic to electricity? The credulous piece ended with the misleading science claim that “the medical profession has been slow to recognise electrosensitivity as an illness as its causes are as yet unknown” and with this mention of still more credulity: “The Council of Europe Committee on Monday called for a dramatic reduction in exposure to phones and other wireless devices.”
In 2014, a similar Telegraph article made sure to report the actual science, but two days later in the US, Fox News covered the same material in the article “British grandmother paints house to defend against Wi-Fi, cell signals.” Fox presented electrosensitivity as an open possibility and danger.
With some skepticism, Slate, the WashingtonianArs Technica, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and others have focused in a puzzled way on the few dozen people who have fled to the West Virginia neighborhood of the Green Bank radio telescope, where electromagnetic fields are limited because they can hamper scientific observations. The area attracts people who believe electromagnetic radiation inflicts their maladies. Sometimes the media coverage of those sufferers, and of others elsewhere, surveys theories about the actual causes of the symptoms—for example, a February piece at BBC. A 2013 New Yorker articleexplained “the ‘nocebo effect,’ the placebo effect’s malevolent Mr. Hyde”:
With placebos (“I will please” in Latin), the mere expectation that treatment will help brings a diminution of symptoms, even if the patient is given a sugar pill. With nocebos (“I will harm”), dark expectations breed dark realities. In clinical drug trials, people often report the side effects they were warned about, even if they are taking a placebo.
In the 24 March weekly Science Times section of the New York Times, science writer George Johnson examined the financial costs of litigation in New Mexico about electrosensitivity. The side citing actual science eventually won the appealed lawsuit, but not before the litigation generated documents that would stack to six feet, with court costs—not even including lawyers’ fees—at more than a thousand dollars per inch. Johnson observed that the case “shows how two of civilization’s great bodies of thought—the scientific and the legal—can make for an uneasy mix.”
The New Yorker piece spoke of “a direct line between irresponsible journalism and health problems.” The PLOS ONE article urged scientists to “remain engaged with the media to counteract this effect.” But maybe the last word should go to Ars Technica, which highlighted an anonymously offered online comment, an anecdote about electrosensitivity and a new cellphone tower:
A public hearing was held, with engineers from the phone company responsible for the tower present. After an hour or so of people listing the ailments they’d been suffering since the tower went up, one of the engineers stood up and said “That all sounds terrible. But I have to admit I’m going to be curious to see what happens when we actually connect it and turn it on.”
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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