Electrosensitivity caused by chronic nervous system arousal – Dr Roy Fox
A gastroenterologist by training and professor of geriatrics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Dr Roy Fox speaks from experience. In 1990-1991, he was among more than 600 people who became ill because of indoor air quality problems at Camp Hill Medical Centre, near Halifax. The major cause of their illness was thought to be neurotoxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), specifically mixtures of amines added to the boiler for their anticorrosive properties, accidentally introduced into the hospital’s environment for humidification purposes.
“Lessening of ES appeared to parallel improvement in health and reduction of chemical sensitivity… In the [few] patients where this has been identified as a major factor, addressing total body [pollutant] load or the use of desensitization techniques to lessen chemical sensitivity and allergy has resulted in significant amelioration of ES symptoms’’, Dr Fox wrote in a paper presented at the 1997 Annual International Symposium on Man and his Environment, which focused on bioelectricity. He explained how those poisoned at Camp Hill were affected: “The negatively charged amines have a more profound effect on membrane functions such as permeability. These changes in membrane function (…) are likely to result in altered function and altered electromagnetic characteristics.’’
In 1994, Dr Fox was appointed Interim Director of the new Nova Scotia Environmental Health Centre, a 2-million-dollar state-of-the-art facility built by the province with ceramic tiles and other healthy building materials tolerated by chemically sensitive patients. He was appointed Director in 1997 and today he is Medical Director. The Centre, part of the Capital District Health Authority and renamed the Integrated Chronic Care Service, specializes in the treatment of individuals with complex chronic conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and acquired environmental sensitivities.
Chemical and electromagnetic sensitivities share common characteristics with other conditions that are largely due to environmental assaults on the nervous system, such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, Dr Fox said in an interview. In 2010, an estimated 5% of Canadians suffered from at least one or a combination of MCS, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue and many of them are too sick to work full time, according to a study co-written by family physician Lynn Marshall of the University of Toronto and president of the Environmental Health Institute of Canada.
In 1999, six consensus criteria were identified by researchers for the diagnosis of MCS, which can be triggered by an acute or chronic chemical exposure:
• Symptoms are reproducible with repeated exposures.
• The condition has persisted for a significant period of time.
• Levels of exposure lower than commonly tolerated result in increased sensitivity.
• The symptoms improve or resolve completely when the triggering chemicals are removed.
• Responses often occur to multiple chemically unrelated substances.
• Symptoms involve multiple organs.
The same criteria can be applied to EHS, according to Dr Fox. “I see chemical and EMF sensitivities not as separate and unique illnesses, but as the manifestation of a common underlying change in the central nervous system. In the literature, central sensitivity or sensitization syndrome appears be a pathophysiological change that accounts for MCS, migraines, irritable bowel and bladder, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and difficult to treat chronic pain. Those affected have a lower threshold [of tolerance to various stressors] and higher excitation within the nervous system. Reviews on central sensitization were written in the USA by professor of rheumatology Muhammad B. Yunus. A whole variety of things keep this sensitization going, such as infection, endocrine dysfunction, environmental stress, psychosocial stress or chronic joint inflammation. Patients learn to limit their reactivity by avoiding the environmental triggers.’’
But he understands why doctors tend to pose such a diagnosis: “It’s very difficult when there is no objective confirmation or immediate treatment.’’ But he adds that while the cause of environmental diseases is not psychological, “you can’t ignore the psychological impact of suddenly becoming sensitive to things you use daily in modern life. We have patients where psychological issues are important, but a very small number, fewer than 5%, where there is a clear psychiatric diagnosis which is the most important clinical feature. This is no more than in the general population. However in the other 95%, psychological issues may be contributing to their ill health and limiting their potential to heal. We can help if we lower the stress of isolation, financial problems, etc. When the nervous system is in a high state of arousal where you react to the environment, it’s interpreted as being anxious. But any kind of health problem that compromises the body’s overall ability to function in a cohesive, normal way is a stress and alters nervous system function. Threats to the person switch the nervous system into a high state of arousal leading to overprotective responses. Heightened sensitivity is really an over-protective self-protection mechanism. Vulnerability to environmental stress varies and different people are affected in different ways. Multiple body systems are usually involved and most of our patients have multiple diagnoses.’’
Dr Fox has seen patients with major problems with electrohypersensitivity, also known as microwave sensitivity or electric sensitivity. But he says it’s indeed a very difficult thing to prove by exposing patients to EMFs in a laboratory, as Drs Rea and Marino have achieved. “I tried here in the Center but it’s very difficult to exclude the presence of EMFs in the modern world.’’ A colleague at the Microwave/RF and Wireless Research Laboratory in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Dalhousie University has a chamber where microwave intrusion can be eliminated. “However, we found it very difficult to test our patients there: its building materials are very smelly and off-gas pollutants that made them sick.’’
People who are in a constant state of nervous system arousal suffer the most. “When they get additional exposure, what happens is the nervous system, which is a very complex network, goes from order into a state of chaos. What we take for granted as humans becomes disrupted: they get brain fog, uncomfortable sensory experiences in parts of the body, pain, incoordination, anticipation and fear.’’ He compares our reaction to the ever rising levels of background EMFs with putting the proverbial frog in a pot of slowly heating water where it stays and gets cooked. Most people have adapted and tolerated the progressive increase and stayed in the pot, whereas today the high peaks of pulsating RFs are making more and more people jump out as if they were in boiling water.
Dr Gilles Thériault, a professor of occupational epidemiology at McGill University and a clinician at the Montreal Chest Institute’s Environmental Health Clinic, is one of Quebec’s rare medical experts on EMFs. He disagrees with ICEMS scientists and the coauthors of the most recent BioInitiative 2012 report (including his McGill colleague physicist Paul Héroux) who say EMFs may well cause or foster many diseases including cancer. Last year, Dr Thériault wrote us by email: “I am still of the opinion that there is no scientific evidence to justify worrying about the effect of EMF on human health. I am also of the opinion that there is a lack of knowledge and I regret that there is little financial resource for such studies to be conducted by independent researchers. About electrosensitivity, I see patients in the clinic and in a large proportion, they carry diseases whose symptoms they attribute to EMF or RF exposure. Our role is to direct them towards adequate clinical care to treat their underlying diseases.’’ Dr Thériault also wrote us that the last thing he tells his patients is to avoid exposing themselves to the pollutants they believe are harming them, to avoid aggravating their fear and perceived intolerance of their environment.
The challenge is that EMFs are ubiquitous and that since the turn of the century, more and more people say they are particularly hypersensitive to microwave emissions from cell phones, other wireless devices, including cell towers, radio, television and radar antennas located one to several kilometres away. For one, Dr Gro Harlem Brundland, the former Premier of Norway and former Executive Director of the World Health Organization, says she gets headaches from cell phones located 3 to 4 meters away and turned on but not even in use. (Here is her story which she recounted to Magda Havas in front of an Ontario audience in April 2012.)
Dr Marshall’s group at the University of Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital has the same approach. As its website states: “We at the Environmental Health Clinic are of the opinion that the true safety limits for wireless computers (Wi-Fi) and cell phones are not yet known, so it would be wise to exercise precaution. Toronto Public Health has information on this topic and a fact sheet – Cell phone Use by Children and Youth.’’ This fact sheet states about radio frequency (RF)/microwave exposure: “…in light of the limitations of the research, we cannot rule out the possibility that children require greater protection from RF exposure. In 2005, TPH began to promote parents’ awareness of the need to minimize children’s use of cell phones among other important practices (…) Consistent with messages from the British Department of Health, Toronto Public Health is recommending that children, especially pre-adolescent children, use landlines whenever possible, keeping the use of cell phones for essential purposes only, limiting the length of cell phone calls and using headsets or hands-free options, whenever possible.’’ Dr Fox goes even further and says: “We need regulations and exposure limits, for example, so children don’t spend hours on cell phones.’’
Despite the lack of scientific consensus over the causes and cures of environmental illnesses, Dr Fox’s team’s approach has been supported by the Nova Scotia government and population: “Over the years, there has been much controversy, but we seem to have more acceptance because people have seen we are trying to help people with a rational approach. For a lot of things, we don’t have much scientific evidence to help our understanding.’’