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Mobile phones and electrosensitivity, again

When I wrote about electrosensitivity for PC Plus a few months back, I mentioned that while every study to date had found no evidence that the condition was anything other than psychological, a key study at Essex University was taking place to look even more closely at the issues. The results are in, and guess what? There’s still no evidence that electrosensitivity is anything other than a psychological condition.

There’s much more here at Bad Science, and of course the newspapers are beginning to cover it too (although probably not on their front pages, I suspect).

Usual disclaimer here: I think that people who believe they are electrosensitive are indeed suffering. But while they believe that electromagnetic fields, particularly those from Wi-Fi and mobile phones, are causing their condition, there’s absolutely no evidence to support that claim. And the more scientists look at it, the more solid the “it’s got nothing to do with electromagnetic fields” case becomes. Something is making them sick, but it could be the nocebo effect: if you believe something will make you ill (mobile masts, a gypsy curse, a black cat crossing the road the wrong way) then it may well make you ill.

Aaaanyway. Comment number one on the Daily Mail’s report on the study, which notes that this is one of the largest and most detailed studies into electrosensitivity, is:

“In the short term at least.”

Note these words.

What about the long term?

*Sigh*

Update

The BBC quote from Powerwatch is interesting:

“So whilst it cannot be entirely ruled out that a small minority are truly sensitive, the proportions of any truly sensitive people are likely to be far lower than the 3% – 35% that has been quoted.”

Credit where credit’s due, that’s a decent response.

Even assuming that some people are genuinely electrosensitive (which I very much doubt), the research says the majority of ES sufferers are ill because of psychological factors. Hopefully some common sense will prevail and we can actually start treating them and making them better instead of chasing after electronic bogeymen.

27 replies on “Mobile phones and electrosensitivity, again”

the majority of ES sufferers are ill because of psychological factors.

Fookin’ barmy, the lot of ’em.

It’s like weird food preferences. I’ve noticed that the more, shall we say, psychologically fragile a person is, the more likely they are to have really weird beliefs about what food does to them, and to follow some strange diet that they believe is required to keep them healthy. I sometimes wonder if the diet isn’t what’s making them nuts.

Yeah, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy really.

It strikes me that the ES thing (or any other related thing, eg belief in quackery) is ultimately about faith. Which is why it’s so hard to argue against it.

Sorry, meant to add this as well. In some respects it’s like creationism – knock down one argument with “facts” and “evidence” and the argument simply looks for another apparent gap to hide in. So for *ages* we’ve heard that electrosensitives are immediately and dramatically ill in the presence of EMFs, that they can tell when the fields are present and so on. 32 (?) studies demolish that, and now it’s “ah, but what about the long term effects?” Hang on, I though this was an immediate and dramatic reaction?

The whole subject makes me bloody depressed, it really does. I feel sorry for the people who think they’re affected but that’s countered with real anger at irresponsible reporting.

As ever, someone on bad science does a better job of explaining my point. Over to elfy:

Troy’s argument reminds me of the hit-and-run attacks of creationists on evolutionary biologists, whereby any time someone explains something they’ve been using as proof of creationist theories – say, blood clotting – through evolutionary means they don’t concede the point, they just move on to find something that’s not yet been explained. It’s the great advantage of relying on anecdote and gut instincts over data. Show that WiFi doesn’t cause electrosensitivity symptoms and they’ll say that the sufferers who claimed it did may have been suffering purely from psychosomatic effects, but that doesn’t mean those sufferers blaming mobile phones are. Which is true, but at what point do you accept that if there IS a shown psychosomatic cause to these problems and there ISN’T anything to show it’s caused by the EMF itself then maybe, just maybe, it’s like that for the entire range of symptoms?

I liked Ben Goldacre’s comment:

“Cat sits next to geriatric residents, they die hours later. It’s not predicting anything. IT’S KILLING THEM.”

> I’ve noticed that the more, shall we say, psychologically fragile a person is, the more likely they are to have really weird beliefs about what food does to them, and to follow some strange diet that they believe is required to keep them healthy.

Didn’t you go on the drinking-spoonfuls-of-vegetable-oil diet for a while?

tell that to your ready meal next time you microwave it . or how about a nice big dose of x rays to cure you of your scepticism .better yet why not a nice long holiday in chernobyl ?

You might as well say “tell that to a man who’s been trampled by a horse!” Lots of things are radioactive, but not all radiation changes cell structures. X-rays do. Wi-Fi doesn’t.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in why microwaves cook things but wi-fi doesn’t, the answer is power output. Microwave ovens kick out several hundred watts, but Wi-Fi transmissions are in milliwatts. So microwave ovens are the laser beams to wi-fi’s lightbulbs.

>>tell that to your ready meal next time you microwave it . or how about a nice big dose of x rays to cure you of your scepticism .better yet why not a nice long holiday in chernobyl ?

You really, really don’t understand what you’re on about, do you? I’m not claiming to know much about electromagnetic radiation and if any of the following is wrong I’m sure I’ll be corrected.

Microwaves *are* roughly the same as wi-fi. They are radio waves at a frequency of about 2.4-2.5GHz. Microwave ovens work by sending out microwaves at very high power. These sort of waves have the property of making molecules of fat and water heat up. When things heat up, their properties change and cook. Microwave ovens give out somewhere in the region of about 600-1000 Watts. The higher you set the power output, the faster things will cook.

Theoretically wi-fi would do the same.

If you’ve got a microwave oven that does 1000W. If you turn it down to 500W then your food would take twice the time to cook. (roughly). If you could turn it down to 250W then it would double again. Drop it to 125W and the same thing happens (These are all guestimates – in real life it wouldn’t be as neat a figure!) Say your microwave lasagne takes 3 minutes at 1000W. You’re already up to about 20 minutes. By the time you are down to about 1W you are looking at over 2 days to cook you lasagne. At that is assuming it’s in there constantly and doesn’t lose all it’s heat to the atmosphere or any other factors (which obviously it would). If you were to leave the lasagne out in your kitchen for 2 days it would dry up and spoil. Not dissimilar to being cooked but not as tasty. So your microwave would have about the same effect as leaving it sitting in the atmosphere. Except it wouldn’t because all the heat would have been lost before it could have actually cooked the food.

When you’re microwaving it also makes a difference in time based on size. Again, it is about double the time for double the weight. Say your lasagne was about 400g. If it was about 800g it would be about 6 minutes. 1600g would be 12ish, 3.2kg 24mins, 6kg would be about 50. 12kg 100, 24kg 200, 50kg 400minutes. Something like that. So with your 1W microwave you would need about 250 days or so. I weigh well over 50kg so it would take me well over a year to cook (if all the heat wasn’t lost to the atmosphere – which it would be). Your 1W microwave is *still* much more powerful than the most powerful wi-fi installations. So if you wrap yourself up so that absolutely no heat can escape and stand for 2 years or so (spinning slowly to make sure it’s even) in front of the most powerful wi-fi transmitter you can find you will possibly cook. Emphasis on the possibly. You would cook much faster being outdoors during the day in winter from heat from the sun.

You also mention X-rays in your post. Because X-rays are also electromagnetic radiation. And everyone knows that X-rays are very dangerous. Ergo all electromagnetic radiation is very dangerous. Good argument. It kinda misses the fact that X-rays are at the very opposite end of the spectrum from wi-fi radiation and to get from one to the other you have to pass through all visible light. Which is also electomagnetic radiation. Aaargh!! Visible light is electromagnetic radiation too so it must be dangerous!!!! Come to think of it – Radio is electromagnetic radiation as well. Waves from Radio 2 are currently passing through my body. So is Radio 1 and all the other stations. I’ve even got a detector here and so I can prove it. Aaargh!!!!

Mentioning Chernobyl makes absolutely no sense in this context in the slightest. Yes, there will likely by higher exposure to gamma radiation immediately surrounding the site (which is not dissimilar to X-rays) but I would’ve thought that the main risk would be imbibing particles of radioactive isotopes which emit beta or alpha radiation which would make you die very horribly (like that lityenvenko bloke) which may have contaminated stuff.

I love a good random rant. ;-)

>>So microwave ovens are the laser beams to wi-fi’s lightbulbs.

Not really. The difference between lightbulbs and lasers is that laser send a concentrated beam of light that barely loses power over distance and lightbulbs send light in a very disorganised fashion in random directions that don’t travel well. At about a metre you’ve lost about 100,000 times more energy from the lightbulb than the laser. At 100m it is even more.

I can’t think of an analogy for this one. Sticking with the laser thing – wi-fi is like a laser pointer and microwave ovens are like the thing the death-star used to destroy that planet in star wars. Wi-fi is like a slight drizzle and a microwave is like having the entire atlantic ocean dropped on your head at once. Comparing wi-fi to X-rays is more fun. Wi-fi is like a balloon sitting in a pool of water and X-rays are like being bludgeoned to death with a kettle full of custard.

Wi-fi is like a balloon sitting in a pool of water and X-rays are like being bludgeoned to death with a kettle full of custard.

I can’t believe I didn’t use such an obvious analogy.

>>>So microwave ovens are the laser beams to wi-fi’s lightbulbs.

Not really.

Well, actually lasers produce all of their light at a single (or closely related group of) wavelength(s). The very high directionality is usually a result of the conditions needed to engineer the reactions that lasers rely on. The combination of a single very distinct colour and it’s very high directionality are what make lasers stand out.

An ordinary light bulb produces light at all energies up to it’s maximum – resulting in a spectrum which of course then appears white. A sodium streetlight on the other hand produces a very limited set of wavelengths too – just by heating which doesn’t result in directionality.

You *can* make an analogy out of that – something along the lines of one is single energy, focused and therefore potentially dangerous, the other is useful walking home from the pub – but you probably have to explain too much science first to make it worthwhile… ;-)

>> I’ve noticed that the more, shall we say, psychologically fragile a person is, the more likely they are to have really weird beliefs about what food does to them, and to follow some strange diet that they believe is required to keep them healthy.

>Didn’t you go on the drinking-spoonfuls-of-vegetable-oil diet for a while?

I did. But I did it because (a) there was research to support the hypothesis that tasteless calories do not increase the body’s set point, and thus it was not a weird belief, and (b) I did it to lose weight, not to rid myself of some imagined ailment.

i agree i was being deliberately provocative but i am sick of these freakin know nothing journalists preaching about things that have yet to be determined safe or otherwise.i agree that gary doesn’t fit into this category so maybe my ire was misplaced , however i once owned a mobile phone that would cook your head if used long enough and it kinda put me off mobile phones . of course the manufacturers will say it’s safe but then they would . you can make your experiments show pretty much whatever you like if you so choose . we all know how bees were unable to fly until scientists recently discovered vortices , poor things having to walk everywhere . lets not be so sure of ourselves .
if you caught ‘cooking in the danger zone’ on the bbc you may understand why i mentioned chernobyl , the guy who was responsible for testing would complain of headaches if in the high risk zone for a while . whilst everyone else was surprisingly relaxed about everything. this apart from the risk of ingesting isotopes seemed to correlate to sensitivity to gamma radiation, apart from turning green and smashing things up . also i agree that i do not pick up radio 2 on my fillings or anything similar but equally i would not want to get close to the transmitter as we all know about the inverse square law . i am less concerned about wi fi than mobile phones for this reason , i also don’t like bluetooth – i just don’t , it make me feel all antsy. maybe it takes a large exposure to sensitise you or maybe i am just mad

i am sick of these freakin know nothing journalists preaching about things that have yet to be determined safe or otherwise.

But it’s the scaremongerers who are in the majority. Remember all those stories the other month about mobile phone masts killing bees? Little piece in the paper yesterday: the culprit has been discovered. And it’s a parasite, not anything electronic or electromagnetic. I’m willing to bet that most of the papers who ran the original scare won’t run the facts.

> we all know how bees were unable to fly until scientists recently discovered vortices

Sorry, which company was it again that had a vested interest in convincing us of that? And did they?

sorry mate , i was referring to the old in joke amongst physics students that it was mathematically impossible for a bumble bee to fly , thus saying something about the nature of empirical evidence or something vaguely sarcastic , i don’t care anymore . can’t we just spam that stupid hippie from eco worrier in the times ? she is the one i was annoyed at when i wrote the original comment . ( without prejudice .)

Yeah, I knew what you were referring to. The bumble-bee factoid, as it happens, is an illustrative example of how bad science becomes common “knowledge”.

It was originally a back-of-the-envelope sort of a calculation, based on the same principles used in aircraft design: surface-area of wing compared to mass of body. It was assumed that the flapping of the wings would have no effect on that ratio.

The very reason the factoid became so widely accepted was that the details were never given. It was always simply “According to the known laws of physics…” never “Assuming that the flapping of the wings has no effect…” If a proper paper had been published which stated that bumble-bees shouldn’t be able to fly if you assume that their flapping their wings has no effect on how much mass wings of that surface-area can carry, the immediate, obvious, and correct response of every single person who read it would have been “Oh, well flapping the wings must have an effect, then.”

And the interesting thing was that, because everyone “knew” that bumble-bees couldn’t fly according to the laws of physics, everyone assumed the maths had already been done, when it really hadn’t. And that assumption delayed for years the research that gave rise to the discovery of vortices.

So it’s interesting that you raise this example, because one side in the dangerous-radiation debate publishes proper papers which give all the details and underlying assumptions of their research, and one side doesn’t. It doesn’t say anything about the nature of empirical evidence, but says a hell of a lot about the consequences of hidden and therefore unchallengable data.

holy crap ! when did this site turn into the journal of boring pedants . statements like xbox 360 can raise the dead are not meant to be taken literaly . in fact i think they are used for comic effect . if you have to explain a joke it ceases to be funny. if i wanted an interminably long and boring flame war i would have posted on the pedantic tossers forum . gary is obviously a hairy-arsed bloke who can stand a bit of a ribbing but you just suck all the fun out of science . don’t forget we are trying to encourage kids to learn physics by showing them the cool side of stuff exploding and intergalactic poontang . whatever .

Hang on. Gary’s arse is “obviously” hairy? You can tell that from reading his blog?

> you just suck all the fun out of science

What, by being pedantic? Pedantry is the fun bit of science.

And are you saying you want to see science made more fun for kids by putting lots of things into it that aren’t supported by science? I’d wish you luck with that, but I think the Government are several steps ahead of you.

I’m electrosensitive. First noticed it when using a mobile phone. It’s definitely caused by EMF’s because I know when symptoms have been occurring and when they have not and I have kept track of mobile usage. The symptoms are also very distinctive (often painful prickling sensations, dizziness, poor concentration, sore eyes and blurred vision).
Additionally, this electrosensitivity came completely unexpectedly. I never thought this technology would do this. It has been marketed as being safe and used by thousands of people. I didn’t even know about electrosensitivty when I started noticing symptoms and realising a correlation to mobile phone usage.
I don’t have confidence that the studies done to date have been well designed because they don’t adequately take into account the latency of symptoms that not only myself but other sufferers report. Symptoms often last more than a day, sometimes several after EMF exposure.

My partner started to suffer last year from ES. Before that he was like most people very fond of all his modern communication tools.
Dizziness, skin rashes, sleep problems etc. occur in close vicinity or under exposure to computers, mobiles, mobile masts, certain light sources.
It makes working very difficult for him and the ignorance of health professionals just adds to the resulting stress.
We need to start rethinking our modcons before it’s too late and even more people start to suffer.

But I invite all you sceptics to use your mobiles, wifi etc. even more, then we’ll see a result/ change hopefully sooner!

My partner started to suffer last year from ES. Before that he was like most people very fond of all his modern communication tools.
Dizziness, skin rashes, sleep problems etc. occur in close vicinity or under exposure to computers, mobiles, mobile masts, certain light sources.
It makes working very difficult for him and the ignorance of health professionals just adds to the resulting stress.
We need to start rethinking our modcons before it’s too late and even more people start to suffer.
I invite all you sceptics to use your mobiles/ wifi etc. even more, then we might see a result/ change hopefully sooner!

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