Electrical Sensitivity as an Emerging
by Lucinda Grant
What is electrical sensitivity? Perhaps you are already
familiar with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) whereby the patient
develops symptoms from exposure to ordinary levels of synthetic chemicals
in common use such as perfumes, pesticides, and household cleaning products.
Electrical sensitivity (ES), another environmentally triggered illness,
produces symptoms in the patient exposed to common levels of electromagnetic
fields (EMF) from electrical sources in the environment: power lines,
motors, computers, etc. ES patients often are also MCS patients. Other
at-risk groups for developing ES seem to be chronic fatigue syndrome
(CFS) patients and those experiencing mercury toxicity from dental amalgams.1
Because the nervous system is a primary site impacted by both
chemicals and electromagnetic fields, those with nervous system damage
from toxic exposures seem more susceptible to becoming ES too.2,3
Also, overexposure to EMF can singularly bring on ES, independent of
other illness. Historically, ES was known as radiowave illness or microwave
A Medline computer search under electromagnetic fields
and microwaves will locate several hundred references regarding health
effects from these exposures. Electrical sensitivity, now also called
electromagnetic hypersensitivity, are both listed on Medline as well.
In a recent ES survey, the five most common symptoms
experienced when EMF exposed were skin itch/rash/flushing/burning and/or
tingling, confusion/poor concentration and/or memory loss, fatigue/weakness,
headache, and chest pain/heart problems.1 Skin
problems and memory difficulties tied for first place among the overall
symptoms. Less commonly reported symptoms included nausea, panic attacks,
insomnia, seizures, ear pain/ringing in the ears, feeling a vibration,
paralysis, and dizziness. Some ES patients experience only one symptom
when EMF exposed, but often more than one symptom is apparent.
The importance of being aware of electrical sensitivity
in the health care setting becomes clear when you realize that a patient
may be suffering symptoms from electromagnetic exposures similar to
the way a cardiac pacemaker may malfunction when exposed to certain
EMF exposures. The typical doctor's office is a minefield of EMF exposures
such as computers, fluorescent lights (particularly energy-efficient
lighting), and medical tests that require exposure to electromagnetic
or ultrasound sources. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been especially
troublesome for some ES.
Because computer monitors can cause EMF reactions in
the patient waiting area, the ES patient may check in for their appointment,
then let the office know they will wait outside for the nurse to call
them in. Also, fluorescent lighting may need to be turned off in the
examining room, substituting an incandescent lamp or natural daylight
instead. The most electrically sensitive patients have great difficulty
even getting to the doctor's office, as a ride in a car can overexpose
them to the motor's electromagnetic fields. They may ask in advance
to meet the doctor outside at the appointment time.
Once a patient realizes that proximity to electrical
sources is the triggering event that leads to their symptoms, they find
EMF avoidance most helpful for reducing reactions. Unfortunately, with
the advent of increasing wireless technology, such as cellular phone
service and paging systems, EMF avoidance is becoming very difficult
for the ES, creating more suffering and leading to life-threatening
consequences for the severely ill. The chemical sensitivity equivalent
of this wireless technology might be aerial pesticide sprayings, a life-threatening
event for many MCS patients.
In the past, if daily computer use at work caused, for
example, a skin rash and headache, a cause and effect relationship could
be determined by noticing that these symptoms abated evenings and weekends
and intensified at work. It would become clear that the workplace, at
least, was responsible for the development of the symptoms. Whether
the computer was the source could be checked by using that computer
or other computers in other locations to see if symptoms would then
reappear. If not, it may be a "sick building" problem in the
workplace instead, due to chemical exposures.
For the newly ES, it will now be more difficult to pinpoint
the cause of their symptoms if they are also reacting to the ambient
EMF exposure from various wireless services. The new digital cellular
is particularly troublesome for some ES; the prior analog cellular -
a lower frequency - was much less of a problem.
Electrical sensitivity is more well-known in Europe
than the United States, due in part to Sweden's active support group,
FEB, which has about 2,000 members. Sweden has been particularly hard
hit with ES, primarily related to computer use rather than MCS there.
Computer-related skin problems are frequently reported by their group.
In February 1997, the American Academy of Environmental
Medicine co-sponsored an international symposium called Bioelectricity
which included electrical sensitivity (ES) among the topics presented.5
This gathering was the fourth international conference specifically
highlighting ES. Others were sponsored by the European Union (EU) in
Graz, Austria (1994), and the support group Danish Association for the
Electromagnetically Hypersensitive in Copenhagen, Denmark (1994 and
Electrical Sensitivity Network
P.O. Box 4146
Prescott, Arizona 86302 USA
Lucinda Grant is director of the national support group
Electrical Sensitivity Network and author of the books The Electrical
Sensitivity Handbook and Workstation Radiation.
1. Grant, Lucinda. Treatment Survey Results. Electrical
Sensitivity News, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1997, pp. 1-5.
2. National Research Council. Multiple Chemical
Sensitivities: Addendum to Biological Markers in Immunotoxicology.
Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1992, pp. 89-108, 117-150.
3. Rea, William J., MD, FACS, et al. Electromagnetic
Field Sensitivity. Journal of Bioelectricity, Vol. 10 (1 and
2), 1991, pp. 241-256.
4. Hitchcock, R. Timothy and Robert M. Patterson.
Radio-Frequency and ELF Electromagnetic Energies: A Handbook for
Health Professionals. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1995.
5. Bioelectricity (brochure) Dallas TX: American Environmental
Health Foundation, 1997. Contact: AEHF, 8345 Walnut Hill Lane, Suite
225, Dallas TX 75231-4262.
6. Simunic, Dina, ed. Proceedings of the COST 244
meeting on Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity. Graz, Austria: European
7. Katajainen, Jyrki, and Bengt Knave, eds. Electromagnetic
Hypersensitivity. Copenhagen, Denmark: Danish Association for
the Electromagnetically Hypersensitive, 1995.