Better Call Saul: is electromagnetic hypersensitivity a real health risk?

Better Call Saul, the long-awaited spin-off
of Breaking Bad, has already thrown up
some interesting questions: why is Saul
chopping up cookie dough in a shopping
mall? Will Mike Ehrmantraut ever let him
out of the car park at the first time of
asking? But perhaps most intriguing is the
one raised by Saul’s brother Chuck: what is
electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS)?
Chuck (played by Spinal Tap’s Michael
McKean) is a recluse on extended leave
from his legal firm who lives without
electricity and wraps himself in a shiny
“space blanket” to ward off the effects of
exposure to Saul’s mobile phone.
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”.
Some journalists have been quick to ally
themselves to the cause of people who
report EHS. Last year, we reviewed a
sample of newspaper stories about the
condition . About 70% presented it as
probably or definitely caused by exposure
to man-made electromagnetic fields. The
story of a mystery illness caused by rapid
technological advances is, for some, too
good to pass up – a 2007 episode of
Panorama, Wi-Fi: A Warning Signal, was
criticised for exaggerating concerns , with
the BBC’s editorial complaints unit finding
it “gave a misleading impression of the
state of scientific opinion on the issue”.
Politicians, too, have been supportive of
the condition. Last month, a proposal by a
group within the European Economic and
Social Committee calling for greater
recognition of the condition throughout the
health, employment and social sectors
came close to being passed. And one can
understand the political interest – a 2010
survey of 26,602 Europeans found that 70%
believed emissions from mobile phone
masts affect health .
But what does the evidence say? The
classic way to test whether someone is
sensitive to anything noxious is to expose
them to it under controlled conditions and
see what happens. Dozens of such studies
have been done with people who report
having EHS, and the results are consistent.
Those taking part do indeed experience
symptoms when exposed to
electromagnetic fields, more so than when
exposed to a “sham” scenario involving no
active exposure. But when the experiments
are performed double-blind, with neither
the participant nor the researcher knowing
which scenario is which, these effects
disappear. The symptoms are real, but
they are not caused by electromagnetic
fields. Instead, they seem to be triggered
by something far more mysterious: the
nocebo effect.
Most people have heard of the placebo
effect – the tendency for people to feel
better when given an inactive sugar pill by
a doctor, simply because they expect to feel
better. The nocebo effect is the logical
flipside – the tendency for people to feel
unwell when they think they have been
exposed to something hazardous. The
effect has been known about for centuries,
and is familiar to many doctors from their
university days, when undergraduates
often develop the symptoms of the latest
disease they have been studying, a
phenomenon so common it has its own
place in the medical dictionary as “medical
student syndrome”. In the case of EHS, it
turns out that believing that you are being
exposed to electromagnetic fields, and that
this is harmful, is what triggers the
symptoms, not the exposure itself.
Where do these expectations and beliefs
come from? The media must take part of
the blame. In a recent experiment, we
asked people to watch either a segment
from the Panorama report about the
alleged harms of Wi-Fi or an innocuous
film about internet data security. We then
exposed them to a fake Wi-Fi signal. Those
who watched the Panorama clip were more
likely to develop symptoms, particularly if
they were already anxious