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Drowning in an electromagnetic sea

In Business and Environment, Sustainable Building, Development and Energy by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

Emissions within our generous guideline exposure limit are deemed by authorities to be safe, but many scientists are not convinced. Their doubts appear to be borne out by the phenomenon known as electrosensitivity (ES).


Most human beings now live in a sea of invisible electromagnetic radiation (EMR) that is millions of times stronger than anything encountered during our long evolution as a species. Networks of towers and base stations emit a cacophony of radio, TV, wireless internet and mobile phone signals. Further emissions are produced by domestic appliances such as computers, microwaves and hairdryers. Metal objects in your living environment can attract and re-radiate these energies.

As modern technology has evolved, we have seen a proliferation of communication devices utilising microwave frequencies. Australia has reached a point where there are now more active mobile phone connections than there are people. During the 1990s, analogue mobile phone technology (using a continuous wave) was replaced with its digital equivalent (which being a pulsed digital signal is widely considered to be potentially more harmful to the human body).

Another fast-growing area of microwave-based communication is wireless internet, also known as Wi-Fi, which has been invading facilities such as schools, cafés and libraries. Despite the concerns that wireless technology has aroused overseas, the introduction of small wireless base stations continues unabated in Australia.

Differing safety standards

Few people are aware that, as an overall trend, EMR safety limits have been steadily tightening over the last decades. Countries such as Russia, China and parts of Italy have chosen limits that are many times stricter than the current Australian guideline of 1,000 milligauss for non-occupational exposures. This remarkable disparity is set to grow even larger, with the national guideline likely to increase to 3,000 milligauss.

In setting strict limits, Russia and China are acting in line with scientific knowledge that most other countries seem unwilling to take on board. Authorities in Russia advise that mobiles should not be used by children under 16, pregnant women, and people with neurological conditions. As children have thinner skulls, it is thought that their heads may absorb radiation more readily.

Back in 1992, the Swedish Government found a clear link between ‘low-level’ radiation from powerlines and childhood leukaemia. This coincides with the view of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, that a body that rates EMR is a Class 2 carcinogen – in the same category as tobacco.

Last year, German authorities warned their citizens against using Wi-Fi, and encouraged them to use a landline, reserving the mobile phone for emergencies. In the UK, where the government’s Health Protection Agency has concerns about Wi-Fi exposure to children, numerous school wireless networks are being dismantled.

In contrast with European countries, Australia is slow to acknowledge the existence of any attendant risks. When discussing this issue with some people, their level of resistance may lead you to wonder whether modern technology has largely usurped Christianity as the source of society’s core beliefs.

The problem of electrosensitivity

Emissions within our generous guideline exposure limit are deemed by authorities to be safe, but many scientists are not convinced. Their doubts appear to be borne out by the phenomenon known as electrosensitivity (ES).

A small proportion of the world’s population exhibits a marked reaction to fairly modest EMR exposures. Most notable among them is Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Norwegian Prime Minister and ex-Director General of the WHO. Continuing research in a number of countries indicates that the incidence of ES may be as high as 5%. Although symptoms vary according to the individual, they often include fatigue, rashes, headaches, disorientation, irritability, tinnitus and sleeping difficulties.

While scientific research into the root causes of ES is still at an early stage, the condition appears to be linked to a compromised immune system, brought about either by earlier EMR exposures, toxic chemicals, or the synergistic effect of both combined. Indeed, symptoms are similar to those experienced by people with ‘multiple chemical sensitivity’.

Does electrosensitivity really exist?

In a range of countries, including Australia and the US, medical authorities often tend to regard ES as a psychosomatic response to negative expectations, also known as the ‘nocebo’ effect (a variation on the well-known placebo effect). Worse still, they may even treat it as a manifestation of schizophrenic or paranoid tendencies exhibited by tin foil hat-wearers. In such cases, ES sufferers may be unnecessarily prescribed anti-psychotic medication.

This mainstream view is supported by the fact that an individual’s EMR exposure is almost certain to be well within international exposure limits. Furthermore, the vast majority of the population displays no obvious symptoms attributable to electromagnetic radiation, encouraging the simplistic conclusion that the remainder are mistaken about the cause of their experiences.

Unfortunately, these arguments are seriously undermined by the common experience among electrosensitives of being able to discern with a high degree of accuracy the direction and distance of nearby EMR sources. Other studies point to changes in brain function, providing additional support for the reality of the condition.

A 2006 paper by Olle Johansson at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that test subjects with ES exhibited alterations in their mast cells and dendritic brain cells that were not found in the remainder of the population. Similar effects were also found on animals. Another German study released earlier this year found that sufferers are more likely to experience changes in cognitive behaviour following magnetic stimulation of the brain.

Human rights and electrosensitivity

Those with the condition are in the unfortunate position of being shut off from many of the opportunities that many other people enjoy. Anybody who is unable to use a mobile phone, cordless phone, or computer is unlikely to be given an office job. Industrial machinery may pose an even greater problem. For those with more severe symptoms, virtually no employment possibility exists if they are unable to travel, enter a populated area, or spend time in any indoor workplace.

Technological change is also making life steadily harder for ES people. From November, imports of incandescent light bulbs into Australia will be banned, creating a problem for people who cannot use compact fluorescents. Traditional corded phones have nearly been replaced by cordless phones on the retail shelves and some outlets no longer carry them.

Among the international community, Sweden has taken the strongest stance in meeting the needs of those with electrosensitivity. It recognised ES as a genuine condition in 2000, and as a result approximately 300,000 Swedes now receive a pension and live in houses that have been especially electromagnetically shielded.

The condition is treated as a ‘functional impairment’, and Sweden takes the view that where human functioning is in conflict with the surrounding environment, the environment should be altered to accommodate the needs of people, rather than people being treated as subservient to their man-made surroundings. Perhaps this human-centred approach could be successfully extended into other areas of design and planning.

Minimising exposure

To cut down on your exposure at home you can take several suggested steps. It is worth bearing in mind that overall impacts are a function of both the intensity of exposure and its duration. As a result, small exposures over a long duration may be more harmful than brief proximity to larger exposures:

  • When sleeping, position the bed away from the clock radio. Avoid spending the night with an electric blanket or heated waterbed switched on.
  • Avoid wireless baby monitors.
  • Avoid wireless computers, keyboards and mice.
  • Switch over to an LCD computer screen, which emits far less radiation than older-style cathode ray tube monitors.
  • Although they use more power, desktop computers have keyboards that emit a fraction of the radiation encountered when using laptop keyboards.
  • If you have a mobile phone, and can afford to do so, you may want to limit calls to emergencies only. Other suggestions include keeping the phone some distance from the body when not in use, and avoiding making calls in metal environments such as cars.
  • Be alert to nearby mobile phone use, which has been compared to passive smoking.
  • Avoid spending extended periods of time close to cordless phone bases.
  • Consider using a corded phone instead of the cordless variety.
  • Object to nearby mobile phone base station proposals, particularly one located within two hundred metres of your residence.
  • Consider the use of EMR protection devices. EMR Australia sells shielding paints, fabrics and other specialist protection products.

From electropollution to electro-healing

In the view of British EMR expert and author Roger Coghill, certain low-level emissions can be used to treat various illnesses. Examples in this growing area of research include the radiowave cancer treatment pioneered by Dr. John Holt in Western Australia.

It is curious that the 50-60 Hertz frequency range chosen for the world’s electricity supply is one that has identifiable negative health effects. Perhaps it is not too far-fetched an idea that one day electrical and communications systems could be developed that radiate healing, instead of harmful, energies at specially chosen frequencies.

Personal electrosensitivity stories


Simon lives in a rural area with poor mobile phone coverage, a few kilometres from a mountain with various communications towers. A couple of years ago he started to hear a low-pitched whining noise at quiet times of night that has continued to the present.

He finds that he is unable to use a digital corded phone, and instead has a 1980s-era dial phone. In the past he has used a mobile phone to take messages, later calling people back on his landline. He cannot use a computer, and as a result his scope for employment is reduced. He experiences eyestrain from a CRT monitor within about 30 seconds, and from an LCD screen after about five minutes.

His electrosensitivity has led to various projects being abandoned. At one time, he opened a shop at a first floor location, and within a few weeks he was forced to close after experiencing dizzy spells that he traced to a transformer box near the downstairs door. This symptom stopped immediately after giving up the shop.

On another occasion, he bought a van with the motor located under the seats, but felt ill for two to three days after a trip to the nearest regional centre. He quickly sold the van, and now drives a car without ill effects.

Sister Javana Nyani

Sister Javana Nyani is a Buddhist nun who recently moved away from her family and friends in Perth, and is currently living in a rural area of New South Wales with no mobile reception.

She first developed ES problems in 2002, and her symptoms have become increasingly extreme. When exposed to radiation sources, she can experience great pain, seizing up of brain function, interference in bodily function, and loss of consciousness. Proximity to mobile phones leads to anaphylactic shock (a severe allergic reaction).

Due to her condition, she cannot be in the same house as an operating radio or television, is affected by mobile phones being used up to one kilometre away, and communications masts at a distance of up to 20 kilometres.

This has led to several lifestyle restrictions. She cannot use a phone except for an older dial phone for short periods, and is very badly affected if receiving a call made on a mobile. She cannot get on a plane, and travels in an old-model car (with a minimum of electronic components) only when absolutely necessary. During the last nine months she has not left her property.

As she cannot visit any town, she receives regular food deliveries and cannot access services from any doctor’s surgery or hospital. Medical authorities have generally dismissed her symptoms as psychosomatic, despite the fact that she can detect radiation sources with 100% accuracy. Only one Perth doctor has been more open-minded and sympathetic.

Despite all her precautions, she is finding that exposure levels are getting too high. She feels that she can no longer stay safely where she is and is looking for a better location, probably a valley that is not too remote. (Valleys have the advantage of restricting incoming signals.)



EMR Australia:
EM Radiation Research Trust:
ElectroSensitivity UK:
Swedish Association for the ElectroSensitive:
World Health Organization EMR resources:

Lyn Maclean – Watt’s the Buzz? (Scribe, 2002)

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