Wi-Fi and the scare that won’t die

Very probably not, says Tom Chivers, but the symptoms of people who believe that it is are perfectly real

Mind

22nd October 2015

Consider the coelacanth, believed extinct for 400 million years, before being hoicked out of the water — presumably to its great surprise — by a fisherman off South Africa and placed before a marine biologist, to his presumably even greater surprise. Since this is a mythbusting column, I ought not to perpetuate the myth that the coelacanth is a ‘living fossil’; the modern fish is fairly similar to its ancient ancestor, but it has changed over the millennia. Instead it’s known as a ‘Lazarus taxon’, an evolutionary branch which was believed to have died out but has quietly survived somewhere.

In a national newspaper a couple of months ago, there was a sort of coelacanth. The Telegraph ran a health-scare piece of a kind that I had, naively, thought had died out — been outcompeted in the fierce ecosystem of quackery — but which had, in fact, been only resting at the bottom of the sea, or more accurately the health-pseudoscience blogosphere. That myth is the myth of ‘electrosensitivity’, as very clearly explained by the Telegraph’s headline: ‘Is Wi-Fi making your child ill?’

There was a great deal of alarm about this a few years ago, in the second half of the Noughties. The Sunday Times, the Independent, the Mail and various others ran stories about ‘electrosmog’, the sort of pervasive digital badness that was all around us because of our then-still-quite-new wireless internet and mobile phones. Some people reported symptoms like dizziness or nausea or flu-like feelings. For a couple of years, up until about 2009, I saw semi-regular news stories about people who felt ill when their Wi-Fi was turned on, then I stopped noticing them any more.

It’s important to note that these people’s symptoms were real. People really did feel nauseous or dizzy or flu-like. Some people ended up constructing elaborate defences against the electromagnetic enemy, including tinfoil linings for their bedrooms, or expensive paints and special windows; they were often unable to work in offices, because they didn’t dare be around radiation. Whatever the cause of these symptoms, they really felt them. There’s a parallel here to myalgic encephalopathy (ME), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome: millions of people are suffering from something, whether or not they’re all suffering from the same thing.

But with that in mind, the question of whether or not electromagnetic radiation is making people ill is quite an easy one to test. Here’s how one trial, conducted in 2006 by researchers at King’s College London, did it. They took people who reported that they get headaches within 20 minutes of being exposed to electromagnetic radiation — in this case, from a mobile phone. Then they had them sit in a room with a phone which was either transmitting a real signal or a fake one. They then looked at whether or not they could detect the signal, or tended to get more headaches when the phone signal was real. They concluded: ‘No evidence was found to indicate that people with self-reported sensitivity are able to detect such signals or that they react to them with increased symptom severity. As sham exposure was sufficient to trigger severe symptoms in some participants, psychological factors may have an important role in causing this condition.’

That was only one study, and it was a small one, with only 20 participants in the electrosensitivity group, so we shouldn’t read too much into it. But it shows you how these trials can be conducted, and since then there have been systematic reviews, looking at lots of studies and putting their data together to paint a broader picture — and that picture is consistent. One, in 2010 and also at KCL, looked at 46 studies. It concluded, similarly, that ‘no robust evidence could be found to support the electrosensitivity hypothesis’. It did, however, find that the evidence supports the possibility that the symptoms are caused by the ‘nocebo effect’, the placebo effect’s evil twin. Essentially, if you believe something is doing you harm, you will experience harm.

Again, it’s important to stress that the fact that these symptoms were not caused by electrosensitivity does not mean that these symptoms are not real. Even if it is the ‘psychological’ or ‘nocebo effect’, people are still in real pain — ‘psychological’ does not mean ‘fake’. But it does mean that we’re not going to cure those symptoms by concentrating on Wi-Fi routers. There’s something else going on, possibly psychological, possibly not; perhaps many things, perhaps as many things as there are sufferers. Finding out what that is will mean looking elsewhere for solutions, not dredging up this myth into the pages of the newspapers again. It’s difficult, because people have now built whole careers warning others of the dangers of their mobile phones — one of them was quoted at length in the Telegraph article — and, as Ben Goldacre noted years ago, a lot of the people who made the most noise about the dangers of ‘electrosmog’ also happened to sell expensive magic trinkets that claimed to protect you against it.Unlike the coelacanth, perhaps this Lazarus quackery isn’t endangered.


  • Hamish Redux

    Interesting, but any discussion of electromagnetic waves ought to mention wavelengths/frequencies. Basically long waves don’t hurt, short waves (e.g. X-rays) do. Light itself is electromagnetic, of course, but fairly safe unless you are a Transylvanian count.