Electromagnetic signals from everyday wireless technologies are an ever-present environmental stressor, affecting biological systems.
In this article, we substantiate this statement based on the weight of evidence from papers collated within the ORSAA database (ODEB), focusing on the biological and health effects of electromagnetic fields and radiation. More specifically, the experiments investigating exposures from real-world devices and the epidemiology studies examining the effects of living near mobile phone base stations were extracted from ODEB and the number of papers showing effects was compared with the number showing no effects.
The results showed that two-thirds of the experimental and epidemiological papers found significant biological effects. The breadth of biological and health categories where effects have been found was subsequently explored, revealing hundreds of papers showing fundamental biological processes that are impacted, such as protein damage, biochemical changes and oxidative stress.
This understanding is targeted toward health professionals and policy makers who have not been exposed to this issue during training. To inform this readership, some of the major biological effect categories and plausible mechanisms of action from the reviewed literature are described. Also presented are a set of best practice guidelines for treating patients affected by electromagnetic exposures and for using technology safely in health care settings.
In conclusion, there is an extensive evidence base revealing that significant stress to human biological systems is being imposed by exposure to everyday wireless communication devices and supporting infrastructure. This evidence is compelling enough to warrant an update in medical education and practice.
Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: The canaries in the coal-mine
Some individuals suffer noticeable symptoms when exposed to radiofrequency or electromagnetic fields from telecommunications systems, electronic devices or electrical wiring. These symptoms are highly varied yet relate to classical symptoms of “microwave sickness” (39) which sufferers attribute to exposures to radiofrequency emitting devices or cell towers. These symptoms include headaches (not the typical headache), head pressure, chest pressure, dysesthesia (skin irritation) and paraesthesia (tingling, prickling, burning sensations), insomnia, concentration difficulties, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), memory issues, dizziness, heart problems such as arrhythmia/palpitations/tachycardia, anxiety, joint pain, chronic fatigue, muscle pain and dermatological effects such as rashes (40–42). “Electromagnetic hypersensitivity” (EHS) is the common term used to describe this condition. It is classified in the International Classification for Diseases, ICD-10, under category W90: Adverse health effects of exposure to RF-EMR (43). The WHO recognizes electromagnetic hypersensitivity as “idiopathic environmental intolerance” (44) but not the cause, and in Sweden it is recognized as a functional impairment (45).
Before mobile phones existed, Frey (46) found robust evidence that humans have a sensory system tuned to microwave frequencies. Moreover, these frequencies induced blood-brain barrier penetration and altered the brain’s opiate-dopamine system, likely causing the headaches reported by Frey’s research participants (47). Frey concluded that a person reporting headaches from mobile phone exposures might be a canary in the coal mine warning of other biological effects [47, p. 102].
More recently, medical researchers have found further evidence to establish electromagnetic hypersensitivity as a real condition:
• Environmental factors implicated: Electromagnetic hypersensitivity often occurs after prolonged exposures to electromagnetic fields at work or after medical examinations using X-rays or strong magnetic fields (48);
• General sensitivity to toxins: People with electromagnetic hypersensitivity have more frequent common colds, are more sensitive to chemicals, and are more likely to be affected by environmental factors such as car exhaust and dental amalgam (49);
• Brain changes: People with electromagnetic hypersensitivity show different fMRI patterns (52);
• Biomarkers: Blood and saliva tests for diagnosing electromagnetic hypersensitivity are used by doctors aware of the condition, e.g., histamine levels are used to indicate inflammation, and serum malondialdehyde level is used to indicate oxidative stress from cell damage (53, 54);
• Not psychosomatic: A large proportion of people with electromagnetic hypersensitivity are not cognisant of any harm from radiofrequency prior to experiencing symptoms (40, 55). Thus, an “expectation of harm” i.e., nocebo effect cannot be used as the explanation for the condition.
Man-made radiofrequency signals from everyday devices and communications technology infrastructure constitute an environmental stressor, well-documented as creating various adverse biological effects. Plausible mechanisms in which harm can occur initially on a cellular level have been proposed, and these mechanisms are known to have subsequent downstream health effects.
The application of the ICRP radiation protection philosophy and framework for the protection of members of the public is over 90 years in the making and is absent in setting exposure limits for this form of (wireless) radiation.
The extensive evidence base is compelling enough to call for an update in medical education and practice. Out of care for their patients, healthcare workers may develop their understanding using the practical methods introduced in this discussion paper. Furthermore, modern institutional practices need to be reviewed to ensure that any harm from electromagnetic fields is reduced as much as reasonably possible while still providing optimal health care.