Expecting Negative Effects from EMF Can Increase Likelihood of Symptoms

You may have met people who complained about hypersensitivity to electromagnetic fields. As I've previously reported, studies found that in reality, there was no connection between these people's symptoms and exposure to low levels of EMF.

Dr. Michael Witthoft and researchers at the Johannes Gutenberg University at Mainz studied electromagnetic hypersensitivity using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The JGU release The nocebo effect: media reports may trigger symptoms of a disease said media reports about substances that are supposedly hazardous to health may cause suggestible people to develop symptoms of a disease even though there is no objective reason for doing so. These can take the form of physical reactions. Using MRI, it was demonstrated that the regions of the brain responsible for pain processing are active in such cases.

Dr. Witthoft said, “Despite this, there is a considerable body of evidence that electromagnetic hypersensitivity might actually be the result of a so-called nocebo effect. The mere anticipation of possible injury may actually trigger pain or disorders. This is the opposite of the analgesic effects we know can be associated with exposure to placebos.”

Effects including headaches, dizziness, and burning or tingling sensations on the skin could be caused by media reports on the potential health risks associated with EMF produced by cell phones, cell phone base stations, high-voltage lines, and Wi-Fi devices rather than RF radiation. For some people, this can impact their life style and even cause some people to move to remote regions to get away from electrical equipment altogether.

Dr. Witthoft noted, “However, tests have shown that the people affected are unable to tell if they have really been exposed to an electromagnetic field. In fact, their symptoms are triggered in exactly the same way if they are exposed to genuine and sham fields.” Witthoft collaborated with G. James Rubin during a research stay at King's College in London.

The JGU release describes the experiment: “The 147 test subjects were first shown a television report. One group of participants watched a BBC One documentary, which dealt in no uncertain terms with the potential health hazards supposedly associated with cell phone and WiFi signals. The other group watched a report on the security of Internet and cell phone data. Then all the subjects in both groups were exposed to fake WiFi signals that they were told were real. Even though they were not exposed to any radiation, some of the subjects developed characteristic symptoms: 54 percent of the subjects reported experiencing agitation and anxiety, loss of concentration or tingling in their fingers, arms, legs, and feet. Two participants left the study prematurely because their symptoms were so severe that they no longer wanted to be exposed to the assumed radiation. It became apparent that the symptoms were most severe among the subjects who had high pre-existing anxiety as a result of viewing the documentary about the possible hazards of electromagnetic radiation.”

While the EMF wasn't real, the symptoms were. The JGU release said, “Such speculation on health hazards most likely has more than just a short-term impact like that of a self-fulfilling prophesy; it is likely that over the long term some people begin to believe that they are sensitive and develop symptoms in certain situations when exposed to electrosmog. Dr. Witthoft said, “Science and the media need to work together more closely and make sure that reports of possible health hazards from new technologies are as accurate as possible and are presented to the public using the best available scientific data.”

Doug Lung

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.