Electromagnetic pollution

This is just another popular topic resonating with a general audience: Health hazards from artificially generated electromagnetic fields. Different speculations are being spread, hysteria, together with petitions. People are often terrified (Fig. 1) by their personal adverse experiences and a number of symptoms while often lacking proper attitudes and knowledge important for the right way of facing them.

Fig. 1: Health preservation or hysteric social movement?

Anyway, several per cent of the population is considered electromagnetically hypersensitive. In general, in situations with closer proximity to strong sources of radiofrequency radiation, the possibility of physiologically harmful effects has to be taken seriously, while in many situations with distant and many orders of magnitude weaker intensities, any immediate sensation is more probably a matter of nocebo.

Conditions for testing the hypothesis of health hazard are quite clear: Realisation of reproducible demonstrations in laboratory conditions. Unfortunately, nobody was able to prove a positive outcome of such tests, yet. Meaning, in a proper, double-blind and technically bulletproof experimental setup. Just this simple fact might mean that if there exists any effect, it’s subtle and elusive. Moreover, epidemiological studies, as one of the most important components for gathering possible proof of harmful effects due to long-term exposure, haven’t brought any conclusive evidence so far. Surely, the methodology will still have to be improved. Interestingly, the situation is sometimes compared with smoking several decades ago. However, in this case, possible evidence seems to be much harder to dig, indicating that it might not be so severe.

Our investigations and observations: For a long time I was convinced that I can feel wifi radiation at a close distance. Then, several times, I have forgotten to switch off my laptop wifi and everything was OK – no special sensations in my belly were felt. This experience was a wake-up call for me, showing that even with the attempt to stay rigorous and objective, autosuggestions may still play a strong role and can definitely lead to false beliefs. Still, it remains unexplained to me, that strange itching occurs during the seldom use of a cell phone directly at my ear. However, one can not just simply rely on one’s feelings and impressions. 

As I understood at the International Conference on Bioelectromagnetics (Montpellier, France, 2019), electromagnetic hypersensitivity might be caused by a mix of biophysical, psychological, and even sociological factors. Namely, three hypotheses have to be considered: biophysical, cognitive (nocebo), and attributional [1]. The attributional hypothesis takes into account the fact, that in every society there is a group of people with health issues without identified causes, which may be quite frustrating. Then, part of them may attribute the causes to one of the available threads spread by media, including electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

In conclusion, in the scientific community, this issue is not resolved yet. Technical norms with radiation limits exist, but a debate on if and how to shift them may be controversial, and full of competing interests. It is clear that the strong players in the telecommunications industry are defending their business interests. The question is to what extent international and national bodies governing safety standards are susceptible to such influences. Thus, the precautionary principle may be one of the suitable approaches for everyday life. The precautionary principle states, that until the issue is not resolved by regular science, it might be beneficial for our health to keep our body within reasonable limitations with respect to electromagnetic radiation exposition. Especially in activities that are under our personal choice and control.

For a nice educational presentation of the topic, we suggest Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell.

Temporal verdict: Scientifically open issue with a strong impact on society.


[1] Dieudonné, M.: Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: a critical review of explanatory hypotheses, Environmental Health 19:48, 2020.