In 2010, an epidemiologist was asked by a California school to investigate its high levels of dangerous dirty electricity. When he arrived to take readings, he found that some classrooms contained levels of electrical pollution so intense that they exceeded his meter’s ability to measure them.
This story was reported in a major US news outlet. The “dirty electricity” the epidemiologist was investigating, also known as electrosmog, has been described as a dangerous new carcinogen produced by all modern electronics such as computers, Wi-fi routers and pretty much anything that needs to be plugged in. Electrosmog is said to be increasing steadily and globally with every new electrical device that comes online, and in addition to cancer, it is now beginning to be linked to other diseases, including autism and depression. The researchers working on this issue bill it as the biggest environmental health threat of the 21st century.
I first heard about dirty electricity when a commenter warned me about it on a recent post about using electricity to boost learning. When I set out to look into it, I was highly skeptical. And for good reason: this is one of those topics in which charlatans are thick on the ground and seem to outnumber legitimate researchers about a dillion to one, at least if you go by the results of a Google search. I assumed no one serious took it seriously. Boy, was I wrong. The most interesting thing about “dirty electricity”, however, is that it’s not really about electricity at all — rather, it’s an indictment of epidemiology.
It’s actually a bit surprising that I had never heard of it. Dirty electricity has been in the news for years and years. Back in 1994, a Swedish neuroscientist began to document the various symptoms. His work led to the formation of the Swedish Association for the Electrosensitive.
Responding to similar public health concerns elsewhere, in 1996 the World Health Organization (WHO) launched the International EMF Project, an international, multidisciplinary research effort to investigate the health effects of exposure to “an ever increasing number and diversity of electromagnetic field sources”. By 2000, the Swiss government declared dirty electricity a potential health hazard.
Electric fields are created in the air around an appliance every time you plug a wire into an outlet. What the dirty electricity people maintain is that just as you can use microwaves — low-wavelength, high-frequency radio fields — to create enough heat to cook food, low frequency electric fields emitted by computer screens, anti-theft devices, radios, TVs, Wi-fi routers, and cell phone towers can harm living tissue.
And so, aside from cancer, autism and depression, electrosmog has also been shouldering the blame for the lesser sins of fatigue, headaches, and dropping sperm count in humans everywhere, and bleeding bark on trees planted near a router in Holland.
Such symptoms fall under the rubric of a condition becoming known as electrosensitivity. The Guardian reported in 2007 that “estimates of how many people suffer from it … range from 3.2% in California to 8% in Germany. In the UK around 4% of people claim to experience symptoms.”
“There’s a lot of [ES sufferers] around,” said Denis Henshaw, a physics professor who is head of the human radiation effects group at Bristol University. “They are otherwise sane and sensible people. They are not all nutcases.”
When their symptoms incapacitate them, some ES sufferers pack up and move to the special electricity-free refugee zones that have popped up in Europe and the US: France and Italy* both have designated electrohypersensitivity areas where there are no cell phone towers. In the US, “Wi-fi refugees” can decamp to a town in West Virginia.
But when you start to look at some of the studies, you can’t help but conclude that whatever it is these people are suffering from, it’s not electric fields.
Epidemiologists who study electrosmog claim that as more electrical devices came online, the electrosmog problem has gotten worse. But take a look at this chart comparing the electrical field strength near various household appliances.
Typical electric field strengths measured near household appliances
at a distance of 30 cm
|Electric appliance||Electric field strength (V/m)|
|Individual safety limit
[Source: Federal Office for Radiation Safety, Germany 1999]
If this chart is any indication, electrosensitivity should have been on the radar (see what I did there) long before modern electronics came along. Judging by the field strength near all the irons, refrigerators and vaccuum cleaners, people should have been complaining about electrosmog back when Betty Friedan was writing The Feminine Mystique.
What’s more, another in a long series of provocation studies just found that people can’t actually tell from their symptoms whether an electric field is on or off. In these experiments, researchers place an electric device in the same room with a volunteer but don’t tell them whether it’s on or off. Even volunteers who insist that they are electrohypersensitive and cannot tolerate the proximity of, say, Wi-fi routers, couldn’t tell the difference. (And there might be alternate explanations for the bleeding trees too.)
It was for this reason that a recent review paper pondered whether hypersensitivity to EMF results from wireless systems and electrical devices or is instead psychosomatic or fictitious.
In 30 years, 25,000 studies have failed to find a definitive link between adverse health effects and “dirty electricity.”
But these are not enough to placate fears. As the WHO states, that’s because the studies don’t rule out the possibility of very small risks. Human health studies are bad at distinguishing a small effect from no effect at all. The WHO document includes a quote from Barnabas Kunsch that elegantly encapsulates the problem:
“The absence of evidence of detrimental effects does not seem to suffice in modern society. The evidence of their absence is demanded more and more instead”.
So basically, proving that electromagnetic fields have no effect is on par with trying to argue the nonexistence of God.
It gets worse. The WHO identifies another issue that contributes to the problem: weak positive results, “which however are inconsistent among each other. In that situation, scientists themselves are likely to be divided about the significance of the data.”
And that brings us back to epidemiologists. There is plenty of good epidemiology out there, but the electrosmog work isn’t an example of it. Like the little girl with the curl on her forehead, when epidemiologists are good, they’re very good. But when they’re bad, they’re horrid. The best example is the study that found that women enjoy more orgasms with high-earning men. (It was later retracted amid a sea of red-faced journal editors.)
What leads to the false positives that lead to the conclusions that later need to be withdrawn? Ben Goldacre thinks it has to do with a certain “flexibility” in data collection, which plagues a lot of disciplines (including epidemiology).
Better standards for data collection and reporting will help. And Ed Yong and The Internet already had this argument earlier this year, but better inclusion of and reporting about replication studies would also help stave off panics such as the electrosmog issue.
But unfortunately, once it’s out there, it’s hard to put the cat back in the bag. Even when they’re retracted, studies like the gold-digger orgasm finding continue to “feel true” because they might underscore assumptions you always secretly had anyway. Kind of the same way you just assume pressing a hot, radiating device against the side of your head for several hours a day can’t end well.
So are some people extremely sensitive to electrical fields? Will we hit some critical mass of too many electronic devices where suddenly all our cells just explode?
Whatever you believe, there’s a study out there to bolster your opinion.
But look, at the very least just for God’s sake don’t buy anything. The many products marketed to help you repel electrosmog are about half a step away from a tinfoil hat. (I suspect the meters don’t work that well, either).
Anyway we all know the real danger comes from heavy electricity.