Dirty, dirty electricity


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)
Stereo receiver 180
Iron 120
Refrigerator 120
Mixer 100
Toaster 80
Hair dryer 80
Colour TV 60
Coffee machine 60
Vacuum cleaner 50
Electric oven 8
Light bulb 5
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.


The original version of this post stated that there is a radiation free zone in Sweden, an error that was corrected on 7 July.

Image credits: Smerdis of Tlön, image is in the public domain because copyright is expired.

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11 thoughts on “Dirty, dirty electricity

  1. re: provocation studies.

    I question whether a subject’s inability to sense “dirty electricity” means that no damage is being done. Can a subject taste PCBs in a piece of fish, or traces of arsenic in their well water? Can a subject taste hearing loss in a dose of ibuprofen?

    RF fields may be harmful or safe, at any intensity or duration of exposure, but not because the subject can tell.

  2. I am really ashamed as a Swede that this woo originated here. :-/

    That said, let me correct the article: there is no radiation free zone in Sweden. You can run it through Google Translate.

    Such a zone was discussed for many years locally due to one person driving it. It is now curtailed, since Mora commune realized it threatened more such zones. It is a security risk if you can’t use your cellular to reach alarm centrals, especially in such a lightly populated areas as the forests of northern Sweden, and that was the motivation.

    @ Stephen King:

    No, it doesn’t mean it is safe, but it means:

    – The strongest prediction would come out of classical conditioning. These people train themselves to be anxious for small and irrelevant cues. They are self made Pavlov’s dogs.

    Note that they do so whether or not there is a harmful effect or not. There certainly isn’t any large cues, like exploding cells. =D

    – If many large investigations can’t find a correlation between technology use and effects, there is no effect. This is how many problems with vaccination et cetera has been adjudicated for good.

    I doubt this technology (radio emissions at low power) can’t be referred to as harmless beyond reasonable doubt by now.

  3. Let me also add that the erroneous information given by the “cellphone task force” about the establishment of these zones doesn’t reflect well on their motivation and/or ability to handle information.

  4. Hi Torbjörn, thanks so much for those insights. I’ve updated the post. And thanks for making the point about the studies, too. If they are sensitive to electrical fields, that implies that there would be some cue that would let them know that there is an electric field being applied.

  5. This argument is a continuation of the old imperial strategy of keeping people in the dark. Pseudo-science that would scare “commoners” into giving up the benefits of progress and the natural human creative inventiveness that got us to 6+ billion people.

    The ancient priesthoods threatened that they would block the sun, and today it’s “you will die” from this advance.

    It is agrarian, anti-human, and fundamentally European – style fascism.

  6. I think another problem most people have is a true understanding of statistics. For instance, people say something like ‘statistically significant’ results, but give little detail. There are various tests, but they only give you a statistical level of certainty that a result is greater than the null hypothesis, and you need to test both the false positive rates and false negative rates. But these are rarely reported, and sometimes not even tested, not that anyone remembers their high school stats class anyway…

  7. Do you hate diabetics too?? The International Journal of Neuroscience had an abstract that proved that EHS exists. Too bad you missed it. HUD has eleven units of housing for people with Chemical and Electrical Sensitivity in Marin county, CA. Would you discount HUD as a legitimate governmental agency? I never heard of a low sperm count being associated with Electrical Sensitivity. Here’s a link to a blog of someone who actually is electrically sensitive and she gives a clear and insightful description of what she has experienced:

  8. About false positives: if a study uses the common 5% significance level, there is ‘only’ a 1 in 20 chance of a false positive. But that means that if a 1000 studies are conducted, there should be about 50 false positive studies.

    Actually, most studies do multiple tests. If a study does enough tests, it is almost sure to find some ‘positive’ result. Hooray. Now we can publish ;-).

    As a result, a ‘positive’ result is not really positive until it is independently replicated.

  9. Jennie, I really do apologise if I came off as seeming callow or unsympathetic in the face of what’s undoubtedly real suffering. I don’t doubt that what they are going through is real. But from the science perspective, I am not convinced of the cause. Until more papers replicate the IJN study, I will remain unconvinced.

    Dave Huff, you’re right about statistics. And Terry, yes, exactly. I’m fascinated by the sheer boringness of the whole false positives/replication argument — because even though people glaze over when you try to explain it, the results can be really astonishing, c.f. proof of “electrosensitivity”.

  10. Why does anyone need “irrefutable scientific” proof concerning electrical sensitivity?? There are other conditions that can’t be proven and they are considered legitimate. For instance, Depression. There are no blood or urine tests that could tell you if someone is depressed. What would you be looking for anyway? Lowered Norepinephrine? or Serotonin? When someone says they are depressed, they are taken at face value. Ditto Tinnitus. People with Tinnitus hear noises(ringing, etc.) that no one else hears – and yet they aren’t branded as crazy. Tinnitus is considered a legitimate condition. So in the same way that these conditions are considered “real” so should Electrical Sensitivity be considered as “real”. I get that I’m not preaching to the choir here! But here’s another link you might find to be interesting:

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