By Tyler Hamilton for the Toronto Star
It started with nausea and vomiting in the morning, followed by insomnia and the annoying sound of clicking in her ears. Marika Bandera, sitting in her east-end Toronto apartment, begins to cry as she recalls how her symptoms gradually got worse over the course of a year. They included everything from shaking hands and blurred vision to burning skin and mild convulsions. Sessions at a sleep clinic, brain scans, an epilepsy test and numerous visits to her family doctor and various specialists in Toronto failed to determine the cause.
“They would not listen, they are not hearing their patients,” she says.
It wasn’t until a trip to Europe that a doctor there suggested her symptoms may be related to extreme electrical sensitivity, or ES, a suspected allergic-like reaction to radio and electrical frequencies associated with cellphones, wireless base stations, computer screens, power lines and common household appliances that use electricity.
Little is known about the phenomenon of ES or how many people think they have it, but the government of the United Kingdom took a small step last week toward recognizing the controversial condition after its health protection agency released a report calling for more research into sufferers’ stories.
“The starting point for this review is recognition … of the need to consider ES in terms other than its etiology (causes), as this position alone is failing to meet the needs of those who consider themselves affected by ES,” the report stated.
The report emphasized there’s no scientifically proven link between symptoms and exposure to electrical and magnetic fields. It’s the main reason health agencies in countries such as Canada don’t recognize ES.
This hasn’t stopped Sweden, with an estimated 250,000 suffers, from accepting ES as a physical impairment. Dr. Olle Johansson, associate professor of experimental dermatology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, says residents of some municipalities can get their home “sanitized” from electromagnetic frequencies.
Ordinary electricity cables in the home are often replaced with special cables and electric stoves can be changed to natural gas. If the problem persists, roofs and floors can be covered with special wallpaper and paint that can block outside frequencies. Windows can also be fitted with tinfoil.
“If these alterations turn out not to be optimal, they have the possibility to rent small cottages in the countryside that the Stockholm municipality owns,” says Johansson, who investigates cases of ES. “The municipality also intends to build a village with houses that are specially designed for persons who are electrohypersensitive.”
In the workplace, Swedish employees can request special computer monitors and lighting fixtures that dramatically cut down frequency emissions.
The issue of electrical sensitivity first gained a profile in 2002 when Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, then director-general of the World Health Organization, confirmed in a media report that she banned cellphones from her office because they gave her headaches.
Brundtland, a medical doctor and former prime minister of Norway, told the Star during a visit to Toronto late last month that the condition needs to be taken more seriously by health authorities, and that little is known because research to date has focused largely on the potential links between electromagnetic frequencies and more severe illnesses, particularly cancers.
“I get headaches and feel terrible when I am in contact with mobile phones, even if I’m not using it but it’s 1 or 2 metres away. I can identify it by feeling a mobile phone in a room without knowing it’s there,” says Brundtland, adding that it may not be life-threatening but can affect quality of life.
The U.K. health agency was quick to point out that the conclusions of its review were drawn largely from the study of electromagnetic fields from power lines and electrical appliances, as the widespread use of mobile phones is relatively new. “Similar symptoms have been reported from exposure to radio frequency transmissions and there is some research being carried out in the U.K. on this topic,” according to the agency.
Acknowledging that the prevalence of ES — also known as electrohypersensitivity — has not been measured in the United Kingdom, it estimates as many as a few people per thousand among the population could be affected.
Dr. Magda Havas, a professor of the environmental and resource studies program at Trent University in Peterborough, is one of the few trying to track the condition in Canada.
Havas estimates as much as 35 per cent of the population may be suffering from moderate ES, with the severe form Bandera experiences affecting 2 per cent. She speculates that ES may have an association with diseases such as multiple sclerosis and diabetes.
“MS and diabetes are both on the increase and I wonder how much of this is due to dirty electricity and our inundation with radio frequency radiation,” says Havas, who has experimented with filters that help block what she calls “electropollution.”
“I have videos of MS patients who walked with a cane and can now walk unassisted after a few days or weeks with the filters.”
In a church basement in St. Catharines last month, dozens of people gathered to hear Havas talk about ES. It was part of an event organized by the SWEEP Initiative, which stands for “safe wireless electrical and electromagnetic policies.”
The group, led by Brock University professor David Fancy, was created in the summer as part of a grassroots effort to raise awareness and begin documenting cases of ES in Canada. The hope is that health authorities and politicians will recognize it as a problem.
“There is a lot of front-line work happening, as people reach out to those with a variety of symptoms who are having to move out of suburbia and live in the woods,” says Fancy, who wears special protective clothing to help block signals.
He compares the condition to an allergy that affects certain people in different ways. Other SWEEP members, such as retired police officer Martin Weatherall, former head of legal services at the Toronto Police Association, prefer to think of it like a poison that accumulates in the body.
Havas says one of her missions is to engage medical professionals in Canada to help them understand ES. Many of those at the St. Catharines event were doctors, she says.
One physician, working at a high-profile Toronto hospital, told the Star she’s seeing an increasing number of patients exhibiting unexplainable, often disabling, ES-like symptoms and feels compelled to learn more. But she’s afraid to speak openly about it because of skepticism in the medical community, which tends to treat such patients like they’re crazy.
“They think it’s a bunch of hooey,” she says, asking that her name be withheld. “But we don’t understand everything. We don’t know everything. So we have to take these people seriously.”
Bandera, suspecting that nearby hydro lines and a neighbour’s home wireless network may have contributed to her symptoms, moved a few weeks ago to a different apartment, only to find a wireless phone tower nearby. Her symptoms persist, but so does denial from the medical community.
“I’m still searching to get well from this,” she says, sounding tired and defeated. “People need to be aware that this condition exists.”
Tyler Hamilton is the Star’s technology reporter.