1. I am a general practitioner. A patient has asked me if his symptoms could be linked to electrosensitivity. Could you provide information on this syndrome? What advice would you give to such persons who think they might be suffering from non-ionising radiation?
An increasing number of people complain of being electrosensitive. In other words, they attribute their discomfort to the use or proximity of electrical devices emitting magnetic, electric, or electromagnetic fields (Berqvist et al., 1997). There is no formal definition or EHS diagnosis due to, the non-specificity of the described symptoms, the apparent heterogeneity of affected persons, and the absence of well-established aetiology. At present, only an operational definition exists: EHS is a syndrome essentially described by the patient himself. Symptoms vary from one person to another; but in the majority of cases, they are non-specific, mild, and without any distinguishing sign. In the absence of diagnostic criteria, observed symptoms are attributed to what is called “electrosensitivity”. This does not necessarily imply an established relation between EMF exposure and health reactions.
These patients typically suffer from dermatological symptoms (e.g. pricking, burning, itching, flushing) and/or neurological symptoms (e.g. headache, concentration disorders, dizziness, vertigo, weariness) when they are close to an electrical device: computer, fluorescent lighting, powerlines, TV, mobile phone, base station. They are not a homogeneous group.
In the late 1990s, the occurrence and appearance of the EHS phenomenon varied from one country to another, with dermatological symptoms related to computer work occuring more in Scandinavia and especially in Sweden, whereas symptoms of a neurasthenic type (headache, tiredness, cognitive disorders) related to powerlines and mobile phones tend to occur in countries around Belgium.
It is important to note that this electrosensitivity occurs in environments with an intensity level and EMF frequency that is normal for the public and well below international standards. These symptoms are transitory, and usually dissapear a short time after exposure. There is no proven relation between electric-, magnetic- or electromagnetic exposure and the described symptoms. However, in some cases, this electrosensitivity can result in important limitations in the everyday life of these persons.
In spite of scientific difficulties in the definition of EHS and its diagnostic criteria, troubles encountered by these persons are real and must be considered.
We would also insist on a complete checkup to eliminate the possibility of an unknown pathology. When reading the page Electrohypersensitivity: Provocation studies, you will get an idea of the work being done by the PNE team in the EHS area.
2. I’d like to know what the BBEMG recommends (or has recommended) concerning sensitivity to electromagnetic fields. I’ve met many witnesses in France, a few of whom have been recognised as hypersensitive to electricity by the medical profession. How does this situation compare to that in Belgium?
Until 2017, the researchers of the Psychoneuroendocrinology unit first proposed to persons who complain about electrosensitivity an evaluation of their health status and well-being. After that, using a semi-structured interview, they:
- analyse the conditions of symptom appearance,
- look for predispositioning-, promoting-, releasing-, strengthening factors,
- try to understand the history and context of appearance, the reactivity to other environmental factors, risk perception and social stress factors.
The purpose of medical investigation was to identify and treat all pathologies that could be responsible for all or some of the symptoms. The clinical exam was aimed at defining the profile of these EHS persons, as well as the characteristics and conditions of their symptomatology.
Provocation tests were sometimes proposed with the aim of confronting the EHS person with controlled exposure to a 50 Hz magnetic fields if this kind of field was suspected. This part of the work was done in collaboration with engineering teams (see BBEMG technical support) who took on-site measurements (at home or in the workplace) if necessary, or informed them about technical questions related to electricity. Until 2009, for research purposes, biological analysis and cytogenetical analysis of the blood cells exposed to EMF were proposed and conducted by VITO.
This syndrome is not recognised by medical experts in Belgium. In the absence of diagnostic criteria and well-established causal relationships with EMF exposure, the physical and mental sufferings of these persons are taken very seriously; a consultancy should be scheduled as soon as the symptoms occur. Without any available medical treatment, it is recommended to:
- inform the persons about EMF issues,
- help them putting in place procedures of actual stress management,
- work on organisational factors that could be responsible for stress and increase symptomatology,
- help to prevent social isolation of persons who want to shelter themselves from EMF sources.
For more information, feel free to contact the Volksgezondheid-ULB team.
3. During winter months, I often receive discharges when getting out my car or between me and someone wearing a silk shirt. Am I suffering from electrosensitivity?
These are electrostatic discharges, with no pathological effects. ‘Shocks’ are merely annoying. These discharges come from a compensation of voltage between two “bodies” that are not at the same voltage. This voltage arises from charges linked to rubbing in the air and the ability of certain substances to pick up these charges.
Usually, charges flow directly to the ground, keeping bodies at the same potential. But, in the case of a lower level of humidity in the air, or insulated footwear, or moving on a insulated rug/carpet… a body can gradually charge itself. The contact with another object at another voltage (a door handle, another person, an automobile…) will provoke a counterbalancing of charges between the 2 bodies, with an electric arc (the air gap between the two bodies cannot contain the electric field that appears) which permits the flowing of charges.
This is done in a few nanoseconds (billionth of second) and can have no pathological effect. But you “feel it” going through! This is true for everyone. However, some people could more easily feel an electric arc than others. This is a well-known, one-off reaction to electricity. This is not the same phenomenon as electrosensitivity (EHS).
4.Following an electric shock, I became hypersensitive and I permanently suffer from prickling in the lower/upper limbs and in the head as well as a feeling of burning in the face. These symptoms are time and space fluctuating. According to the place where I am, I feel them more or less intensely. I am a secretary and working on the computer highly increases these sensations. I do not know what to do to stop this suffering. Thank you for advising me.
Some people complain about the same symtoms as yours attributed to electromagnetic field exposure. If the suffering of people is never discussed, no causal relationship has been put in evidence. WHO recommends tackling this issue by working on symptoms rather than on electromagnetic sources (except if measurements on the workplace have highlighted abnormally high exposure : see Belgian legislation – Royal decree, 2016), but, in your case, it seems that symptoms further to an electric shock have highly stressed you.
It is difficult to advise you by mail. We recommend that you speak about your symptoms with your general practitioner and to well explain the circumstances of symptom appearance.
Also, feel free to contact the Volksgezondheid-ULB team.
Here is two addresses of WHO that deal with electrosensitivity :
5. A public administration asked me to provide a document attesting my electrosensitivity. Who can I contact to be tested?
Unfortunately, we cannot provide such a document. As you may know, from reading our website or from other sources, electrosensitivity is a condition with no objective basis at this time. The BBEMG is studying this condition to understand what might possibly cause it and its potential mechanisms. This research is currently under way. See further information in Volksgezondheid-ULB team pages.