Saturday June 2, 2007
The Independent has put its green columnist Julia Stephenson on to Panorama’s Wi-Fi scare story: a charming green party candidate and beef heiress living in Chelsea on a trust fund, who believes her symptoms of tiredness and headache are caused by electromagnetic radiation from phones and Wi-Fi.
The most important background for any “electrosensitivity” story is the issue of the “provocation studies”. These are simple. Sufferers explain that they can tell when they are exposed to, say, a mast, a computer monitor, or a phone, because their symptoms get worse.
So in a provocation study, an electrosensitive person sits in a room with the source of electromagnetic waves hidden from view: they don’t know whether it is switched on or not.
There have been 36 such studies published to date. This is very active work. This field has not been neglected. Thirty-three have shown that the subjects were unable to tell if the signal was present or absent, and the other three were flawed, as I have previously explained (full references here). Could the Independent and Panorama have deliberately ignored these, in the name of propagating their scare, and selling themselves? But the reality is clear. The symptoms of electrosensitivity are real, and deserve our compassion, but they seem not to be caused by electromagnetic signals.
Instead of this useful information (were the researchers wasting their time?) the Independent article was filled with ludicrous false information and claims. Since giving up her cordless phone, she has become “less radioactive”.
Britain is full of masts because 95% of the population own a phone (including infants and pensioners?). “You are never more than 10 feet away from a rat in London; you may find yourself even closer to a phone mast.”
Not with 35,000 masts in a country of almost 100,000 square miles. Masts are “disguised in trees”. How cruel. I could go on.
But with the treatment options it really kicks off. First, she recommends the Q-link pendant from two weeks ago (the pseudo-electronic medical device flogged by vitamin pill entrepreneur Patrick Holford). Then she talks about claimed remedies to “reduce the amount of radiation stored in the body”. Excellent news. And they’re described as “detox” remedies, so presumably the “radiation” stored over the years in your body is suddenly expelled in one big dollop. Duck!
And lastly there is her “electro-magnetic field protection unit“, created by engineer and homeopath Gary Johnson. “The heart of the unit is a programmed microprocessor unit that produces a holograph [sic] field that is amplified through an internal aerial system … He claims the unit offers unlimited protection from any negative electromagnetic emissions in a 700 square metre [sic] radius.”
If Gary really has found a way to cancel out any electromagnetic signal with a special beam then the military will be keen to talk to him, but since a “holograph” is a document written entirely in the handwriting of the person whose signature it bears, and a sphere cannot have a radius measured in “square metres”, I’m not too sure Julia knows her arse from his elbow.
It’s also hard to see how being emotionally positive or negative can be a property of a wave, and how his device could identify this. Perhaps the answer is to be found in an episode of He-man and the Masters of the Universe called The Revenge of Evil from 1986: “Something is wrong with the powers of Grayskull: there are strange negative energies that surround it and it looks as if it is burning! … He-Man uses his sword and sucks the power back into himself, even transforming the negative energy into positive. The balance is restored, and the evil clone fades away.”
People who believe their symptoms are related to exposure to electromagnetic fields are almost certainly mistaken – I would now say misled – about the cause, but they are very right about their symptoms.
Symptoms are real, they are subjective, some people experience them very severely, and this is real distress that deserves our compassion. Alternatively, you could cynically exploit them – and mislead them, and frighten them – to sell your quack products, your newspaper, your TV show, and your freelance articles.
I’m not judging. I’m simply laying out the alternatives.
Â· Please send your bad science to firstname.lastname@example.org
If you feel shortchanged because the Independent story has already been posted on here, then let me offer you this representative – and totally joyous – email from a reader this evening. Truly I have the best jobs in the world.
In today’s Independent there’s an astonishing ‘zero-gravity’ garden chair
on offer which ‘supports you in pressure-free comfort.’
Quite how gravity gets switched off is not clear since it seems to be made
with nothing but a steel frame and polycotton canvas. Nor is it clear how
you can be supported without any pressure. And if it’s pressure-free, why
does it need ‘Padded armrests and a removable adjustable pillow for
Now I do not know from experience if this chair really is comfortable,
but I do
object to such terms as gravity and pressure being recruited into
which attempts to legitimise physical impossibilities, perhaps appealing
to the unwary.
This blurb might be offered in a decent and honest way, (perhaps out of
ignorance) but should one question the legality and truth of the claims?