Electrosensitives: the new cash cow of the woo industry

June 2nd, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, electrosensitivity, independent, patrick holford, powerwatch - alasdair philips, scare stories | 126 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday June 2, 2007
The Guardian

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.

· Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk


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
added comfort’?

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
pseudoscientific babble
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?


If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

126 Responses

  1. Persiflage said,

    June 5, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    Ginger Yellow: there’s a “traditional remedy” for sensitivity to Unicorns… A sense of propriety prevents me from asking whether you’ve tried it!

  2. Moganero said,

    June 5, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    I gave up raeding all the comments about 80% of the way through – tooo much!

    Here’s my personal anecdote about wi-fi:

    About six weeks ago i wnet and bought a wireless router, I didn’t really need one, but I fancied giving it a go. A few days after I got everything working OK I started to feel really tired, I couldn’t think clearly a lot of the time, I ached and generally felt really lousy. I thought, “I think I’m coming down with a cold”.
    It was a real stinker of a cold, it really wiped me out, and the after effects lasted about 10 days, during which I was away from home for a week.
    A couple of days after I got home I started to feel really badly again, some of the symptoms were just the same, but this time no cold developed, but the other symptoms were even worse than previously. I continued using my wi-fi.

    Then I read this article. What an eye-opener!

    Was it the wifi eating into me? Was the pulsing radiation destroying my metabolism?

    Was it hell! It was my chronic fatigue syndrome rearing its ugly head once more after a week of over-exerting myself and as several very stressful events affected me.

    I’m now on the up again, my wifi is still on, but I’ve managed to get a few hours on the beach away from work.

    I should just mention that it’s possible get several wifi signals on the beach, and there’s a phone mast on the clifftop beaming its maximum strength right at my towel. It’s the UV you have to watch out for there – it’s usually around 9 these days, the max. being 12. Or maybe the UV sterilizes the pulsing micowaves?

  3. raygirvan said,

    June 5, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    >after I got everything working OK

    And that itself can conceal all kinds of minor hells… Major changes in computer configuration are very stressful: the break in routine, quite often waiting for delivery, possible installation hassles, nail-biting times wondering if it’ll work, stay working, etc. If you’re prone to illness when stressed-out, I’m sure going over to wifi can bring it on.

  4. rob said,

    June 5, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    I reckon Julia needs to cut down on her iron intake. After all, iron wires can be used to detect radio signals so she should do her best to purge it from her body lest it act as an antenna to catch that stray radiation. There may be a few side-effects to this treatment of course (‘may cause dizziness, nausea or death’)…

  5. Dr Aust said,

    June 5, 2007 at 10:05 pm

    Re 121.

    Good one, Rob. This idea of iron in the body turned up in one of CSI’s most crashing scientific howlers, where they had someone die due to being “unusually susceptible to electrocution” because they were iron overloaded and that “made their body conduct electricity better”.


    It was a surprise as the CSI shows have medical and science advisers so they are usually at least vaguely accurate.

  6. physics bloke said,

    June 6, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    rant comin up…

    i’m a theoretical physicist who used to teach science at an f.e. college (gave up because of restrictive and pointless course content and poor management) and i am absolutely f***ing sick and tired of reading crap written by morons who have no idea AT ALL about science – even primary school science. A recent article on the bbc website, which i rate very highly for most things, described the reason for the world’s fattest man being so fat as an “inflammation of his molecular structure”. Laugh, i nearly shat! I wrote to the bbc pointing out that this is equally as much nonsense as describing tony blair as the queen of azerbaijan, which they wouldn’t dream of doing and got no reply.

    As for the wi-fi b****cks, i’m fed up with my less well informed friends asking me what i think because they are genuinely worried by all the sh*te spouted by cash-in-whores trying to sell them trinkets etc. etc. etc.

    Me and my colleagues in the world of REAL science work damn hard for scant reward and are continually undermined by these charlatans who don’t care whether their facts are right as long as they get their paycheque. It’s no wonder noone wants to do science degrees anymore, why bother working at a subject which is conceptually challenging when you can get a job as a science writer with no understanding of the subject. It’s illegal to impersonate a policeman, it should be f***ing illegal to impersonate a scientist when making judgments about people’s health and well-being.

    Anyway – the sun’s out so i’m going for a beer.

  7. briantist@work said,

    June 6, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    Auntie’s at it again… Check out today’s The Daily Politics. Comedian Jasper Carrot has read “loads of evidence on the internet” about mobile phone masts killing people. Made me laugh! www.bbc.co.uk/dailypolitics/

  8. JQH said,

    June 6, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    Assuming that it is possible to make yourself more conductive, you would pass *more* current for any given voltage. And since P=VI, you would heat up more and cook that bit quicker.

  9. raygirvan said,

    June 6, 2007 at 4:31 pm

    It’s a bit one sided, and reads like a AS-level psychology essay.

    I had a glance just; someone’s beaten me to it over my main thought: that the style is way too academic. A lot of controversial topics go that way, and get smothered in a fog of references. Doesn’t look too bad otherwise.

  10. Dr Aust said,

    June 6, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    Being “iron loaded” in the medical sense wouldn’t make you more conductive, brickwall. Your body’s conductivity basically reflects it being effectively a series of large “compartments” of nice aqueous weak salt solution, 0.9% sodium chloride (or potassium chloride inside cells) or thereabouts. The mobile ions (and Na+ and Cl- are the commonest) carry the current. Obviously there are lots of other ions in there too, varying depending on which “compartment” you are talking about (blood plasma, in tissues but not in cells, inside cells)… but basically it is 0.9% (0.9g/100mL, so 9g/Litre, or 155 mM to you physical chemistry geeks) salt, at least to a useful first approximation.

    Having a bit, or even a lot, of extra iron stored away in iron storage proteins like ferritin wouldn’t make you any more conductive, as your overall “saltiness” wouldn’t change.

    For anyone weird enough to want to know more about electrocution from the biophysical perspective, there is an entire review at:


  11. sideshowjim said,

    June 6, 2007 at 8:00 pm

    Wouldn’t a faraday cage work better than a magic pendant? Just a thought…

  12. raygirvan said,

    June 6, 2007 at 11:02 pm

    Regarding Wikipedia, the “see also” articles are far more biased on this topic (Electromagnetic radiation hazard, Mobile phone radiation and health, Wireless electronic devices and health).

  13. briantist said,

    June 7, 2007 at 12:31 am

    by the way he’s being serious here. A serious NIMBY.

  14. Ambrielle said,

    June 7, 2007 at 12:33 am

    Re #123: you are right. It also drives me insane when these charlatans bend the truth or flat-out knowingly lie. Eventually they are caught at it, but by then the damage has been done. There is absolutely no punishment or consequence to them, other than their bank accounts being nicely topped up. It’s disgusting.

  15. briantist@work said,

    June 7, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    As The Daily Politics disappears from the BBC Website after 24 hours, here is the Jasper Carrot thingy on Google Video:


  16. spudhead said,

    June 7, 2007 at 1:45 pm

    Haha Jasper Carrot has “a protection” on his mobile phone. Tinfoil hat, or something more sophisticated?

  17. j said,

    June 7, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    “by the way he’s being serious here. A serious NIMBY.”

    Yep, typical NIMBYism – he wants to use his ‘protected’ mobile phone, but have mobile phone masts sited well away from him. In other words, he doesn’t want to lose the (minor) convenience of a mobile phone – and is quite prepared for others to suffer from the supposed risks of the mobile phone masts this requires, so long as this ‘danger’ is kept away from him.

    Nice bloke, isn’t he – as bright as he is altruistic.

  18. Ray C. said,

    June 7, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    James I of England on tobacco:

    A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.

    So much for tobacco once having been thought to be harmless.

  19. megachicken(b) said,

    June 7, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    “At one time scientists assured us the atomic bomb was harmless”

    Er – say what now?

  20. j said,

    June 7, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    Thanks for the reminder, Ray.

    re. the Stephenson response…where to start… I especially like the claim that scientists believed that the atom bomb was harmless (the atom *bomb* ffs – if a bomb’s ‘harmless’, it’s broke).

    If of interest to anyone – and to make this a really loser-length post – here’s the BBC’s response to my complaint about panorama (I’ve edited to remove some personal details etc.) btw, anyone else had a ‘proper’ response?:

    Thank you for your further e-mail.

    I’ve spoken directly to the programme’s Deputy Editor on your behalf and
    enclose his response to your ongoing concerns:

    “Thank you for your recent e-mail regarding the Panorama programme “Wi-fi:
    A Warning Signal” which has been passed to me for a second response.

    Regarding our use of the term “radiation”. We did not feel that the term
    “radio waves” was a fair reflection of the step change to microwave
    frequencies which some scientists believe can have a biological effect on
    human cells. Like it or not “radiation” is the term that has become common
    currency in the debate on mobile phone masts and now Wi-Fi. However, at
    the opening of the programme we made it crystal clear in the commentary
    that we were talking about “radio frequency radiation” and we used the word
    “signal” in the title and wherever possible throughout the programme to
    keep alive the idea to that what we were dealing with was an inevitable
    by-product of active Wi-Fi communication and downloads.

    The phrase “official disability” is used by one of our Swedish interviewees
    and its how she characterises her condition in her own words and not
    something we felt needed challenging.

    Regarding your comments on Alasdair Phillips/Powerwatch. We feel the
    comparison he helped us make (in the absence of any studies on radiation
    exposure levels in Wi-fi enabled classrooms) was valid in the sense that it
    visualised a genuine concern that may come to shape public health
    protection policy in the future.

    We did not cast the mast/classroom comparison as having validity beyond
    that. We said in commentary that the signal strength test would need to be
    repeated and verified and but that the levels we found were comfortably
    within current safety limits.

    Panorama told the audience correctly that Alasdair has been trusted to
    carry out these sorts of measurements by both the phone companies and
    industry regulators. We did not allow him to editorialise on the results in
    an interview or promote or use any equipment he markets in taking the
    measurements. We also gave the viewers a sense of his provenance in terms
    of “running a lobby group called Powerwatch which raises awareness of
    electromagnetic smog.”


    However, we were not the first broadcasters to raise this issue and when we asked a
    Government Minister to take part in the programme we were directed to Sir
    William Stewart of the Health Protection Agency whose concerns shaped our
    approach to the whole subject.

    Like it or not there is a credible cast of politicians, scientists and
    teachers representatives who question the whole basis on which current
    radiation safety limits are set and would like to see more research work
    undertaken in this area. Once that work is done the industry and the public
    will move on wiser and safer.

    I hope this covers the points you raised.

    Best wishes”


    {Programme Name:} Panorama
    {Transmission Date:}22 – 05 – 07

    I am sending this to reply to your response to my complaint (I tried
    e-mailing back, but this is apparently not allowed). See below for

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    As you will see if you read my complaint, I made a number of points
    about Panorama and asked a number of questions. Your response does not
    address my concerns at all. A quick look on the Internet shows that you
    are sending a pre-written letter to all complainants –
    www.badscience.net/?p=415 This is not an acceptable standard
    of service (I would expect a more considered response from the average
    call centre, let alone the BBC). Please read my complaint and respond
    to my concerns: a ‘boilerplate’ response is not acceptable.

    One more point – your disclaimer (“This e-mail (and any attachments) is
    confidential and may contain personal views which are not the views of
    the BBC unless specifically stated. If you have received it in error,
    please delete it from your system. Do not use, copy or disclose the
    information in any way nor act in reliance on it and notify the sender
    immediately. Please note that the BBC monitors e-mails sent or
    received. Further communication will signify your consent to this”) is
    very badly written, and does not make any sense to me. I therefore do
    not consent to this – I’m not even at all sure what it means – and if
    you really want to add a disclaimer to your e-mails, I would suggest
    that the BBC writes something more coherent.

    info@bbc.co.uk wrote:
    > > Dear Mr J
    > >
    > > Many thanks for taking the time to get in touch following our show,
    Wi-Fi – A Warning Signal.
    > > I’m sorry if you believe the programme lacked the hard evidence you
    wanted to see. Unfortunately, the truth is that as things stand, there
    is no hard evidence regarding the effects of long term exposure to Wi-Fi
    which is why we made the programme.
    > > Wi-Fi is being rolled out into classrooms around the country by the
    Government contrary to the precautionary approach recommended by the
    head of its own advisory body Sir William Stewart – chair of the Health
    Protection Agency. As you will have seen in the programme, he believes
    that where radiation is concerned we should base policy on the
    precautionary principle particularly when it comes to children. This
    therefore raises questions as to whether Wi-Fi should be rolled out into
    the classroom without any long term health research being carried out.
    > >
    > > Many scientists criticise the way in which the radiation exposure
    limits are set in this country. The programme featured both the WHO
    position and ICNIRP who base their limits on what they term a “thermal
    effect”. It is this view that courts criticism from some scientists,
    including those featured in our programme, because the safety limits do
    not take into account a biological effect which some scientists say they
    have found evidence of. The reason why these positions were not
    represented by different people is that Dr Michael Repacholi is perhaps
    the most qualified person to answer such questions given that he was the
    founding chair of ICNIRP (and continues to be Emeritus Chairman) and
    because he set up and headed the WHO EMF project for ten years.
    However, he was given the opportunity to make his position clear in the
    > > The other scientists in the film are all experts in their fields who
    have concerns that we are rushing forward into something before it’s
    been around long enough to know what the long term effects could be.
    > > The fact that the Swedish government recognises radiation sensitivity
    as a disability that affects 3% of the population was, we felt, of
    interest given our Government’s publicly stated view that this condition
    does not exist.
    > > The programme attempted to raise concern without causing alarm –
    always a difficult balance to strike but one which we believe we
    > > Please continue to let us know your views on the programmes as they
    are always welcome and we hope you keep watching.
    > >
    > > Regards
    > >
    > > BBC Panorama
    > >
    > > —–Original Message—–
    > >
    > > […]
    >> >> {Comments:}
    >> >> I was appalled by the Panorama programme on electrosmog. This
    appeared to uncritically accept the agenda of groups such as Powerwatch
    (which have a vested interest in selling ‘treatments’ for
    electrosensitivity and electrosmog) while at the same time smearing
    scientists who challenge scaremongering about electrosmog by focusing on
    their links to mobile phone companies. I am sure that you will have
    received a number of e-mails about this programme, so I will just list a
    few mistakes which jumped out at me. Why didn’t you give a proper
    explanation of what ‘radiation’ means (everything from light bulbs to TV
    masts emit radiation)? Just referring to wifi equipment emitting
    ‘radiation’, without contextualising this, sounds unnecessarily scary.
    >> >> There is no such thing as an ‘official disability’ in Sweden, so why
    did the programme refer to such ‘official disabilities’?
    >> >> Re. the woman who could ‘detect’ EMR two thirds of the time – was
    this statistically significant? Did the programme-makers check? If so,
    why didn’t they tell the viewers? If it wasnÔt statistically
    significant, then the fact that she could ‘detect’ this EMR 2/3 of the
    time was irrelevant.
    >> >> Why did you allow Powerwatch to advertise their ‘electrosmog
    detector’ and their ‘shielding’ products, without testing these products
    for efficacy or utility?
    >> >> Why did you imply that hard-wiring a classroom is risk-free? Aside
    from obvious risks (e.g. tripping over a wire) I’m sure you know that
    running a current through a wire will generate an electromagnetic field.
    If you want to be paranoid about this stuff (I don’t, but it seems
    Panorama does) then how do we know this is risk free? Where are the
    long-term studies? Nothing in life is risk-free (though many things are
    sufficiently low-risk that the benefits far outweigh the risks).
    >> >>
    >> >> […]

    >> >> Anecdotally, a number of schools have been having to deal with
    requests from parents to disable their wireless networks after the
    Panorama broadcast. Did you think about how your programme would impact
    on provision for students with learning difficulties?

  21. Mojo said,

    June 8, 2007 at 3:43 pm

    j said, (June 7, 2007 at 4:29 pm) “Did you think about how your programme would impact
    on provision for students with learning difficulties?”

    Never mind the children. Won’t someone think of the parents and journalists with learning difficulties?

  22. ebwilford said,

    June 9, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    We’ve been looking at it all wrong. What we need to win in Iraq (and hey, what the hell…Iran too) is to build lots and lots of mobile phone masts and WiFi routers. The bastards won’t know what hit them…they’ll come over all lethargic, and have really bad headaches. Could YOU propagate terrorism with a bad headache? I didn’t think so.

    Bad Science will lead the way to a better tomorrow. I’m certain of it.

  23. JQH said,

    June 10, 2007 at 9:54 pm

    There’re lots of mobile phone masts going up in South Africa. No “electrosensitivity” AFAIK. This seems to be some sort of cultural thing, like the obsession of some South Koreans with “fan death”.

  24. raygirvan said,

    June 15, 2007 at 1:45 am

    Fan-scinating. I wonder if electrical sensitivity would come into the territory of Culture-bound syndromes?

  25. diudiu said,

    December 21, 2009 at 5:50 am

    ed hardy ed hardy
    ed hardy clothing ed hardy clothing
    ed hardy jeans ed hardy jeans
    christian audigier christian audigier
    ed hardy t shirts ed hardy t shirts
    ed hardy uk ed hardy uk
    ed hardy bags ed hardy bags
    ed hardy hoodies ed hardy hoodies
    ed hardy mens ed hardy mens
    ed hardy womens ed hardy womens
    ed hardy kids ed hardy kids ed hardy kids

  26. Conundrum said,

    November 25, 2014 at 8:42 am

    Ongoing discussion at the moment, the upshot is that some people may in fact be sensitive to the fumes from the hot outgassing plastics used on power supplies etc.

    If so then at least we know the cause (ie not WiFi) and can do something about it such as banning the sucky made-in-cheapo-land-fire-and-electrocution-hazard PSUs or at least setting a safety limit for them using infrared thermometer
    to check external plastics during a load test.

    I’ve actually found that the ones supplied with routers are the worst for this, mine was so hot that the casing warped in the couple of days it was used before switching back to one from an electric piano which also got rid of the random dropouts and low signal 🙂