Can you be allergic to modern life?
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London - Her headaches were constant and vice-like. So extreme was the pain that it ruined any chance of a decent night’s sleep, and left Julia Taylor reduced to little more than ‘”a walking zombie”.
A sensible, rational woman, the 53-year-old nutritionist went to her GP for an explanation - only to be told her repeated headaches were simply the countdown to the menopause. Yet every conceivable brand of painkiller, alternative remedy, and even hormone replacement therapy failed to help.
“I felt like I was going crazy. Doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with me, I was fit and healthy in every other way - a battery of tests proved that. And yet my head felt like it was about to explode. I couldn’t work properly because I was so exhausted all the time. Once, I didn’t sleep for four nights in a row. I felt like I was living in a nightmare.”
So why did nothing help? Julia is convinced it’s because she suffers electro-hypersensitivity (EHS). She believes she is allergic to atmospheric man-made radiation caused by wi-fi, phone signals, cellphones, TV screens and fluorescent lights. In short, she is allergic to modern life.
The symptoms reported by sufferers of EHS range from headaches to nausea, sickness, severe abdominal pain, heavy bleeding and even blackouts. Yet EHS is a controversial condition. While some countries, such as Sweden, recognise it as a “functional impairment”, here the Health Protection Agency says there is no scientific evidence linking ill health with electrical equipment.
So can you really be allergic to all the technology that comes hand-in-hand with modern living? Are Julia and other sufferers sadly misguided - or are they on to something? Certainly, some distinguished experts have linked disrupted sleep to a proximity to power lines.
Denis Henshaw, emeritus professor of Human Radiation Effe cts at the University of Bristol, points out that many people who live close to high-voltage power lines suffer sleep disorders and depressive symptoms, as seen in a number of studies.
“This could be explained by the fact that magnetic fields, such as those found near power lines, disrupt the nocturnal production of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin,” he says.
“Whether other symptoms of EHS occur in this way is not known, but researchers are looking at a number of ways in which electric and magnetic fields may adversely affect health.”
Two years ago, the European Assembly passed Resolution 1815, which, among other things, calls for restrictions on wi-fi in schools and the use of cellphones by children. And the World Health Organisation has classified electromagnetic fields of the kind used in mobile telephones as potentially cancerous.
Julia believes her symptoms were triggered when her home town of Glastonbury switched on a new wi-fi network, known as WiMAX, in 2008.
“I was fine before then,” she says. “And I felt fine if I was away from home. But as soon as I got back, my head would start banging again. I couldn’t bear it.”
In the end, Julia and her family - husband, Kevin, 64, who runs his own building business, and their children, Chris, 26 and Katie, 16, moved. They now live in East Devon, a place characterised by a sparse and ageing population - and by a low uptake of mobiles. While Julia still suffers headaches, they are much milder, and her life is more tolerable.
She is not alone. Many thousands of people - some reports estimate up to five percent of the population - attribute a raft of debilitating symptoms or poor physical health to EHS.
Indeed, according to Dr Erica Mallery-Blythe, a former A&E doctor who works as a consultant to various organisations researching EHS, many of us may be electro-hypersensitive and not realise it.
“Everybody has the potential to become electro-hypersensitive. Every cell in our body, in our brain, or nervous system is dependent on electrical signals,” she says. “But some people have that extra sensitivity, and though they may not know it, it is causing their asthma, flu-like symptoms or insomnia.” But the symptoms of EHS can be sporadic, making them difficult to track.
Hannah Metcalf, however, is in no doubt about the cause of her ailments. The 35-year-old says she is so severely sensitive to electromagnetic waves that she cannot go near a phone or pick up a tablet device, such as an iPad.
She rarely leaves her home, a 200-acre farm near Canterbury, in an attempt to limit her exposure to radiation. She also strongly believes the difficulty she has had getting pregnant, as well as a miscarriage she suffered three years ago, are down to her condition.
Any exposure to technology with radiowaves, like a cellphone, gives her headaches, stomach cramps, bloating and flu-like symptoms.
Her condition manifested itself ten years ago when she started work as a trainee solicitor after completing a law degree. When she sat under the fluorescent lighting in her office, she developed pains in her head and stomach, as well as fatigue. At around the same time, she developed pounding headaches whenever she used her cellphone. In 2010, she suffered a miscarriage and decided she had no choice but to quit work.
Like Julia, she researched her situation on the internet. When she read about EHS, everything fell into place. “I loved my job. But my symptoms intensified every time I was in the office,” she says. “In the end, I couldn’t jeopardise my dream of having children.”
Over the past few years, her symptoms have become more acute: she can’t go anywhere that has wi-fi, as even brief exposure leaves her sick and unable to function.
She lives a semi-reclusive rural life with her partner, Mark, a 38-year-old farmer, and their children Olly, four, and Ebony, four months. All gadgets are banned in the house and Mark has to do all the errands in town so she can avoid wi-fi.
Despite such vivid testimonies, there are those who feel EHS could be psychosomatic. They include Dr James Rubin, a senior lecturer in psychological medicine at King’s College, London, who has reviewed more than 50 studies and found no evidence of sensitivity to microwave radiation. While he doesn’t question that what sufferers experience is real, he does query the cause of it.
“There are various explanations for what people believe to be behind EHS. A third may have a recorded medical condition such as asthma, or even depression, which they think has been triggered by, say, mobile phone usage, but which they would have suffered anyway,” he says.
“There are those who don’t have a medically defined reason for a set of symptoms - perhaps headaches - so they come to their own conclusions. The point about EHS is that it is all based on self-diagnosis.
“There is no specific medical test for it. It can also be down to a self-fulfilling prophesy, where an individual can worry themselves sick. The expectation triggers the physical symptoms.”
Yet, despite the scepticism of much of the medical community, many sufferers are so sure of the source of their problems they go to great lengths to protect themselves from modern life.
Jessica Sapphire, 57, from Worthing, West Sussex, has given up her job and is living on her savings after finding it impossible to work in the office of a charity where she was company accountant.
She says: “We moved to new premises in March 2011 and as soon as we did I began to feel a prickling and tingling of the skin, as well as terrible pains in my stomach. Looking outside, I also noticed that there was a digital aerial directly above my desk.
“I felt run-down and in pain, so I took few days off and was fine. But as soon as I returned to work, I felt awful again. I had a strong metallic taste in my mouth, my head was on fire, I started wheezing.”
Jessica suspected the connection because she had suffered a reaction to mobile phones when she bought one in 2001. ‘When I held it to my face I felt pains like hot knitting needles pricking against my skin. But the feeling went away as soon as I stopped using it.
“It happened again when I had a digital aerial put on my house. This time I got pains in my stomach and prickling skin. I took the aerial down and the pains went away.”
So what can sufferers do if they believe the world is poisoning them? According to Dr Mallery-Blythe, there is no cure. “The only way to alleviate symptoms is to avoid the electromagnetic waves they feel cause them. Don’t keep electronic devices in the room you sleep in, and switch off as many devices as you can in the house.”
Jessica uses sheets threaded with silver on her bed - specifically developed for EHS sufferers - to earth any surrounding charges. She doesn’t keep electrical equipment plugged in, apart from her fridge. She doesn’t use a TV or a radio, and covers her windows with aluminium at night to deflect radiation.
Hannah tries to see the positive side of her predicament.
“At least I’ll never be one those moms in the park who are glued to the phone when they should be watching their children play. But I’m afraid to even think of what the future holds for my children in this technological era,” she says.
And as we become ever more dependent on technology, anxieties grow. More than a billion people worldwide own cellphones and, in the UK, there are more cell contracts than people, making it ever more difficult for those allergic to modern life to escape. - Daily Mail