Nov 25 2011

Electromagnetic Sensitivity in Sweden

From Emil Håkansson, a listener of my podcast, the SGU, comes this e-mail, with a translation of a story in Swedish:

“Electric allergy could render Mora without mobile- and tv-signal
Masts could be re-angled

A zone without mobile- and tv-coverage could become a reality in Mora.
The enviromental office want to force the mobile- and tv-operators to re-angle the masts, in consideration of Dan Bengtsson, 62 – who claims to be allergic to electricity.
– I get dizzy, nauseated and headaches, he says to Aftonbladet.

The joint enviromental office of Mora and Orsa counties want to take to drastic measures. Mobile operators and radio- and TV-distributor Teracom (owned by state, translators note) is according to the suggestion forced to re-angle the position of their masts to create a radiation free zone.

Protective suit in silver

According to Dan Bengtsson himself the headaches, back-problems and heart tinglings is due to his allergy against electricity and that the mobile net has been expanded. Against the radiation he wears a protective suit, in a special silver fabric, from time to time.
– It looks a bit like a space suit and is sown in protective fabric. It cushions somewhat, but not completely.

It is a long part about his daily problems, same problems that you always hear about this kind of thing, amongst other things he states that he thinks he caught it from working as an electrical engineer at an electric company in 1992. But it continues with this:

In 2006 he sent in a citizen suggestion to the county, to achieve a radiation-free zone in Venjan (the village where he lives, translators comment).

“Red in the face”
The suggestion was well received. The county refers to the Enviromental Code.
– We work according to the precautionary principle and sees this as a good suggestion, says enviromental board director Hans Nalbom (S) (the (S) stands for his political party, social democrats, translators comment.)

He has himself met many with the same problem as Dan Bengtsson.

– When I have lived in different places in the country I have met people that work a lot with computers who gets all red in the face and has to have protection in front of the computer. And I have met many who is sensitive to electricity or feel that they are effected.
“One should be careful”
Since there are conflicting results from scientific studies, Hans Nalbom thinks that it is better to be safe than sorry.

– In France they have chosen a restrictive line when it comes to mobile radiation in public buildings. Science stands on two sides about this. There are reports about tumours and other. I think too little research has been performed on the subject, and that you should be very careful since you do not know.

Two billion times lower limit
The power density around the man’s house will not be allowed to exceed 50 nanowatt per squaremeter. Normally the Swedish limit is 500 000 nanowatt per squaremeter.

Sweden has a limit for radiation from mobiletelephone masts at 10 watt per squaremeter. Mora county wants to lower the limit to a level that is 2 billion times lower than the rest of Sweden.” […]

Then they have interviewed an actually sane person who is a professor in elector magnetism at Chalmers in Gothenborg. He states in short that with the suggested limits no one in that area will be able to phone (from their mobile) or watch TV.

But finish the article of with this line:

“The question is controversial. The scientific reports about how harmful radiation from mobile masts are, is conflicting.
The case has been handled during many years and now the county will make a decision. The enviromental board refers to the Enviromental Code.
The enviromental office has now put a suggestion up for decision in the enviromental board meeting held the 21st of december.”

A sad story indeed, if it comes to pass.

Electromagnetic Sensitivity

This is one of those topics that is likely not to go away, despite scientific evidence. Some people claim that they are sensitive to electromagnetic fields. The typical symptoms that are reported are common non-specific symptoms: headaches, fatigue, nausea, etc. The World Health Organization reviewed the scientific literature addressing this question. They found 25,000 relevant articles. One can hardly claim that this question has not been researched. They concluded:

In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research.

After extensive study there is no evidence that electromagnetic sensitivity exists as a real condition. The most relevant studies, in my opinion, are studies in which subjects with self-reports electromagnetic hypersensitivity are exposed in a blinded fashion to EM fields. In such studies subjects generally cannot detect the presence of an EM field – they are just as likely to experience their symptoms with or without EM field exposure. A 2005 systematic review of these types of studies concluded:

The symptoms described by “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” sufferers can be severe and are sometimes disabling. However, it has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF can trigger these symptoms. This suggests that “electromagnetichypersensitivity” is unrelated to the presence of EMF, although more research into this phenomenon is required.

The science is not truly controversial – the conclusion that there is probably no such thing as EMF hypersensitivity is fairly solid at this point, and reflects a consensus of scientific opinion. The only point of contention is how much further research is needed. There is, however, a vocal minority of researchers who continue to advocate for an effect from EMF, and they often convince the media that the topic is more controversial than it really is. For example, Canadian researcher, Dr. Magda Havas, has been a vocal advocate of the notion that “dirty electricity” is capable of causing biological symptoms and harm, and her name frequently crops up in media reports as an “expert.”

The Precautionary Principle

Did you know that vending machines are deadly? They kill more people each year than sharks (although people have more exposure to vending machines than sharks). A report from the Consumer Protection Safety Commission in 1995 found an average of 2.18 deaths per year from tipping vending machines between 1978 and 1995. A 1992 review of cases concluded:

Soda pop vending machine tipping continues to be a dangerous behavior that can result in lethal or crippling injuries. This study analyzes 64 cases of injuries secondary to crushing by a soda machine. All were male victims except one. The average age was 19.8 years with a range of 5-39 years. Thirteen victims sustained multiple trauma. Fifteen victims were killed. Increased public awareness coupled with support by the government and private industry has contributed to a sharp reduction in incidence of accidents and improved public safety.

In response to this risk warning labels have been placed on vending machines, advising users not to tip or rock the machines. But is this enough – should they be required to be fastened to the ground, and regularly inspected for safety? In addition there are reported deaths from electrocution from faulty wiring in vending machines (two cases were children). The victims here cannot be blamed for risky behavior.

I am not trying to make light of this issue, but rather to make the point that just about every aspect of our daily lives involves risk. The precautionary principle is a fine principle, when rationally applied. Essentially the point is that when we lack definitive knowledge about a specific risk it is often reasonable to err on the side of caution, to assume there is a risk rather than to assume there isn’t one.

This principle, however, can be easily overapplied or misapplied. Risks always have to be considered in the context of benefit. Further, the risks of not doing something have to be considered along side the risks of the thing itself. Seatbelts and airbags have risks, but the risks of not using these devices is greater. Unless risks are put into context in this way it is highly probable that the law of unintended consequences will apply, and increased harm will result. This is especially true when risks are tiny, and measures taken to prevent them (when systemic) are likely to be massive. So even a small risk from the safety precautions are likely to dwarf the initial risk itself.

With regard to EMF, there is no proven harm. It has been extensively studied, to the point where the applicability of the precautionary principle is dubious. But even if there were remaining doubt we have to consider the inconvenience and risks involved in having EMF blackout areas. That can result in many people going without phone services, television, and other technology. How many people will die because they did not have access to a cell phone during a medical or other emergency?

There is a line beyond which the precautionary principle amounts to unfounded panic, and the resulting overreaction to folly. Mischief will ensue.

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