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A growing challenge for journalists? Science and “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” court cases

1 September 2015
Litigation partially legitimizes EHS in France; in Massachusetts, a school’s Wi-Fi upgrade inspires a lawsuit.

In March, New York Times science writer George Johnson reported on litigation in New Mexico about electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), an affliction allegedly caused by wireless emissions. He observed that the case “shows how two of civilization’s great bodies of thought—the scientific and the legal—can make for an uneasy mix.” Now court cases in France and Massachusetts are stirring that mix.

In 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that the most common symptoms attributed to EHS include dermatological ones (“redness, tingling, and burning sensations”) as well as “neurasthenic and vegetative” ones (“fatigue, tiredness, concentration difficulties, dizziness, nausea, heart palpitation, and digestive disturbances”). But the WHO stipulated that these are “not part of any recognized syndrome” and concluded:

EHS is characterized by a variety of non-specific symptoms that differ from individual to individual. The symptoms are certainly real and can vary widely in their severity. Whatever its cause, EHS can be a disabling problem for the affected individual. EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to [electromagnetic] exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem.

Johnson could have added that EHS court cases uneasily mix not only law and science, but journalism. If he were to add that profession, he might choose to stipulate that it’s easy to find news reports that emphasize extensive scientific support for WHO’s rejection of EHS.

Press reports about the case in France emphasize that scientific judgment. Using information from Agence France-Presse, Wired, International Business Times, and other publications have reported that a court in Toulouse “awarded a disability grant to a woman claiming to suffer from a debilitating allergy to electromagnetic radiation from everyday gadgets such as cellphones.” The reports make clear that EHS is not recognized as a medical disorder in most countries, and that the court, though it recognized the consequences of the woman’s affliction, did not recognize EHS as an illness.

This passage appeared in some news reports about the French case:

Double-blind scientific trials, where neither the patient or researcher was aware whether they had been exposed to electromagnetic waves, have refuted any link to the symptoms, and many experts ascribe the condition to a phobia.

Some believe it might be triggered by the so-called “nocebo” effect—the placebo effect in reverse—when people feel unwell because they believe they have been exposed to something harmful.

Also reported, though, was that “Sweden and Germany have classified [EHS] as an occupational disease.” And as was lawsuit pending in Massachusetts tries to assert not just a strong legal case grounded in the Americans with Disabilities Act, but a strong scientific case. Ars Technica has published a well-crafted, informative 850-word article about the litigation. A Physics Today Online “News Pick” summarized that piece:

Parents of a young boy have brought a lawsuit against the private boarding school he attends. They claim that their son is suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome due to the industrial-capacity Wi-Fi system the school installed and that the electromagnetic emissions cause him to experience “headaches, nose bleeds, dizziness, chest pains and nausea,” all of which disappear once he is home. The parents allege that when they brought their concerns to school officials and asked that the school “make reasonable accommodations” for their son’s “disability” by reducing the emissions to a physically tolerable level, the school refused, adopted a hostile attitude, and threatened to dismiss the student. Although a number of people say they suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, no scientific evidence or study backs up that claim.

The lawsuit cites studies and invokes authorities. It declares that EHS is not the “speculative condition” it’s judged to be by the WHO and others. It charges that the defendant “has simply ignored the science,” which “is certainly compelling enough to warrant” accommodation of the plaintiffs. It asserts that “EHS has been recognized as a disability of those who suffer its effects,” then invokes the authority of “an independent federal agency” called the United States Access Board. Without using the word slippery, Ars Technica calls that argument slippery. And in this complex biophysics realm, the lawsuit rests an argument about harm on the implied, but unsubstantiated, charge that somehow a doubling of frequency within presumably standard Wi-Fi frequency ranges constitutes an increase, maybe even a doubling, of the alleged harm:

Sometime in or around the spring term of 2013, [the school] installed in its classrooms and in various other facilities a new Wi-Fi system, known as the “Aerohive Wi-Fi Network.” This is a high-density, industrial-capacity wireless system which, when operating, emits substantially greater radiofrequency/microwave emissions than the emissions coming from the more low-grade systems used in most homes and in certain other public places. Specifically, the Aerohive Network doubled the prior emissions in ... classrooms from 2.5 GHz to 5 GHz. Exposure to the emissions from the high-density Wi-Fi ... is dangerous to persons having an aggravated sensitivity to those emissions.

In that New Mexico litigation discussed in the New York Times, the side citing actual science eventually won the appealed lawsuit, but not before the litigation generated documents that would stack to six feet, with court costs—not even including lawyers’ fees—at more than a thousand dollars per inch. Journalists will have their work cut out for them if EHS litigation proliferates.


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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