From Invisible Waves to Visible Symptoms: Understanding Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity

In previous articles, we’ve delved into the significant impact of artificial electromagnetic fields (EMFs) on human health [1] [2]. Over many years, the widespread use of EMF-emitting devices has ignited debates regarding the potential effects of continuous whole-body exposure to these fields.

In 2009, Olle Johansson from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, sounded the alarm in the journal Pathophysiology, stating: “EMFs disturb immune function through stimulation of various allergic and inflammatory responses, as well as effects on tissue repair processes. Such disturbances increase the risks for various diseases, including cancer. These and the EMF effects on other biological processes (e.g., DNA damage, neurological effects, etc.) are now widely reported to occur at exposure levels significantly below most current national and international safety limits” [3].

In a subsequent 2017 publication, Johansson further suggested that prolonged exposure to artificial electromagnetic fields (such as those from cell phones and WiFi) might weaken our immune system. This hypothesis revolves around the notion that these fields might interfere with an essential enzyme (calcineurin) that aids in proper immune cell functioning. When this enzyme malfunctions, our immune system weakens, making it easier for infections to take hold [4].

Johansson proposed an explanation for this sensitivity: Humans have historically thrived under a nearly constant geomagnetic field and solar radiation. He believes it’s implausible that human biology has rapidly adapted to the altered electromagnetism levels introduced merely in the past century [3]. The advent of electricity, in particular, exposes our physiology to four significant phenomena: ground currents, electromagnetic fields from power supplies and other grid equipment, the pervasive ‘electromagnetic smog’ emitted by communication devices, and the presence of ‘dirty electricity,’ characterized by high frequencies on power lines—yet these conditions remain poorly understood with uncertain effects [3].

And this carries reason. Humans have long been exposed to minimal microwave electromagnetic radiation from cosmic rays, the aurora borealis, and thunderstorms. However, modern technologies like WiFi, cell phones, televisions, and various handheld devices have significantly increased our exposure to artificial EMF within the microwave frequency range. In particular, the photonic energy emitted by anti-collision vehicle radars and WiGig is now 1000 times greater than what humans experienced before the 1950s [5].

EMFs are ubiquitous, and apart from those in the visible spectrum, they are mainly invisible to the human eye. Even weak magnetic fields can produce biological effects [3]. For instance, being near a cell phone exposes you to magnetic pulses [3]. Given our frequent use of wireless devices like cell phones, exercising caution is particularly important. A paper by Marshall and Heil in Immunologic Research delved into the pervasive nature of this electrosmog [5].

In their study, Marshall and Heil discovered that the VDR, a specific receptor linked to vitamin D, is sensitive to electromagnetic waves, especially in the microwave frequency used by cell phones and WiFi. This sensitivity can affect how the VDR functions, potentially leading to immune system issues. A small trial involving patients using a silver-threaded cap to shield their heads from these waves revealed that 90% noticed significant improvements in their symptoms, a much higher rate than that of the general population. This percentage suggests that protecting against electromagnetic waves might be crucial for treating autoimmune diseases in the future [5].

Despite being previously dismissed as conspiracy theories, even reputable organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) are now expressing concerns about using extremely low frequencies (ELF) found in household appliances and the power lines looming over many neighborhoods. There is speculation that these ELF exposures could be linked to certain childhood cancers [3].

On May 31, 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMFs) from mobile phones and other devices emitting non-ionizing electromagnetic fields as a ‘possible’ human carcinogen belonging to Group 2B. However, whether EMFs elevate cancer risk has been an ongoing debate.

One valuable source of insight is a meta-analysis, which is considered the highest quality evidence. Published in Pathophysiology, this meta-analysis synthesized findings from 42 studies involving 13,259 cases and 100,882 controls to clarify the matter. Overall, the researchers concluded that ELF-EMFs are linked to cancer risk, particularly evident in the United States and among populations exposed to residential environments [6].

In another study featured in Environmental Health, researchers revealed an almost twofold increase in the risk of head tumors associated with prolonged cell phone use [7]. The study investigated whether using mobile phones (both analog and digital, including cordless) is linked to an increased risk of head tumors. They analyzed various research methods used in case-control and cohort studies and pooled and meta-analyses. They identified elements crucial for assessing the reliability of each study [7].

The results suggest that studies with blind protocols, free from errors and biases, consistently show a significant increase in the risk of head tumors on the same side where the phone is typically used (ipsilateral), especially after long-term use (over ten years). Even studies with non-blind protocols, which may have errors and biases, tend to show a similar increase in risk after long-term use [7].

Meta-analyses, including their own, focusing on subjects using mobile phones for at least ten years, demonstrate a statistically significant increase in the risk of specific head tumors, such as brain gliomas and acoustic neuromas, on the same side of phone use [7].

In conclusion, the analysis suggests that long-term use or exposure to mobile phones nearly doubles the risk of head tumors, based on the findings from various studies and meta-analyses [7].

Similarly, in another study, researchers examined the survival rates of 1678 glioma patients over two periods (1997–2003 and 2007–2009) to investigate if there’s a link between wireless phones and glioma patient survival. Glioma is a type of brain tumor. They found that using wireless phones for over 20 years increased glioma’s hazard ratio (HR), with an HR of 1.7 and a confidence interval of 1.2–2.3. For the most aggressive type of glioma, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the HR was even higher at 2.0 for mobile phone use and 3.4 for cordless phone use. The risk increased with the duration of wireless phone use but not with the cumulative hours of use [8].

This study supports the World Health Organization’s (WHO) classification of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMFs) from mobile phones as a “possible” human carcinogen (Group 2B). The findings suggest that RF-EMFs might impact glioma patient survival, particularly for GBM. Based on these results, the authors suggest that private and public agencies should urgently revise current exposure guidelines to recognize RF-EMFs as a human carcinogen [8].

In the early 1980s, electrohypersensitivity (EHS) emerged to describe individuals who exhibited reproducible symptoms upon exposure to electromagnetic devices like mobile phones and WiFi equipment [3]. Despite this condition not receiving widespread recognition from conventional medical circles, the WHO acknowledged EHS, suggesting that reducing EMF exposure could alleviate associated symptoms of chronic fatigue.

More than a decade ago, the WHO included radiofrequency fields in their research agenda, highlighting their concern over the potential health impacts of EMF [3]. EHS individuals may present with heightened activity in the central nervous system and imbalances in the autonomic nervous system, reflecting disturbances in the equilibrium between the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ response and the parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ state, where one branch’s activity deviates from the norm [3].

EHS has been reported in several countries, such as Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, and the United States. However, the prevalence rates of EHS vary significantly, ranging from 3.1% in Sweden to 5% in Switzerland and up to 8% in Germany, underscoring the need for further research to determine the number of affected individuals accurately [3].

According to Johansson, typical symptoms of EHS include rhinitis, eye irritation, impaired sense of smell, coughing, a dry and hoarse throat, a sensation of heaviness in the head, cognitive difficulties, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal discomfort, dizziness, cardiac symptoms, and various facial skin issues such as burning, itching, stinging, redness, and rosacea [3].

In a self-reported phone survey with 2,072 Californians, researchers explored alleged hypersensitivity to EMFs. They found that 3.2% of respondents reported being “allergic or very sensitive” to electrical devices. Interestingly, only 1.3% reported sensitivity to electrical devices but not to chemicals, meaning those reporting hypersensitivity to EMFs differed from those allergic to everyday chemicals [9].

A doctor’s diagnosis of environmental illness or MCS was the strongest predictor of reporting EMF hypersensitivity. Other factors included race/ethnicity other than White, Black, or Hispanic, low income, and inability to work. Interestingly, perception of risk from using hair dryers (as opposed to power lines) was strongly associated with reporting EMF hypersensitivity, but risk perception alone didn’t fully explain the characteristics of those reporting the disorder [9].

In a presentation at the World Health Organization International Workshop on EMF Hypersensitivity, one presentation noted that 36% of individuals reported sensitivity to DECT cordless phones, 27% to visual display terminals, 18% to fluorescent lights, 12% to television, and 6% to landline phones [10]. Regarding symptoms, headaches were the most common, with 85% reporting, followed by burning (61%), dizziness (27%), fatigue (24%), nausea (15%), itching (15%), and redness (9%) [10].

One issue readily apparent with these generalized symptoms is that if a person presents to their doctor reporting headaches, burning, or dizziness, the doctor may easily misdiagnose that person with another disorder or brand that person as psychosomatic.

For example, in a prospective study, researchers evaluated 32 individuals self-reporting electrohypersensitivity (EHS) for oxidative and antioxidative stress responses. Researchers measured various biomarkers in the individuals’ blood, including malondialdehyde (MDA) for lipid peroxidation, total thiol group molecules, glutathione (GSH), and nitrotyrosine (NTT) as a marker of oxidative/nitrosative stress [11].

Results showed that 30-50% of EHS patients had significantly increased oxidative stress biomarkers like TBARs, MDA, GSSG, and NTT compared to healthy controls. Conversely, levels of GSH-associated biomarkers were decreased in 20-40% of patients [11].

Additionally, researchers measured the activities of antioxidant enzymes like superoxide dismutase (SOD1), glutathione reductase (GR), and glutathione peroxidase (GPx). SOD1 and GPx activities were increased in 60% and 19% of patients, respectively [11].

Overall, approximately 80% of EHS patients showed abnormalities in one, two, or three oxidative stress biomarkers, suggesting a genuine pathological disorder similar to conditions like cancer or Alzheimer’s disease [11].

EMFs potentially trigger heightened mast cell reactivity. Mast cells, the guardians of the immune system, directly interact with the environment and are distributed throughout connective tissues in the body. They play crucial roles in maintaining vascular balance, vasodilation, angiogenesis, pathogen defense, venom detoxification, and innate and adaptive immunity [12].

While vital for normal bodily functions, mast cells are also implicated in allergic conditions like asthma and allergies, anaphylaxis, certain cancers, cardiovascular issues, and emerging conditions like histamine intolerance and mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS). When activated, mast cells release histamine granules responsible for symptoms like swelling and redness after insect bites. Histamine primarily induces increased capillary permeability, resulting in widespread symptoms such as swelling, pain, itching, redness, and skin disorders.

Studies note a significant increase in mast cell numbers in the superficial skin layers of individuals with electrohypersensitivity, confirmed by mast cell markers like chymase, tryptase, and histamine [3]. Electrohypersensitive subjects exhibit larger infiltrating mast cells and more degranulated mast cells in the dermal reticular layer, with denser cytoplasmic granule distribution than controls. Similar observations were made when healthy individuals spent time in front of visual display units like ordinary televisions [13]. Elevated mast cell counts are hallmark indicators of allergic and inflammatory states, underscoring the severe implications of EMF exposure.


In light of the extensive research and evidence presented, it is increasingly evident that artificial electromagnetic fields (EMFs) have significant implications for human health. Over the past decades, the proliferation of EMF-emitting devices has led to widespread concerns among various stakeholders regarding the potential health risks associated with prolonged exposure.

Numerous studies have highlighted the adverse effects of EMFs on various physiological processes, including immune function, oxidative stress responses, and neurological function. The work of researchers like Olle Johansson and others has shed light on the mechanisms through which EMFs can disrupt normal biological processes, leading to conditions such as electrohypersensitivity (EHS) and potentially increasing the risk of chronic diseases like cancer.

The classification of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMFs) as a “possible” human carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO) underscores the seriousness of the issue and highlights the need for continued research and public awareness. Meta-analyses and epidemiological studies have provided compelling evidence linking EMF exposure to an increased risk of various health outcomes, including glioma and other head tumors.

Moreover, the prevalence of electrohypersensitivity (EHS) and the associated symptoms reported by individuals further emphasize the urgent need for proactive measures to mitigate EMF exposure and protect public health. The findings regarding mast cell reactivity and immune system dysregulation in electrohypersensitive individuals underscore the complex interplay between EMFs and biological systems, necessitating further investigation into the underlying mechanisms.

Overall, the evidence presented in this article calls for greater attention to the potential health risks posed by EMF exposure and the development of comprehensive strategies to minimize exposure levels and safeguard human health in an increasingly electrified world.