When the photographer Thomas Ball first heard of the supposed medical condition electrohypersensitivity, he was highly sceptical that people could actually be allergic to radiation from mobile phones, WiFi systems, and other devices.
People who claim to suffer from electrohypersensitivity experience symptoms ranging from headaches to nausea to heart palpitations that they attribute to electromagnetic fields produced by new technology. This isn’t a recognised medical condition, and some research suggests the symptoms are psychosomatic (meaning they are caused by emotional problems rather than a physical illness).
Regardless of their cause, the symptoms these people experience are disruptive.
After reading more about the subject, Ball began working with a few organisations in the U.K. to find people who believe they have electrohypersensitivity. He eventually met Tim Hallam, who says he suffers from a particularly extreme case of EHS.
Hallam, who is 36, began experiencing symptoms he attributed to EHS 20 years ago. A graduate of Cambridge University, Hallam drives a van delivering food for a supermarket. He lives in a house with several flatmates and works shifts that allow him to be in the house when others are not, so their WiFi and mobile phones don’t affect him.
Hallam has insulated his room with metal foil to create a “Faraday cage,” which keeps out most types of electromagentic radiation. He sleeps in a metallic mesh sleeping bag embedded with silver to block out radiation. While Ball did not do scientific testing on the sleeping bag, he did find his mobile phone lost its signal if he wrapped it in the mesh.
When Hallam created his “Faraday cage,” he photographed the process so he could share it with others on Electrosensitivity U.K, just one of many support groups dedicated to people who say they have EHS.
While the number of purported EHS sufferers in the world is relatively small (the World Health Organisation found it to be roughly a few people per million), they have drummed up enough noise that scientists and medical researchers have conducted numerous studies on the subject. The results haven’t been encouraging for those who believe they have EHS.
The majority of provocation studies, where participants are exposed to a substance to provoke a response, have found EHS sufferers can’t predict the presence of electromagnetic fields with any more accuracy than those without the condition. In addition, studies have shown that symptoms were not correlated with electromagnetic field exposure, according to the World Health Organisation.
Dr. James Rubin of King’s College Institute of Psychiatry reviewed studies on the subject and concluded the condition is psychosomatic. While he didn’t find any evidence that people faked their symptoms, he also found no uniformity in the type or severity of the symptoms.
Ball, who withholds judgement on whether EHS is legitimate, said those he interviewed suffered a wide range of symptoms. Some, according to Ball, have to live in the countryside to avoid feeling sick from the signals, while others live in the center of London comfortably. One schoolteacher he interviewed reported feeling sick the moment she stepped within range of a WiFi router, while many others reported that EHS comes on more gradually, like an allergic reaction.
Sufferers of EHS have challenged the legitimacy of the provocation studies. As most were jointly funded by telecom companies and the government, they say there is an inherent conflict of interest. One of Ball’s subjects, Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, told the Guardian that provocation studies don’t pay attention to the way that most people with EHS report being affected.
While many scientists are sceptical, there are some who believe electrohypersensitivity is a real condition. Dr. Andrew Marino, a professor at LSU Health Sciences Center, conducted a two-week study focusing on a single sufferer, testing which wavelengths affected her. The results, which have been published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, suggested that the condition “can occur as a bona fide environmentally neurological syndrome.”
More about Ball’s project is available on his website here, or you can check out his short film on the subject below:
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