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Those people that did not get exposed

Many blog posts on here have to do with a methodological flaw or otherwise a critique about peer  reviewed and published studies. This, in a way, is the result of science’s attempts to falsify and tests its  own hypotheses so that scientific progress can be made. I have to say that more often than we would  hope, it is made very easy for us to criticize studies. A good example is last week’s post about the cancer  cluster (link), which had quite a number of serious flaws. While work on ‘dirty electricity (also covered  here: 1,2) is usually riddled with methodological errors and problematic inferences.  So this time a study I really liked! Note that this is not the first one; this has happened before (here, and  here, for example). This study combines a simple design, easy interpretation, and potentially has a large  impact. It is really sad therefore, that I did not think of it first….     Electrohypersensitivity (EHS) is an, I suspect, pretty well known condition in which a person’s wellbeing is  negatively affected by exposure to electromagnetic radiation. I believe it is recognized as an established  medical condition in Sweden. That’s pretty straightforward, except that there are quite a lot of problems  with this disease. Not so much with the adverse effects on health and wellbeing; these are real and can  cause real problems for those affected. Some people are affected so badly that they basically have to  exclude themselves from society, which is awash with electromagnetic radiation. No the problems lies  with the fact that the factor that is supposed to cause these effects is self-attributed; in other words,  people who experience these adverse effects say that it comes from mobile phones, Wifi, etcetera. Again,  that in itself is not a problem, but scientific studies of the best kind (double-blinded, randomized,  controlled trials) have been done to determine if radiation was the real exposure that causes these  effects, and in summary EHS people cannot distinguish when they get exposed or not (so in other words,  they do experience these adverse effects with the same intensity and probably regardless of whether they  are really exposed or received sham exposure). Here are some links to publications if you are interested:  [1,2]. As such, a scientifically better name is idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to  electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF) which covers the issue quite well. Other people experience similar effects  as a result of (well, they attribute it to) very low-level exposure to mixtures of chemicals in the  environment, biological agents and such. As such, the idiopathic means “the doctor has no idea what  causes it” but I believe it is something in the environment (note that this may well be true, but if it is, we  do not know what it is). I have published on here previously (link) about a study that compared  descriptions of hermits who excluded themselves from society well before the industrial revolution (just to  make sure we are on the same page, this means before electromagnetic fields and omnipresent chemical  exposures), and showed that the historic and modern “hermits” share many similarities in their views on  society and their reasons for exclusion despite the exposures clearly differing. And indeed, it has been  shown that the disease pattern is, to a large extent psychopathological and that therapies like cognitive  behavioural therapy can help to reduce or completely remove the symptoms. This indicates that the  trigger for the effects is, at least in part, psychological in nature.  So now that we are all up to date on IEI, let’s go the study [LINK]. It was published in 2013 in the Journal  of Psychosomatic Research by Witthöft and Rubin and is entitled “Are media warnings about the adverse  health effects of modern life self-fulfilling? An experimental study on idiopathic environmental intolerance  attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF)”. Incidentally, this title is ridiculous, and with a couple of  words as the conclusion could double-up as the abstract…..  Anyway. The authors were interested in whether a real television report broadcasted in the UK  (“Panorama. Wi-Fi: A Warning Signal”, broadcasted in 2007) would result in increased reporting of  symptoms. Incidentally, but beside the point, the programme generated a number of complaints about the  balance of its content which were upheld by the BBC [link]. To investigate this, 147 participants were  randomly assigned to watch either this television programme that reported about the adverse health  effects of WiFi (exposure) or alternatively (control) a programme with the same length about the security  of mobile phone data transmission. All participants believed they were participating in a study  investigating health effects (fatigue and headaches were specifically mentioned) of “a new type of WiFi  signal”.   So far nothing new, but after the program they then told the people in both groups they would be exposed  to this new form of WiFi and they were asked to record any effects. To do this they attached exposure  equipment consisting of an antenna on a headband to each volunteer’s head, told the participant they  could switch on the exposure by pressing a button, and left the room. I really like the next part….  ….after pressing the button a flashing WiFi symbol appeared on the laptop screen in front of the  participant for 15 minutes, but nothing else happened. So nobody got exposed to anything (well  technically EMF from the laptop, but that was the same for everyone).    So what did the results show?  82 of 147 volunteers (54%) reported symptoms which they attributed specifically to the sham (non-  existing) exposure. More importantly though, watching the documentary about harmful effects of WiFi  resulted in a (significant) increase in EMF-related worries, but subsequently in more reporting of symptoms  in the group with the most worries, a higher likelihood of these symptoms being specifically attributed to  the EMF exposure, and finally also a higher number of people who attributed their symptoms to EMF  exposure believing that in fact they were especially sensitive to EMF (eg to loop back to the start, to be  electro-hypersensitive). This clever study indicates, especially together with the results of the other studies I mentioned above,  that IEI-EMF (or electrohypersensitivity) really does seem to have a significant psychological component  and that it seems quite unlikely that electromagnetic fields are the real trigger. This does not make the  adverse effects any better, but a cure should probably be sought in some form of cognitive therapy rather  than removal of all equipment that generates EMF or to remove oneself from society.   On a more broader note, the authors quite rightfully comment that because this was an actual program  broadcasted on UK television, this real-world context implies that such programmes can really affect the  health of vulnerable populations in real life; outside of closely controlled laboratory experiments.  They  further comment, and I fully agree with this, that the obvious implication of this is that journalists should  endeavour to provide more accurate reporting of topics related to science, medicine and health (well  every topic really, but we can only hope). They should carry responsibility for the effects of their  reporting which, as we have seen here, really can affect people (more specifically, do you think the Daily  Mail reads my blog?).   
As a sidenote of considerable interest (I think). Those of you who read my blog  regularly (religiously presumably), you may remember I wrote an article about dirty  electricity and was contacted in the comments section by a reporter from KESQ (ABC  affiliate local news for the Palm Springs and desert cities area, apparently) who  wanted my opinion on a perceived cancer cluster in a middle school? We had a short  discussion in which I pointed out I had some problems with the methods and the  resulting conclusion of this study – in fact, I do not believe it points to dirty  electricity as the causal agent at all - after which she did not get back to me anymore  (and I have good reason to believe this happened to other independent sources as  well).  Even an offer to discuss it in more detail to explain the scientific problems  were met with dead silence. If you are interested, the resulting, heavily biased,  report can be seen here: “IN-DEPTH INVESTIGATION: Examining reports of a cancer cluster at La Quinta Middle School”.   With the study by Witthöft and Rubin we just discussed in mind, I am going to leave  this with you….  
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