Carl was sick for eight years before he finally figured out what was going on. “I was working at a hotel, and we went from six wireless routers in the whole building to 64,” he tells me. At that point, his depression and insomnia had gotten so bad he collapsed at work, blacking out at a stoplight while driving the airport shuttle back to the hotel. “Luckily, it was 4 a.m. and not many people were on the road,” Carl, a pseudonym, tells me. He quit immediately. “I had already been doing some research into it because all my other jobs were giving me the same symptoms,” he says.
The “it” he’s referring to is the prevalence of electromagnetic fields (EMFs), specifically those emitted by radio frequencies (RF) produced by wireless technologies like cell towers, power line communication, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. And though they’re quite literally everywhere, they’re impossible to pinpoint because RFs, as with all EMFs, are like ghosts — they’re invisible.
In the 1970s, amidst a Cold War with Russia and fear of microwave technology that had already made Russian citizens sick, a scientific paper in Colorado sent a chill through an already anxious world. Two scientists punctured a proverbial nuclear reactor when they published a paper in an epidemiological journal that showed that children who lived closer to power lines in Denver had higher rates of childhood cancers than those who lived at a greater distance from the city. The findings were expectedly terrifying for a country committed to being the world’s most powerful technological force — not to mention that by the 1970s, power lines were everywhere.
So they did more studies, this time on both children and adults. “What they got was, one study would show something with leukemia, and another study would not,” says cancer epidemiologist and author Geoffrey Kabat. “One study would show something with brain tumors, another study would not.” Basically, there was no consistency, which meant more panic around this new unknown.
But after two decades, the National Academy of Sciences, having spent over a year plowing through 500 articles on the topic, came to the conclusion in 1996 that there were no reproducible effects of electromagnetic fields on cancer, pregnancy or child development, with one caveat: “Those children whose exposure was above 0.300 microteslas had a slightly higher risk of leukemia,” per a New York Times report in 1997. “But, the researchers cautioned, there were very few children with these high exposures — just 45 out of the 638 children with cancer. And yet at the very highest exposures, the risk went back to almost normal.” For the researchers, this meant there was no relationship between the level of exposure and level of risk.
These findings should have largely put an end to concerns regarding EMF-related health issues, and for the vast majority of epidemiological scientists, it did just that. But fear being a parasite, it went in search of a new bogeyman to cling to, and what happened next, in hindsight, should have been obvious. The communities who were really concerned about electromagnetic fields from these power lines turned their attention to computers and cell phones, “which use energy in the microwave and radio wave range,” says Kabat.
Most recently, these EMF-related concerns manifested themselves in a conspiratorial tinderbox — the rollout of 5G. In her article for The Atlantic on the baseless theories about the dangers of 5G, journalist Kaitlyn Tiffany notes how a “wildly disorienting pandemic coming at the same time as the global rollout of 5G — the newest technology standard for wireless networks — has only made matters worse.” “As the coronavirus spread throughout Europe, fears about 5G appear to have animated a rash of vandalism and arson of mobile infrastructure, including more than 30 incidents in the U.K. in just the first 10 days of April,” she writes.
For the EMF-fearing community, concerns over 5G is hardly revelatory, it’s merely a fraction of a more general fear that radio frequencies are causing a slew of health-related issues.
On the subreddit r/Electromagnetics, EMFs — including, but not limited to, 5G — are far more than a COVID-era concern. They claim that “EMFs like 4G/5G/Wi-Fi/RADAR may cause or worsen DNA damage, immunosuppression, multiple chemical sensitivity, neurotransmitter imbalances, neurotoxicity, depression, dependence, insomnia, tinnitus, demyelination, extrapulmonary infections and various other ailments.” These claims may sound familiar if you’ve watched Better Call Saul, which featured a character who suffered some of these exact symptoms:
Carl, a member of this subreddit, tells me he’s self-diagnosed as electromagnetic sensitive — an alleged energy allergy to electromagnetic fields and radiation. For him, the cumulative effects of RF exposure (spending consecutive days of four or more hours around any wireless technologies) are when the symptoms get really bad. “Shortness of breath, severe dehydration, my body won’t only refuse to retain water, it will reject water,” he says. “My blood turns to sludge and then my organs and my brain aren’t getting enough oxygen.”
Carl has gone to see doctors, but he says they’ve been mostly unhelpful. “They’re clueless to this condition. I have found doctors that are aware and they claim they can help, but I can’t afford their fees.” During his last ER visit, they suggested Carl go to the ocean and sit on the beach. “This was the only good advice they gave me.”
Another member of the community tells me that although he hasn’t fully correlated which type of RF he’s most vulnerable to, one time, he “stupidly had my head near my Wi-Fi router while working on my TV and got a raging, hours-long headache.”
In the world of the electrosensitive, headaches are easily the most commonly cited symptom of alleged chronic EMF exposure. “The symptom I had experienced was a severe headache,” a third member of the community tells me. “For the first couple of days, it was just a mild headache, but then it built up until one night where I couldn’t even get any sleep because my head was in severe pain. It was a very strong pain, which was pulsing slowly.”
His solution was simple — to move his desktop computer a meter and a half away from where he sits. “I also moved my computer monitor so it’s at least 1.5 meters from my face,” he tells me.
According to David Savitz, a professor of epidemiological health at Brown University, there have long been perceptions of nonspecific symptoms related to EMF, which is why he admits that if “shielding helps” — shielding is one of the more common methods used to ostensibly block against EMFs — then it helps. But in experimental studies, scientists — the accredited ones, at least — have never been able to show the specific ways in which EMFs can elicit a health-related biological response, even among individuals who themselves believe to be electrosensitive. The same can be said of the myriad wellness techniques discussed on r/Electromagnetics, which are mainly drawn from personal experience.
“It’s a perception and may well be experienced as they describe it, and may not be scientifically proven,” Savitz explains. “But that may not be necessary if it provides them with the experience of benefit.”
Most famously, in 2019, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey admitted to using a $5,499 tent from SaunaSpace that he claimed felt “a little bit different because you’re not getting hit by all the EMF energy.” According to an article in Quartz, the “tent is at the higher end of the many commercial products claiming to shield users from the supposedly harmful effects of EMF, from hats, to jewelry, to underpants.”
And though, again, there’s no widely agreed-upon scientific evidence to suggest that any of these products serve a necessary purpose, in the lucrative world of EMF prevention technology, like so much of the pseudoscientific wellness community, the “how” is less important. “It just works,” says one representative from Da Vinci Medical, another company selling high-end EMF protective technologies. “I’ve had clients who install 5G and who complain about migraine headaches, tell me that it works for them.”
The EMF protective technology he’s referring to specifically is a 16-by-6-inch pink cylinder called Qi Shield EMF Protection by Qi Technologies, which costs $1,195. “Qi-Technology is the only EMF (Electromagnetic Field) protection technology that is proven through double-blind studies to protect you completely from the radiation in EM fields,” their website claims. “It will protect you from cellular (including 5G), Wi-Fi and other EMFs.”
For about $5,500 more, they also offer a Qi Max EMF Protection cylinder that weighs 70 pounds and, per their website, “is the ONLY product in the world with proven EMF protection technology that provides a true sanctuary against EMF radiation in larger homes or commercial spaces.”
The scientific literature supposedly backing the device is provided in a 16-page “test certificate” from the International Institute for Research on Electromagnetic Compatibility (IIREC), an Israel-based company. IIREC also sells their own “Smart Card” to help reduce EMF exposure from “mobile phones, wireless networks, computers and electrical devices.”
In addition, Da Vinci Medical includes a summary report on testing for their Qi shield product from the BION Institute in Slovenia, a private for-hire institute created in 1990 that specializes in testing “bioelectromagnetics — the study of interactions between electromagnetic fields and organisms.” Yet at the same time, Da Vinci’s website also includes a disclaimer that their products “are not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat or cure any disease.”
This, of course, is just one example of a for-profit company addressing a supposed EMF-related health issue that the scientific community at large doesn’t believe exists. Another, far more modern approach is Lambs, a company that sells EMF protective apparel like T-shirts, beanies and boxer-briefs. Its founder and CEO Arthur Menard de Calenge has been featured on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and says the reason he developed Lambs is out of “the need to protect our health, and to live better today, but longer tomorrow.”
Menard de Calenge tells me that in the world of EMF protection, what existed on the market before Lambs were products that didn’t “make sense at all from a scientific standpoint.” “Others are using physical principles that can work, but not applying them properly,” he says referring to the rest of the EMF protection market. (Casting competitors as less scientifically competent is another common characteristic of the EMF protective solutions industry — Qi Shields, for example, also claims that they’re the only “proven” EMF protection technology.)
Using an EMF meter to measure the level of radio frequencies that penetrate through their fabric, which is made up of 39 percent silver, Menard de Calenge says he and his team were able to “verify” that his apparel “actually blocked radiation to the body.” Their products, which are also “lab-verified,” have been thoroughly tested using “phantoms” which, according to Menard de Calenge, are mannequins that “reproduce the properties of a human body, from a physical and chemical perspective.”
As for the vast majority of the scientific community — as well as the World Health Organization (although agreeing that some more research is needed) — disputing the notion that the level of EMF exposure experienced by the everyday person is damaging to their health, Menard de Calenge says, “When you start reading into what’s been happening with EMFs, and with studies and lobbying and so on and so forth, there are a lot of similarities with the tobacco industry. Is it [EMFs] as bad as tobacco? There is a big question mark there. It could be worse.”
In the EMF-fearing world, parallels to the tobacco industry are common. Along those lines, Brian Bunn, a certified consultant at HealthyHouse Doctors — “a company that guides you and your family on your journey toward health in a holistic way,” per their website — argues that the WHO, CDC and mainstream scientific community have an “underlying agenda.” “Especially when tied to the military, telecommunications, intelligence or other systems that are considered either national security or international in scope of what they need to be,” he says. “A lot of the science that’s out there is, again, really poorly done. And some of us believe that it’s intentionally so. They did the same thing with the tobacco industry.”
He also cites human biology as the reason why the vast majority of scientists have been unable to recreate the same results — i.e., the human body is too complicated to isolate specific EMF-related conditions. Therefore, he says, through a more empirical approach, he’s observed “a lot of things that are true for the individual that aren’t necessarily true for the group of individuals that are being studied.”
Because Bunn’s been able to help his clients shield themselves from EMFs, he’s inclined to believe that what he’s doing is working. That said, he tells me that “designing healthy buildings and healthy homes” does cost money — a considerable amount of it, too. “But again, it depends on which frequency,” he explains. “Because if it’s magnetic, it may cost multiple tens of thousands of dollars to over $100,000, depending on where it is. If it’s a radio frequency, that’s a higher frequency. And so, it can be blocked much easier and be much less costly.”
More largely, Savitz tells me that it’s the mysterious nature of the exposure and related factors of EMFs that makes it difficult to disprove. “Also, the concerns with technology more generally — e.g., genetically modified crops — some of which are justified, make it more plausible to some people that the resulting physical exposures might generate risk,” he explains.
Interestingly, it’s this same specificity used to stake claims that EMFs can cause biological damage to humans that make it impossible to say that they don’t. “Another issue is where they place the burden of proof,” Savitz continues. “I doubt I could find studies to demonstrate unequivocally that 5G does not increase risk of COVID, but there is no reason I’m aware of to seriously consider the possibility or study it. In current times, there’s a general distrust of experts, and you’re trying to counter rumor and conspiracy theories with facts and informed experts — and we know how well that seems to be working.”
Sadly, he’s right. In fact, arguably the biggest loser in the current EMF discourse, sometimes shrouded in QAnon-level conspiracy theories, is the rest of us who remain occasionally skeptical about cell phone radiation. In 2019, a Chicago Tribune investigation found that “radiofrequency radiation exposure from the iPhone 7 — one of the most popular smartphones ever sold — measured over the legal safety limit and more than double what Apple reported to federal regulators from its own testing.”
In this respect, subterfuge by a major tech company is an issue that surely deserves more attention. But it’s unlikely to get it. With so much of the EMF conversation mired in misinformation, a story on telecom companies breaking FCC guidelines is just another strange substance in an already poisoned well. And because of that, the people in serious pursuit of definitive answers on EMFs — few as they may be these days — will continue to battle it out in spaces where even fewer people are listening.