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[Editor’s note: With Jann getting, like, the last 3 Thanksgiving’s off, Dr. Gorski has decided he gets a break too. Instead, we present another terrible movie review review of a terrible movie from Braden MacBeth. Enjoy!]

Netflix released the documentary series Afflicted on August 10th of this year. Afflicted follows 7 people with “controversial” chronic illnesses as they try to find a treatment for their condition. The series received very poor reviews online and sits at a 4.6/10 on IMDb. Caitlin Flynn criticized the series in her Huffington Post article “How Netflix’s ‘Afflicted’ Failed the Chronic Illness Community” for “repeatedly casting doubt on whether or not its subjects were even truly ill”. The most common criticism of the series is that it implies that the conditions the subjects claim to have are psychiatric in nature, and that delegitimizes all people who have a chronic medical condition somehow.

The problem with the chronic illnesses that the three subjects I want to discuss claim to have is that they all seem to follow a similar pattern. They all suffer from vague, non-specific symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, headaches, and non-specific pain. They all claim that their symptoms are caused by something being present in their environment that causes their “detox” systems to overload. The illnesses they claim to have aren’t recognized by any medical organization as legitimate diagnoses. Their conditions are entirely fake and research has shown that people claiming to have “supposed” sensitivities can’t detect the things they’re supposedly sensitive to any better than people who don’t.

The internet and charlatans have driven these people to think they have these diseases and can’t function in everyday life. Afflicted provides a harrowing insight to how their lives have been affected by their belief that they have these fake illnesses. They all live extremely restrictive lifestyles and live in constant fear of things they believe will trigger their symptoms. Many of the people featured in the series choose to pursue alternative medicine, and purchase scam medical devices. I’m going to look at some of these alleged illnesses discussed in Afflicted, why they’re fake, and show how quacks are more than willing to take advantage of them.

And of course, while the causes of their symptoms may not be what they believe it to be, that does not mean their suffering and symptoms are not real. It just means we have to continue looking for the real cause rather than stopping at the quick, easy, and wrong answer sold by glib charlatans.

Electromagnetic hypersensitivity

The first patient introduced in the series is Carmen, who claims to have electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS). The ‘Environmental Medicine’ specialist (not your average, or real, specialty) on-screen states that people with EHS can suffer from sleeplessness, mood swings, and headaches because of the electromagnetic fields generated by electronic devices such as Wi-Fi and cell phone signals, power lines, and fluorescent lights. Carmen claims to suffer from screen dermatitis, and gets red in the face from using the computer. She also claims that she had to get rid of the wireless mouse because she would get pain in her hand from the Bluetooth signals.

Electromagnetic hypersensitivity is not a valid diagnosis recognized by any legitimate medical organization. There have been studies done on people claiming to be sensitive to electromagnetic radiation. A study conducted for the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority found that people who claim to be EMF-sensitive have physical symptoms, however the symptoms are not correlated with exposure to EMF radiation and may occur because of the conscious expectation of such symptoms. Even if it were possible to be sensitive to electromagnetic radiation, it would be impossible for symptoms to be triggered by cell phone signals, or nearby power lines.

The strength of an electromagnetic field is measured in Teslas (T) or webers (Wb). You would experience an EMF field strength of 0.5-2.0 microteslas (that is, 5-20 ten millionths of a Tesla) if you were to stand 30 centimeters away from a fluorescent light. When you use a cell phone you experience an electromagnetic field with a strength of somewhere between 0.7-6 microteslas. When standing near a power line you experience an electromagnetic field with a strength of 2 microteslas. Carmen asked the producers of the series to turn their cell phones off and only take calls if they walked to the next street over because the radiation would trigger her symptoms. But the field generated by the cell phones when in use would be immeasurably small even a short distance away because of the inverse-square law. Carmen doesn’t seem to experience any symptoms when riding her bike mere feet away from two power lines that are generating an electromagnetic field many times stronger than a cell phone during a call being held up to her ear. Carmen’s symptoms also don’t seem to be triggered by a major electromagnetic field that dwarfs cell phones, like the Earth’s geomagnetic field which ranges from 25 to 65 microteslas in strength.

Electromagnetic hypersensitivity is not a real disorder, and any symptoms that supposed sufferers experience aren’t the result of electromagnetic radiation. Despite this, there are companies that are more than happy to take advantage of people who think they’re sensitive to EMF. There are many companies that sell “dirty electricity filters” for around 30-200 dollars. “Dirty electricity” is not a scientific term, and isn’t a real thing. Dirty electricity filters don’t actually do anything, and they can cause real problems. An article in The Daily Examiner reported that the devices can be of poor quality and overheat, causing a fire. And the chicanery doesn’t stop there; you can also purchase EMF-shielding paint. The paint will run you about thirty dollars for a 4-oz can. For reference, an 8-oz sample can of normal interior paint will costs about four bucks. I’m unable to find any evidence that the paint even blocks electromagnetic radiation.

Chronic mold sensitivity/mold illness/chronic inflammatory response syndrome

Next, we have Bekah, who claims to have what she describes as chronic mold sensitivity in addition to Lyme disease, and multiple chemical sensitivity. I wasn’t able to find any information about ‘chronic mold sensitivity’, it’s not a recognized diagnosis according to any reputable medical organization. After doing some digging, I was able to find that Bekah saw Dr. Mary Ackerley listed as a “certified” provider on survivingmold.com. The site seems to be a major source for information about this illness, which it calls “mold illness” or “chronic inflammatory response syndrome”. According to the site, as many as 40 different symptoms can be caused by mold exposure.

Bekah claims to suffer from burning nerve pain in her mouth, skin, throat, and bladder, high-fevers, and her mouth filling up with blood “all of the time”. While it’s true that mold can cause health problems, especially to people with an allergy to mold or asthma, neither allergies nor asthma would explain any of the symptoms Bekah describes. In order to escape the mold, she and her boyfriend stripped down an old van and live in the desert in the western US. According to a post by her boyfriend on medium.com, 3 doctors recommended this course of action. It would be very unlikely to find mold in the desert, yet Bekah still appears to suffer symptoms of “mold sensitivity”. Bekah even claims to “smell mold”, despite standing in the desert next to a van she stripped nearly every part out of to ensure mold couldn’t grow there.

Bekah pursued many alternative treatments, and little information is given by the documentary about them. However, the documentary does explicitly show Bekah receiving ozone therapy. Ozone therapy is the hallmark of quackery, and hasn’t been proven to treat any disease or disorder. However, the doctor on-screen stated “the data shows that ozone under pressure really clears the disease almost totally”. Bekah was also offered a $25,000 course of stem cell therapy completely free from Infusio Wellness. Dr. Suzanne Kim at Infusio claims the goal of the therapy is to “activate her own stem cells” and that “we have seen with our treatment is that patients are less sensitive to the mold than they were before”. I’m also unable to find any research showing that any stem cell therapies are effective for “mold sensitivity” or “mold illness”, and the industry is rife with problems (to put it mildly).

Multiple chemical sensitivity

Many of the subjects claim to suffer from “multiple chemical sensitivity”. Multiple chemical sensitivity is another disputed diagnosis with no real scientific evidence to suggest its real thing. According to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, a dubious certification board, people with MCS react with various chemicals in the environment such as car exhaust, perfumes, and fertilizers. The symptoms of “MCS” include: headache, fatigue, weakness, muscle and joint pain, depression and irritability, anxiety and panic attacks, insomnia, dizziness, nausea, impaired memory and mental focus, difficulties breathing and swallowing, cough, gas and bloating, urinary frequency and urgency, visual disturbances, palpitations and chest pain, nasal congestion and sinus pressure, burning of the eyes and nose, and skin rashes. Multiple chemical sensitivity has been discussed many times on SBM, and MCS has even been investigated by major medical organizations to look for evidence that such sensitivities even exist. In a study published in Clinical Toxicology, subjects underwent six exposure sessions where a solvent mixture or clean air was put into a challenge chamber and their responses were recorded. There were no differences found between the MCS group and the control group. Another study published in Preventative Medicine determined: “In no case was there persuasive evidence that any olfactory mechanism involving fragrance underlies either induction of a sensitized state or the triggering of MCS symptoms”.

A young actress named Pilar is the main focus of the series when looking at “MCS”. She claims that drinking normal tap water will make her go pale, and her blood pressure will go down. She also tells a story about a time when her neighbor started painting, it caused her to have heart palpitations. Pilar has been living in isolation in her apartment for two years, only leaving to receive her “treatments”. Her treatments include an infrared sauna, lymphatic massage, a bunch of supplements, and pulse electromagnetic therapy mat.

All of her treatments are designed to clear out her “detox pathways”, despite “detox pathways” not being a thing. I wasn’t able to find any adverse health effects for using an infrared sauna as frequently as Pilar does, but it is quite expensive at around a dollar per minute. There is no evidence that infrared saunas provide any medical benefit or remove “toxins”. Lymphatic massage is another therapy quacks claim can drain the “toxins” from the lymphatic system; there is no evidence that it does however. Lymphatic massage is a legitimate therapy used to treat lymphedema, however it is done to reduce swelling. We’ve already discussed that there is no evidence that electromagnetic radiation effects health in any way. In addition, Dr. Novella reviewed the evidence for these mats on SBM before, and unsurprisingly concluded that they are a scam. The part I find most interesting about Pilar’s treatment program is the number of supplements that she takes. I was unable to find out what she’s actually taking, however there seems to be at least 6 supplement bottles in one of the scenes. I find it hard to believe that the supplements she’s taking don’t contain any of the chemicals she’s sensitive to. Supplements are dangerously unregulated and can even contain prescription drugs.

This is gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of abuse, manipulating a person to question their own sanity, memories, or reality. I think the term gaslighting also applies to what’s happening to the patients featured in Afflicted. They have been led to believe that the “diseases” that they have are real, despite evidence to the contrary, by the internet and quacks. That isn’t to say the symptoms they experience aren’t real, they are. However, it is very highly unlikely, if not scientifically impossible that their symptoms are caused by what they believe. The people in the series have been pushed to fear the world that they live in: the air that they breathe, the food they eat, the water they drink, and the technology that powers everyday life in the 21st century.

You see how their belief in the cause of their symptoms leads them to self-destruct throughout the series. Carmen uprooted her entire life to move to Green Bank, West Virginia, which is in the national radio quiet zone. Bekah drives around in the desert in a stripped-down van to escape mold. Pilar eats boiled cauliflower and turkey for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s saddening to watch these people rip their own lives apart because they’ve being conned.

These fake illnesses can have devastating effects, we’ve seen it all too many times. One woman was sued by her neighbor who claimed to have ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’, and while lawyers were willing to fight her case pro-bono; she spent over $85,000 of her own money on legal fees. In 1991, a jury awarded damages to the estate a schizophrenic man who committed suicide after being diagnosed as a ‘universal reactor’ by his doctor. Bekah openly states “There’s only so much pain that I can endure here. If it’s still this bad and I can’t handle it, I want to opt out in a peaceful way”. These fake illnesses have real symptoms and it drives sufferers to depression and even suicide.

Fake illnesses have been created and used by quacks to peddle snake oil for as long as there has been snake oil to sell. That’s not a new thing. What is a new thing is the role of social media in allowing people to isolate themselves in social media echo chambers. Social media echo chambers that can be easily manipulated by people who have a financial interest in selling treatments for illnesses that don’t exist. One Facebook group, “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and EMF Sensitivity Healed” is owned by someone who sells a book on how to treat MCS and EMF sensitivity.

Conclusion: Fake illnesses cause real harm

Afflicted is an up-close look at how fake illnesses harm people. While the sensitivities they claim to have are fake, the real symptoms and anxiety they have are real. These people need real medical treatment, which might include seeing a psychiatrist. They’re scared of the world they live in, there is no length they will not go to find some semblance of relief. Quacks know this, and there is nothing they won’t try to sell people who believe they have a fake illness. All of the subjects in Afflicted use or tried “alternative” treatments at some point in the series.

The series ends on somewhat of a high note, and most of the subjects find some sort of treatment for their condition. Carmen made plans to gradually move to Green Bank, West Virginia in the national radio quiet zone to avoid electromagnetic fields. Pilar received unspecified treatments from a chiropractor and returned to acting. The documentary states that her husband was no longer able to pay for her treatments. When asked about their relationship, he responded “a lot of things have happened, but there’s no relationship at all”. Bekah’s family successfully raised $22,000 to purchase a custom-built trailer that is mold-free and “chemically safe”.

While the subjects in Afflicted have strong family support both financially and emotionally, it’s the people who don’t and aren’t going to be in a Netflix show that concern me. It’s truly shocking to look into a fake illness support group echo chamber, and see how easily someone could be sucked in. These illnesses might be fake but they can get people killed, via suicide or sketchy treatments. It’s unfortunate that mental illness and mental health treatment is stigmatized to the point where it’s considered offensive to recommend mental health treatment to someone who likely has a psychosomatic illness. If people who believe they have these illnesses don’t receive the compassionate, evidence-based care they need, they will be taken advantage of.

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Posted by Braden MacBeth

Braden MacBeth is a Computer Science Major at Slippery Rock University. He plans on applying to medical school next year.