I debated about writing about this topic, given that I just wrote about it last week on my not-so-super-secret other blog. However, as I thought about it during the weekend, I realized that the tragic story that so saddened and disturbed me to prod me to discuss so-called “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” or “electro-hypersensitivity” (EHS) was so horrific that a more detailed, SBM-level discussion was indicated, particularly in light of a similar case electromagnetic hypersensitivity that didn’t end so tragically discussed by Harriet Hall in September. I’m referring, of course, to the case of Jenny Fry, a British teen who hanged herself in June and whose mother has been claiming that her “allergy to wifi” was what drove her to suicide. So, while there will be some overlap with my previous discussion, I will try to step back and take a broader view of the evidence regarding the fake diagnosis of EHS, interspersed with examples (hopefully) illustrating my point. Think of this as the post I wished I had written the first time around but, due to time constraints, couldn’t.
Bogus science and lawsuits over EHS
By way of background, it’s worth briefly revisiting the case that Harriet discussed. Indeed, if you Google “lawsuit” and “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and “wifi” the first two pages of results consist mostly of articles discussing it. That’s probably because this is just the latest lawsuit that made the news. It happened in Massachusetts, where the parents of a 12-year-old boy (designated “G” in court records) who was attending Fay School in Massachusetts alleged that the school violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make accommodations to protect G from electromagnetic radiation from the school’s wifi routers. From the complaint’s summary statement:
Defendants Fay and its head of school, defendant Gustavson, have violated and continue to violate the rights of plaintiff G, a student at Fay, along with the rights of his parents, plaintiffs Mother and Father. Fay has done so by (i) disregarding G’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), (ii) breaching its contractual obligations to G, Mother and Father conferred by Fay’s Student Handbook, and (iii) failing to use ordinary care for G’s safety while G is at Fay during the school day. Fay has been informed repeatedly by Mother, Father and a qualified physician that G has a condition known as Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome (“EHS”). This syndrome, causing physical harm and the risk of very substantial physical harm, is triggered by exposure to high doses of radiofrequency/microwave radiation (hereinafter sometimes referred to as “emissions”) such as the radiation emitted from the highdensity, industrial-capacity Wi-Fi system that has been installed in the classrooms at Fay. Fay’s Wi-Fi system is not the lower-intensity, low-emission variety used in most homes and in some other locations. Rather, the Wi-Fi system Fay chose to install produces extremely high levels of such emissions. Exposure to Wi-Fi emissions at the levels emitted by the type of Wi-Fi to which the children are exposed in Fay classrooms causes, in those persons affected, most notably children, the symptoms of EHS, which include severe headaches, fatigue, stress, sleep disturbances, skin symptoms such as prickling, burning sensations and rashes, muscle aches, nausea, nose bleeds, dizziness and heart palpitations. These reactions to the Wi-Fi emissions are a disability within the meaning of the ADA.
Basically, the problems began in 2013, when the school installed a new wifi system. Specifically, the school installed an Aerohive Wi-Fi network that increased the power and upped the frequency from 2.5 GHz to 5 GHz. Sometime after the new wifi system was installed G began suffering from “headaches, nose bleeds, dizziness, chest pains and nausea.” Of note, nowhere in the lawsuit does it state how long a time period it was. In any case, G’s parents demanded that the school run Ethernet cables to the classrooms where G attended class, decrease the overall power of the wifi transmissions in the school, and cough up $250,000 in settlement funds. Of note in this story is this line from the lawsuit:
Mother concluded, after much research and study, that Fay’s Wi-Fi was the probable cause of G’s symptoms because G had a sensitivity to such emissions, called EHS. EHS, as will be shown next below, is a syndrome that affects numerous individuals when exposed to certain electromagnetic fields, including high density Wi-Fi emissions such as in the system used by Fay.
It’s a theme that we will see time and time again. Another theme that we will see time and time again is that the parents, convinced that wifi is causing their child to be sick, seek out quacks who validate that view. In this case, the doctor was Jeane Hubbuch, who is board certified in family practice, but, as Harriet described, uses functional medicine, biologic medicine, chelation, orthomolecular medicine, intestinal balancing, saunas, IV nutrients, complex homeopathy, supplements and enzymes, connection of illness to dental amalgams and root canals, high-dose vitamin C, alkaline IVs and an alkaline diet, and immune support for cancer patients with high-dose vitamin C, iscadore/mistletoe, curcumin, bitter melon, and pectasol C. She uses Heart Rate Variability testing and live cell analysis, promises to remove toxins and blockages, and claims that she deals with the underlying causes of illness instead of symptoms. These are all pretty much pure quackery, and many of these modalities have been discussed right here on SBM while those that haven’t have usually been discussed on Quackwatch. In any case, eventually, the school and parents reached an out-of-court settlement, but I have been unable to find the terms.
Another case that I recall, mainly because it happened across the Detroit River in nearby Ontario (OK, it was over 250 miles away in Barrie, Ontario, but local Windsor papers reported on it at the time, which is why it caught my attention), involved a similar story. In 2010, parents blamed wifi signals in school for a panoply of vague health complaints. The main difference between this and the Massachusetts case was that the Barrie case involved a fairly large group of parents convinced that their children were being sickened by the wifi in 14 local schools in Simcoe County. In this case, the pseudoscientist pushing the idea was named Susan Clarke, whom the parents brought to Simcoe County to promote the idea that wifi causes these health problems.
Then, a couple of years later, an Ontario teachers’ union, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), demanded an end to wifi setups in the province’s 1,400 Catholic schools and wrote a position paper entitled “A position regarding the use of Non-Ionizing Electromagnetic Radiation, including WiFi, in the workplace.” It’s still up on the OECTA website today and was a lovely example of fear mongering winning out over science and Orwellian language touting fears of what dangers “might” exist without any real evidence that these dangers actually do exist. Basically, the OECTA demanded that all sorts of safety precautions be taken based on a nonexistent risk. For example, they recommended the continued use of wired Ethernet connections and that all new buildings be wired for Ethernet, not wifi. When wifi absolutely positively can’t be avoided, the OECTA recommended the use of a PowerLine HD Ethernet Adapter (or similar technology) to pass a network signal through existing electrical lines, rather than a wireless router and advised that no permanent wireless routers be installed.
You get the idea.
It’s even gotten to the point where a man named Arthur Firstenberg sued his next door neighbor Raphaela Monribot for $1.43 million in damages, for allegedly harming his health by using her iPhone and a Wi-Fi connection. In his lawsuit, Firstenberg attributed his vague symptoms of dizziness, nausea, amnesia, insomnia, tremors, heart arrhythmia, acute and chronic pain to Monribot’s use of wifi, cellphone, computers and other ordinary electronic equipment. Ms. Monribot “refused his requests to replace her dimmer switches with regular switches, use a land-line instead of a cell phone, to turn off her Wi-Fi, and to unplug her computer at night.” She also refused Mr. Firstenberg’s offer of $10,000 to comply with his requests. As a result Firstenberg claimed that “because Ms. Monribot would not comply with these requests, he was unable to use his house for more than a few minutes at a time without suffering EMS symptoms that were caused by radiation from Ms. Monribot’s electronic devices ‘entering’ and ‘leak[ing]’ into his house.” That’s when Firstenberg sued, and Monribot countersued.
This case has been going on for five years. Fortunately, Monribot had a pair of lawyers willing to represent her pro bono who wrote off her legal expenses, which have hit $200,000. Unfortunately, Monribot herself spent $85,000 of her own money in legal fees and to depose expert witnesses. Ultimately, earlier this year the New Mexico Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s summary judgment against Firstenberg, but this case could well still go on longer, as Firstenberg appeared poised to appeal to the New Mexico Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, periodically in the press there are credulous reports of people who claim to be “sensitive” or “allergic” to electromagnetic radiation of the frequency and power emitted by cell phones and wifi routers, while various organizations flog the concept.
Could an “allergy to wifi” drive a teen to suicide?
Last week, several readers either Tweeted at me or sent me links to what can only be described as an incredibly tragic story of how belief in EHS can impact a real person. It’s a story that started popping up in the UK press Thanksgiving week and continued into last week, about the inquest investigating the death of a 15 year old girl named Jenny Fry from the rural village Chadlington in Oxfordshire, whose body was found hanging from a tree in June.
Any time a teen kills herself—or apparently kills herself, as the coroner testified and her mother believed that she might not have intended to kill herself—it is an enormous tragedy. Few know the pain that Jenny’s parents must have gone through—must still be going through. What makes this particular death unusual, be it suicide or the accidental death of a girl going too far in trying to send out a cry for help, is the reason being reported in the press for her despair. That reason? Take a look at some stories published over the last week or so about her death:
- “Schoolgirl, 15, found hanged after ‘developing an allergic reaction to the WiFi at her school’“
- “Schoolgirl found hanging from tree after suffering from ‘rare allergic reaction to WiFi’“
- “Parents of schoolgirl Jenny Fry are campaigning to have WiFi restricted in schools following her death“
- “Schoolgirl Jenny Fry found hanged after ‘suffering from allergy to WiFi’“
- “Jenny Fry: 15-year-old girl found hanging from tree in an apparent suicide after suffering from a rare case of allergic reaction to wifi“
You get the idea.
All of these news stories more or less take at face value the claims of Jenny’s parents, Debra Fry and Charles Newman, that their daughter suffered from electrohypersensitivity (EHS) that manifested itself with various health problems that began three years before the girl’s tragic end. What brought her story to the fore again was an inquest held last week:
A schoolgirl was found dead in woodland after suffering an allergic reaction to her school’s WiFi that made her life a misery, an inquest heard.
The parents of 15-year-old Jenny Fry claim that she suffered from electro-hypersensitivity (EHS), which caused her to suffer tiredness, headaches and bladder problems.
Her mother Debra told the hearing that Jenny was badly affected by the wireless internet connections at Chipping Norton School in Oxfordshire, where she was a pupil.
After becoming increasingly distressed by her symptoms – which were never investigated by a doctor – the schoolgirl was found hanged in Brooke Woods, near her home in Chadlington, in June 11 this year.
Earlier in the day she had texted a friend telling her she was not going to school that day, the inquest heard.
Mrs Fry and her husband Charles Newman told Oxfordshire Coroners’ Court two weeks ago that they believed their daughter became ill because of WiFi, and had removed the internet connection from their own home.
They told today how she would often hide herself in empty classrooms and would only sit in certain seats in lessons so that she would be as far away from the router as possible, they said.
Speaking after the inquest, Mrs Fry said: WiFi and children do not mix. I believe that WiFi killed my daughter.’
Jenny was found with a note in her diary and there was another saved on her laptop.
It read: “I have no hope for humanity; we are destroying this beautiful earth as we speak. I am insignificant, an insignificant number on someone’s screen and so is my life, a tiny blip in the whole existence of the universe. And I find it hard to be hopeful when I can hardly enjoy anything any more.”
The inquest also heard Jenny previously spoke of suicidal thoughts in November 2014 following the death of close friend Tom Boomer in March last year.
Mental health professionals will no doubt immediately recognize that this note sounds like something written by a profoundly depressed girl, particularly in light of her having exhibited suicidal ideation a year before her hanging, which implies that her depression had been going on for a while. Moreover, teen depression very frequently goes unrecognized by family and even physicians. Given this information, it’s hard not to think that Jenny Fry might very well have benefitted from psychiatric care, which could potentially have prevented this horrible end. After all, teens suffering from depression frequently complain of all manner of physical complaints very similar to what Jenny complained of, particularly severe headaches, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. It’s also strange that there’s no real medical record to determine whether Jenny suffered from depression versus something else, as her symptoms appear never to have been evaluated by a physician.
On the other hand, that horrible sentence seen earlier in this post does pop up again in this story in The Mirror:
Mrs Fry told Oxfordshire Coroners’ Court Jenny had started showing signs of EHS in November 2012.
She said: “Jenny was getting ill and so was I. I did some research and found how dangerous WiFi could be so I had it taken out of the house.
“Both Jenny and I were fine at home but Jenny continued to be ill at school in certain areas.”
Interestingly, this Daily Mail report of the inquest from less than a week before all the reports blaming Jenny Fry’s death on EHS makes it sound fairly conclusive that the death was a suicide and mentions very little about wifi:
A 15-year-old schoolgirl hanged herself after failing to cope with the suicide of a classmate who leapt off a multi-storey car park, an inquest heard today.
Jennifer Fry was still deeply upset over classmate Tom Boomer’s suicide a year earlier when she ended her own life near her home village of Chadlington in Oxfordshire.
She was found dead wearing her school uniform by her mother Debbie in woodland – six months after she had written her first suicide note, Oxford Coroner’s Court was told.
Today’s inquest heard that officers found Jenny had also sent two suicidal texts to friends, telling them of her plans to harm herself in the woods.
And it was told police converged on her family home in November 2014 because she made suicidal threats over social media websites.
This is the only mention of wifi, at the very end of the news story:
Both her parents also argued that Jenny’s suicidal ideation was the result of radiation poisoning because of Wi-Fi in the home and at school.
Mrs Fry said her daughter had ‘classic’ symptoms of being sensitive to electromagnetic fields but was unable to produce any medical evidence that her daughter had suffered.
Notice how very much different the story above is from the sensationalistic stories published a few days later in which the parents’ claim that their daughter suffered from EHS and that drove her to suicide were front and center. What we clearly have here is a case of depression that, for whatever reason, wasn’t fully recognized or treated.
Reading the stories about Jenny Fry, I learned that in 2012 she started complaining of a variety of symptoms, including cripplingly severe headaches and fatigue, resulting in difficulty concentrating, as well as unspecified “bladder problems.” So how did Jenny’s parents come to the conclusion that it was wifi that was causing her symptoms? There’s no way of knowing for sure, but I can make a fairly educated guess. Humans, as we know, are pattern-seeking animals. Whenever a person starts suffering from unexplained symptoms, it is natural to try to figure out what’s causing those symptoms. Because our “pattern detectors” in our brains tend to be oversensitive and because we also suffer from confirmation bias, the phenomenon of remembering things that conform to what we’ve come to believe and to forget things that do not, it’s not hard to speculate that at some point Jenny or her parents heard about EHS and started looking for correlations with wifi exposure, perhaps consciously, perhaps even unconsciously. Then confirmation bias did the rest, with Jenny and her parents over time coming to see a correlation between the severity of Jenny’s symptoms and exposure to wifi.
One notes that Jenny’s parents state that they removed the wifi from their home, but I couldn’t find any clear report of whether Jenny’s symptoms at home improved after that other than this one where her mother claimed that “Jenny and I were fine at home.” Of course, confirmation bias is a strong thing. Moreover, removing wifi from the home doesn’t necessarily eliminate wifi signals. Whenever I need to log onto the wifi network, my computer detects wifi signals from several of the surrounding houses, some of them nearly as strong as my own wifi network signal. That’s not even counting all the other electromagnetic signals coming from TV, radio, computer equipment, appliances, and the electrical wiring of the whole house. Even believers in EHS acknowledge that; look at Arthur Firstenberg’s lawsuit if you don’t believe me.
There’s another issue, and that has to do with the school. Note how the reports indicate that Jenny would become ill at school. If Jenny’s symptoms were related to stress at school, which they very well could have been, that would make sense. It would also make sense that her symptoms would be better at home. Wifi could just be the thing that the parents and this poor girl and her parents latched on to as the explanation for her illness at school. It’s also hard not to point out the extreme similarity of Jenny’s history to the histories related by the parents in Barrie, as described above. Like Jenny’s parents, they all reported virtually the same thing: That their children’s symptoms went away (or at least got a lot better) in the evenings and on weekends, when they were at home, as well as over the summer, when they were out of school. If that bit of history didn’t suggest stress, bullying at school, and/or depression, it should have. Even worse, after Jenny posted suicidal notes on social media in November 2014, it was explicitly recommended to Jenny’s parents that she be seen by a GP or referred to the children and young adult mental health service. Indeed, during the inquest, Coroner Darren Salter noted that he was “very surprised” that the parents didn’t heed this advice and that the girl’s GP didn’t note any signs of depression.
One can’t help but wonder if, were it not for the parents’ obsession with wifi as the cause of their daughter’s health complaints, her depression might have been recognized and treated earlier, avoiding the tragic end that ultimately occurred.
EHS and “wifi allergy”: Bogus diagnoses
We exist in a world that is bathed in electromagnetic radiation. Sources include radio signals, wifi, cell phones, computers, electrical appliances, and, yes, even the wiring within our homes. As I’ve heard some say, if EHS were a real thing, then a whole lot of us living in developed countries would be very sick all the time, because such signals are ubiquitous. You can’t escape them, at least not easily. I suppose you could move out into the middle of nowhere somewhere and eschew electricity. In fact, a group of Americans has done just that, moving to a small West Virginia town, Green Bank, located in the 13,000 square mile National Radio Quiet Zone, where mobile phones, radio and TV transmitters and Wi-Fi are forbidden to prevent interference with one of the world’s largest radio telescopes. Of course, I don’t see these people eschewing electricity or the use of computers or electrical appliances; so they’re still being exposed to low energy electromagnetic radiation, if a photo of the town is any indication.
In any case, from a strict plausibility standpoint, the hypothesis that low level electromagnetic radiation at energies that can’t even break chemical bonds, can cause major health effects is of very low plausibility indeed. I realize that I’ve been criticized, for example, for being a bit too open to the idea that radio waves can have significant biological effects, but even at my most “open-minded” my usual assessment is that the plausibility of such effects is not homeopathy-level implausible. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, given the extreme implausibility of homeopathy. In other words, the most that I will concede is that I don’t think it’s impossible that this sort of electromagnetic waves can have significant biological effects, but on a strictly physical basis (not to mention based on basic physics and biology) it is incredibly implausible that wifi and cell phone radiation cause cancer or any other major health effects. As Steve Novella pointed out, skeptics argue wither the plausibility of EHS is zero or not, but no skeptic argues that it isn’t very, very low indeed.
Also, claims otherwise and disappointingly credulous articles notwithstanding, EHS is not a real syndrome. It’s not as though there hasn’t been considerable research on the issue, either. (Note that in the medical literature, EHS is usually referred to as “idiopathic environmental illness with attribution to electromagnetic fields,” abbreviated IEI-EMF.) There have been enough studies that meta-analyses can be done, and the findings are consistent.
For example, a systematic literature review from 2011 points out:
In most of the randomized trials, no exposure-response association was observed. The sporadically reported associations did not show a consistent pattern regarding the type of symptoms or the direction of the effects (increase/decrease). Similarly, most of the recent observational studies did not show associations between RF-EMF exposure and non-specific symptoms. However, the exposure gradients were small and possible exposure misclassification is a limitation of these studies. Longitudinal studies as well as studies in children and adolescents are scarce. In summary, recent research did not indicate health-related quality of life to be affected by RF-EMF exposure in our everyday environment. Furthermore, none of the studies showed that individuals with self-reported electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) were more susceptible to RF-EMF than the rest of the population
Another systematic review the same year agreed, concluding:
At present, there is no reliable evidence to suggest that people with IEI-EMF experience unusual physiological reactions as a result of exposure to EMF. This supports suggestions that EMF is not the main cause of their ill health.
A more recent study in 2012 tested whether patients diagnosed with EHS could detect radio frequency electromagnetic fields from cell phones better than those without the diagnosis using a double blind design controlled with sham exposures. Consistent with the literature, they could not. Indeed, this is a very consistent finding. In double-blind studies “electro-sensitive” patients are unable to detect whether the offending radiation source has been turned on or not. Indeed, a recent 2015 aggregation of two large studies reported:
Results showed that IEI-EMF participants reported lower levels of well-being during real compared to sham exposure during open provocation, but not during double-blind trials. Additionally, participants reported lower levels of well-being during high compared to low load trials and this did not interact with radiofrequency-EMF exposure. These findings are consistent with a growing body of literature indicating there is no causal relationship between short-term exposure to EMFs and subjective well-being in members of the public whether or not they report perceived sensitivity to EMFs.
In other words, if the EHS suffer knows he’s being exposed to RF-EMF, he’ll experience symptoms.
Even the World Health Organization, which has been rather loose about assigning health risks to environmental factors, particularly for cancer, concluded:
In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research.
That “needs more research” bit is the same sort of hedge that Cochrane Reviews always include, even for highly improbable treatments. The bottom line is that, despite lots of research, no one has ever been able to convincingly show that (1) low energy electromagnetic radiation (as from wifi routers or cell phones) has any deleterious effects on health or (2) people claiming to be “electrosensitive” or “allergic to wifi” are able to tell when they are being exposed to wifi or cell phone signals that they believe to be the cause of their symptoms. Although strictly anecdotal, one incident in particular illustrates these principles. In 2009, residents of Craigavon, South Africa were complaining of typical EHS symptoms after a new iBurst cell tower went live. At a meeting in November with the company, a number of residents continued to complain that they were suffering skin rashes, headaches, and the like. It turns out, however, that the company had shut the tower off six weeks before the meeting, meaning that the complaints couldn’t have been due to the radiation from the tower.
The overwhelming evidence supports the conclusion that electromagnetic radiation of the sort produced by wifi routers does not cause health issues and that EHS is a psychosomatic disorder.
A final thought: People are suffering, but EHS is not the cause
Even though EHS is clearly a psychosomatic condition, let me be clear about one thing. Just like the case with Morgellons disease (a.k.a. delusional parasitosis) and “multiple chemical sensitivity,” I must point out that just because EHS is psychosomatic does not mean that those suffering from EHS are not actually suffering. They are. I have little doubt that all the children in Barrie whose parents were lobbying to remove wifi from their schools suffered from real symptoms. I have even less doubt (as in none) that Jenny Fry’s headaches, fatigue, and inability to concentrate were very real and very distressing to both her and her parents. I have no doubt that she was suffering. What I question, based on existing evidence, is belief that these symptoms were caused by radiation from wifi routers, because that evidence does not support the existence of EHS or and “allergy” to wifi.
In particular, the story of Jenny Fry is unbelievably sad. No one with the least bit of humanity can help but feel great empathy and sympathy for Jenny’s parents and Jenny herself. However, no matter how badly I might feel over their loss and the very premature death of their 15 year old girl, I nonetheless feel obligated to point out that they are blaming the wrong thing, just as the parents in Barrie are blaming the wrong thing for their children’s complaints, and Arthur Firstenberg blamed the wrong thing for his health complaints. Wifi did not kill Jenny Fry. It’s very clear even from just the news reports of the coroner’s inquest that it was almost certainly depression that did. Unfortunately, it’s easier to accept an external cause of her death than it is to accept an internal one.
All these cases demonstrate the deleterious real world consequences flowing from the myth of the pseudo-diagnosis of EHS. One consequence of this belief is that it leads quacks to sell and EHS suffers to seek out all sorts of quackery to relieve their symptoms, some of which might be benign, some of which is definitely harmful, and all of which can be expensive. Another consequence consists of the economic harm done to school districts through frivolous lawsuits for a scientifically unsupported “injury,” like the Massachusetts lawsuit against Fay School or Arthur Firstenberg’s lawsuit against Raphaela Monribo.
The worst consequence of the myth of EHS, however, is best illustrated by the sad case of Jenny Fry. Although it’s possible that the stigma over mental illness, which could have been particularly powerful in a small village like Chadlington, contributed to her parents’ denial, by far the largest contributor to a failure to diagnose the girl’s depression appears to have been her parents (and her) belief that her symptoms were caused by radiation from her school’s wifi routers. It might not have made a difference in the outcome, but it’s hard not to speculate that Jenny Fry would very likely still be alive today if that belief hadn’t interfered with seeking mental health services in a timely fashion. Indeed, in a Mirror article, Jenny’s mother was quoted as saying, “I fully believe Jenny did not intend to take her own life. I think she was frustrated with school. She would not see a doctor but was seeing a counsellor at school who was helping her. She had not made any suggestions she was thinking of suicide and I believe it was a cry for help.” Yet we know from other reports that the police were alerted in November 2014 because Jenny had posted “suicidal threats” on social media sites. They took it seriously enough to investigate, too.
If you want a case study of how pseudoscience and quackery can kill, Jenny Fry’s “EHS” is one that will make you want to cry.