A Very Different Health Problem – EHS

An article by CAROLINE JULER

We all want to break out of bad habits, don’t we? One of mine is an inability to find solutions to social problems. That leads to internal and sometimes external ranting – never an attractive sight. But what else do you do when you’re an ordinary member of the public driven insane by frustration?

For example, how do you react when you see the increase in homelessness, the rising use of food banks, the spread of job insecurity via zero-hours contracts? And when you feel divisiveness is walling all of us up in a ghastly corral that encourages backbiting prejudices, suspicion of “others” and all-round hatred? Scrambling to avoid that horror (while giving a warm hug to the elephant in the room), we had a look at one of the more obscure reasons for homelessness, because it happened to be right under our noses.

It might seem perverse to focus on a few individuals rather than the thousands at large, and to choose a couple of cases who suffer from a barely recognised illness. But, just like drug addicts, people with mental illness and those who lose everything after a trick of fate, the people we’re going to talk about are human beings and, as such, worthy of respect. Also, they say you make your own luck, but as with everything else in life, that depends on the circumstances. 

Electrohypersensitivity (EHS) is a condition (a syndrome, according to the World Health Organization) that cannot be classed as a disease owing to lack of proof as to its causes. One individual who strongly disagrees with this stance is Dr Erica Mallery-Blythe, a medical practitioner and EHS sufferer who told us that EHS is “highly prevalent” worldwide.

“Estimates vary but several countries report around 4-10% [of their populations]. In the UK this corresponds to about 2.5 to 6 million people “which is more than the number of wheelchair-users. And this is likely to be a gross underestimation.” Erica added that EHS is recognised as a functional impairment in Sweden, the US and Canada. “Legal cases are now being won for long-term disability pensions/compensation’ in Australia, France, Spain, the UK and the US.” 

Those who have EHS attest to its debilitating effects, from headaches, dizziness, loss of energy and an inability to concentrate, to symptoms such as those of ME, heart problems, diarrhoea, a weakened immune system and Raynaud’s disease. For people who have these symptoms, holding down a job may become impossible. Once you can’t pay your rent, homelessness is a likely corollary, precisely because EHS is not widely recognised as a genuine medical complaint, and, because of that, proving you are eligible for state support is extremely tricky. 

Shelter Cymru gave us this statement about homelessness in Wales: “Many households live in fear of homelessness because of insecurity, debt, and landlord or lender actions.” Quoting from a Welsh Government social evictions study, Shelter Cymru added “social landlords obtaining possession orders at rates as high as 82 per 1,000 units annually; eviction rates as high as 9.9 per 1,000 units annually”.

But people with EHS need a special kind of housing, one that is not generally provided by local authorities. They need shelter that protects them from man-made magnetic fields. While a lot of us would equate comfort with the speed of our wi-fi connections, EHS means that wi-fi is your enemy. So, too, are “ordinary” electric lighting and heating, and any other supposedly life-enhancing, electrically driven gadgets that most of us take for granted.

Once you start peering into the invisible world of electronic fields and the way the market for them is going, things get more and more complicated, and it becomes less and less possible to see a way of avoiding them – because we rely on them for our health (think of all the machinery that patients rely on in hospitals) and defence systems, as well as almost everything else. Some people with EHS can’t wear battery-powered watches. Don’t even think about bringing your mobile phone near them. Some are so sensitive they get sick from the wi-fi in the house next door. 

It’s hard to take in. It sounds both vague and apocalyptic at the same time. Some people reading this may be snorting and turning away, thinking that their mobile network and their internet connection are lifelines they couldn’t possibly do without. For them, it might be true. So what happens when your mind and your body tell you these signals are killing you? 

Take Peter, a 40-year-old former fitness trainer who fell foul of EHS in his twenties. A series of mishaps led him to spend a brutally cold winter sleeping in a small tent in the garden of his rented home in Cardiff while the house underwent some essential repairs. At the same time, he couldn’t walk. Peter’s refusal to heat the building (because that would have meant using electricity) drove his landlady to evict him. He took her to court and lost. He believed the city council had a duty of care to house him, but the council said they hadn’t got anything suitable and that left him stranded. The only other option was to be hospitalised, with all the dangers that entailed of exposure to medical machinery.

Thanks to some kind people in Pembrokeshire, he was offered space in a wooden hut belonging to an environmentally friendly community that grew its own food and made minimal use of mobile phones. A member of the community came to Cardiff and brought him back with him in an aged Mercedes – its oldness was an advantage because it meant the car was relatively free of electronics. 

As Peter readily admits, EHS is a creeping, insidious sickness which can make him not only physically weak but confused, oversensitive, short-tempered and even paranoid. When he is in that state of mind, he may say things that offend the very people who are trying to support him.

It was because of that that he had to move from his first Pembrokeshire retreat to another, slightly more remote and considerably rougher situation: another tent, this time in a field. He isn’t free of electromagnetic fields, and when you visit him, he asks you to leave anything battery-powered behind. He has raised a bit of money through a crowdfunding campaign run by his brother. He has a few friends who shop for him and bring him messages. But his money is running out. 

Peter isn’t the only person in Pembrokeshire to say they have EHS. There is Rachel, for example. Also in her forties, Rachel came west from Sussex, hoping to find life easier in a less densely populated, less electronically covered area after she too realised that electromagnetism was causing her body to malfunction so drastically that she couldn’t walk straight and kept falling over.

Rachel used to work with autistic children, but the condition, disease, problem – call it what you like – prevented her from continuing. She lost her rented home and had to rely on friends with available rooms (not ideal, but she bought herself a sort of canopy woven with silver threads which helped indoors), caravans, sheds or shacks. These temporary shelters were often damp, insanitary and difficult to reach.

As well as the kindness of friends and of strangers – a house in Newport was hers to use for a few months while its owners, new acquaintances, were away at their London home – Rachel has had to live on her wits, when her wits were letting her down. Already nervous because of having EHS, she, too, says she is prone to paranoia because the illness isn’t recognised and people may think she’s malingering or nuts – or both. 

It’s easy to see why having EHS could make sufferers appear to behave unreasonably. Objectively it would seem that they’ve already got enough to deal with, without the likes of you and me thinking: “How can people like you exist?”   

Trawling the media, we found a few articles arguing that fear of wi-fi networks is groundless. Some of them were written to help promote internet technology. We found a lot of communications protesting against the latest wi-fi generation, 5G, along with the announcement that SpaceX has launched 60 new satellites (as of 6 January) and wants to send 12,000 into the Earth’s orbit over the coming years. All so that our devices can talk to each other with even less latency (i.e. delay) than before. Into this mixture of conflicting arguments come the conspiracy theories, dark thoughts about unwanted surveillance, be it from governments or corporations, and complaints from astronomers that the satellites will block their view. 

Some people are listening about EHS. In 2014, Peter’s case was taken up by Martin Shipton, a journalist who writes for Wales Online. A documentary film company has taken an interest in his situation. 

Rachel too has advocates. A researcher at Cardiff University business school has interviewed her, along with about 30 other EHS individuals, to see how the communications industry is responding to their customers’ needs. In October 2019, a GP called Andrew Tresidder, who works for NHS Somerset, gave Rachel a letter telling “whom it may concern” that she is “severely affected by EHS” and that, if she cannot find appropriate support, she will be “in dire straits”.

Dr Tresidder is a Section 12 doctor (meaning he has the legal right to detain people in hospital or have them detained by the police against their will if he believes their condition needs to be assessed). His letter continued: “Electrosensitivity is the symptomatic sensitivity to electric or magnetic fields of any frequency, including radio frequency (RF or microwave) transmissions. As a symptomatic condition, it is becoming common due to the increasing environmental pressure on human biology.”

He also says: “Current UK advisory safety limits are based upon the outdated and disproven myth that non-thermal means non-harmful… Electrosensitivity is soundly supported by both biology and physics…” 

Meanwhile, Rachel is still homeless but was offered a temporary place on a biodynamic farm in Portugal. Getting there would be fraught with difficulties, though, not the least of them financial: she has no private income and can’t rely on benefits. She can’t fly, obviously, and travelling by car and boat means finding a driver willing to look after her special needs on the road, and a ferry company that will take the risk of offending other passengers by switching off the wi-fi.

Pictures courtesy of Pixabay

Kitty Parsons

Kitty has forgotten how long she has been here now but she loves Pembrokeshire for its beauty and it's people. She spends her time searching out stories for pembrokeshire.online, swimming in the sea , drawing and painting as Snorkelfish and eating cake. She says "Pembrokeshire.online has been an opportunity to celebrate this beautiful county and its people. Keep the stories coming. We love to hear from you."

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