Below is the next in a series of Guest Blogs on BRHP. The opinions expressed in this Guest Blog are of Don Maisch himself. Publication of these opinions in BRHP does not imply that BRHP automatically agrees with or endorses these opinions. Publication of this, and other guest blogs, facilitates an open debate and free exchange of opinions on wireless technology and health.
Don Maisch is the publisher of the EMFacts Consultancy
The Sad State of Affairs with EHS Research in Australia
Commentary by Don Maisch PhD November 5, 2017
On June 23, 2017 a public meeting was held at the Wamuran sports complex hall in Queensland as a result of community concerns over possible health impacts of a proposed NBN transmission tower to be built in the area. Approximately 45 local residents were present. Speaking in favour of the tower were about 7 representatives from NBN, Ericsson and Aurecon.
Speaking on the possible health issues was Dr. Vitas Anderson, Honorary Principal Fellow with the University of Wollongong and an associate investigator at the Australian Centre for Electromagnetic Bioeffects Research (ACEBR). Anderson is also an investigator in ACEBR’s current provocation study (1). At the meeting Dr. Anderson essentially gave the apparent scientific viewpoint of ACEBR over the controversial condition of Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS) alleged to be a result of exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) from radiofrequency/ microwave emissions as well as power frequency fields.
According to interviews with a number of people who attended the meeting Dr. Anderson told the audience that his research, which he has been doing for more than 20 years, showed that there was no disease or condition known as EHS but that any ill-effects were the results of the Nocebo effect. He went on to explain that many people he examined/tested genuinely believed they were EHS sensitive but they were not.
Anderson’s dismissive viewpoint over any adverse health effects from telecommunications technology has been very consistent over the years. For example, in 2001 Anderson appeared on the Australian SBS TV Insight program, The Mobile Phone Debate. Anderson appeared at the behest of the transnational public relations agency Burson Marsteller, one of the world’s biggest PR firms, well known for its work on behalf of the tobacco industry and the industry group the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA). Anderson was introduced on the program as a “Mobile Phone Industry Consultant.” Anderson went on to claim:
“The issue of mobile health effects is something that’s been looked at for a long time and it’s something that’s been under review almost continuously, at least for the last 20 years quite intensively, and the evidence that we have to date, clearly indicates that there is no real reason for concern from the evidence that we have so far… but in terms of a health effect, there really is no substantive reason to recommend a precautionary approach.”
Anderson then stated that there was little published data to quantify any health risks but that a “strong prima facie case exists for a cautious approach to the Precautionary Principle” (2). This suggests that there are no health risks but that taking a precautionary approach, just in case there is, constitutes a health risk itself as the mere suggestion of a risk may cause people to worry themselves sick (the nocebo effect).
Dr. Anderson’s research is based on what are known as provocation studies, which he has developed, based on research conducted by his colleague, James Rubin of King’s College, London.
This type of study consists of exposing subjects who have self-identified themselves as electrosensitive to electromagnetic radiation (EMR) to see if they can feel when the field is turned on or off. These tests have generally found that the subjects fail to distinguish whether the field is present or not – leading to a conclusion by the researchers that the fields were not the cause of the subject’s reported symptoms and therefore the problem may be psychosomatic, the nocebo effect where the symptoms are the result of psychological stress from worry over exposure, and not the result of the exposure itself.
Central to EMR provocation studies is the hypothesis that if a person is sensitive to EMR they should be able to feel in the laboratory setting when the exposure is taking place. If not, it must then be an imagined psychological problem (nocebo). For example, Rubin et al reviewed over 40 provocation studies on EHS volunteers and concluded that overall, people with EHS did not react to EMR exposure any differently from the way subjects react to a sham exposure. Thus, the authors suggested that EMR was not the cause of their condition (3).
However, a significant weakness of provocation research, when applied to possible adverse health effects of EMR exposure however, is that by its very design it limits the definition of electrosensitive persons to those who claim that they can feel when they are being exposed and excludes the possibility that there may possibly be people who are adversely being affected by EMR exposure but cannot sense when they are being exposed and/or have no idea that such exposures are affecting their health.
As for weaknesses of provocation testing Dr. David McDonald, formerly from the CSIRO, examined a proposed ACEBR provocation testing protocol in 2011. McDonald concluded that the proposal as it then stood contained “a number of serious scientific and statistical shortcomings in the proposal to determine whether a subject is truly sensitive to an EMF”. McDonald also wrote that the cumulative impact of the shortcomings rendered the proposal “scientifically indefensible” and recommended a major revision of the proposed testing (4). It is hoped that McDonald’s recommendation has since been noted and in the current provocation test protocol being used by ACEBR the deficiencies have been corrected.
McDonald’s criticism is also applicable to concerns raised by Dr. Dariusz Leszczynski who has noted the nocebo effect does not disprove the existence of EHS as a real disorder and that the current provocation research “is useless for making any decisions about the existence, or non-existence, of the causality link between EHS and EMF exposures”. Leszczynski said claims that EHS are unrelated to EMF exposure are “illogical and unscientific”(5).
Regardless of what the methodology is for the current ACEBR provocation study, a major weakness of the testing, as mentioned above, still remains an inherent bias in ACEBR’s scientific assumptions.
The significant problem with ACEBR’s provocation methodology is that people who may be affected by EMR but cannot detect or directly feel it, would obviously not volunteer to be a “self-identified” subject in a provocation study.
This is not to question that there are EHS people who can feel when they are being exposed and are adversely affected by the exposure. It is simply to point out that ACEBR’s provocation testing methodology is far too limited in scope to be able to determine the possible extent of EHS in the community and is certainly inadequate to determine that EHS is just a nocebo effect. To argue that such testing justifies the claim that EHS is just a nocebo effect, and nothing more, is disingenuous.
This is not to say that all provocation studies are of limited value. For example a double-blind provocation study by Havas et al. found that emissions from a 2.4 GHz cordless phone affected both Heart Rate (HR) and HR variability (HRV) associated with cordless phones well below the official exposure guidelines (6).
In contrast to ACEBR’s provocation study’s dependence upon the subject’s experience (consciously feeling the exposure), Havas found an unconscious biological response on exposure, indicating that the response was not just a nocebo effect.
In another interesting study by Dr. Andrew Marino et al at Louisiana State University the researchers examined whether or not EHS had a real biological basis. They did a thorough medical examination on a subject (a female physician) who claimed to have EHS, and found that she reacted within 100 seconds of being exposed to low-level pulsed electromagnetic fields with headache, muscle twitching, skipped heartbeats and other symptoms. This was a carefully designed double-blind test, repeated on her many times. Most importantly, although she could not consciously perceive the field, her body reacted every time it was turned on. The authors wrote: “The subject demonstrated statistically reliable somatic reactions in response to exposure to subliminal EMFs under conditions that reasonably excluded a causative role for psychological processes”(7).
The nocebo effect
As Leszczynski noted previously, the existence of the nocebo effect does not disprove the existence of EHS as a real disorder. It simply means that when evaluating claims of EHS the nocebo effect needs to be considered as one possibility but not necessarily the sole cause of the person’s symptoms.
In my experience since the early 1990s examining many homes and workplaces for possibly excessive EMF exposure, I have seen cases where such exposure was not apparent but psychological factors seemed to be in play: in other words, the nocebo effect is a possibility to be considered in evaluating EHS cases. However, in the majority of cases, especially when the person was unaware of their exposure, EMR exposure and not a mental attitude was apparently the operative factor. This is especially the case when people’s bedrooms are in close proximity to an electrical smart meter with a continuous pulsing RF emission (8, 9).
Another complication in EHS research is that some people who may have a genuine adverse biological response to EMR exposure, and who become aware of a connection, may become hyper-vigilant and begin looking for all possible sources of exposure. This may bring about a state of increased anxiety resulting in stress-related symptoms, which may be misinterpreted as a symptom of EMR exposure even when no exposure is apparent.
Another problem for provocation studies is that the subjects self-reported symptoms which the subject attributes to EMR exposure, may, in fact, be due to other conditions and not EMR exposure. Dr. Dariusz Leszczynski specifically points this out in his analysis of ACEBR’s latest provocation study. He concluded, in part that:
The major problem of this, and other EHS studies, is the assumption by the scientists that the volunteers with the self-reported EHS, indeed have symptoms caused by EMF exposures. There is no such certainty. The volunteers are self-diagnosed and might suffer from symptoms caused by sensitivity to something else, not EMF. In this context, the experimental EMF group is likely “tainted” by the non-EHS volunteers and the results of experiments using such “tainted” group are skewed towards no effect”(10).
Leszczynski asked ACEBR Director Rodney Croft about this problem, which could invalidate experimental findings, to which Croft replied that they have no method to objectively determine who is and who is not EHS and have to rely/accept the subject’s self-diagnosis.
To this Leszczynski concluded:
This means that EHS experiments performed by Rodney Croft’s team use groups of volunteers where the scientists do not know how many members of the volunteer group have real EHS and how many are “contaminating” non-EHS sensitive persons. The ‘contamination” of the experimental group means that the experimental results obtained in this and other EHS research studies are useless as proof that EHS does not exist (11).
So, how many subjects were in the latest ACEBR provocation study? 25 people originally expressed interest, 6 were excluded due to pre-existing chronic symptoms, 16 withdrew or could not be re-contacted and only 3 volunteers participated. (12)
It is not the best of science for ACEBR to rely on such a limited scope provocation study, with a dubious methodology, based on only 3 participants, and then claim that study’s findings indicate ”strong correlations between symptom reports and belief of being exposed, suggesting a possible nocebo response.”
More of the same for future EHS research in Australia
In June 2017, The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) published Technical Report 178 “Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Energy and Health: Research Needs”. Under “Special areas of research” it is stated:
Research into Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity with the aim of understanding the etiology of the condition and finding ways to provide effective treatment for sufferers.
However, under the section “Human studies” after a brief discussion on the scope of needed studies, ARPANSA gives the recommendation:
Further provocation studies on neurophysiological effects with improved methods including adequate sample sizes, predefined exposure and analysis protocols and varied populations (13).
In order to carry out some of ARPANSA’s recommendations ACEBR has been awarded $2.5 million (14) to support its research until 2022. Although the details on where this money is to be spent are not available at this time, a continuation of provocation studies will be a central issue. This is apparent from ACEBR’s website under the section “Determinants of RF Health Concern” where their provocation study methodology is given (15).
The Telstra bias
Telstra Corporation has historically played a major role in developing ACEBR’s research effort examining EMR bio-effects and this is examined in the book chapter “Spin in the Antipodes” in “Corporate Ties That Bind” (2017). The reason for this interest was given in its 2004 Telstra Annual Report where it was stated, under the heading “Risk factors” that
“[t]he establishment of a link between adverse health effects and electromagnetic energy (EME) could expose us to liability or negatively affect our operations” (16).
Consequently, any research effort into this possible link would be of vital importance to Telstra, not because of the truth it may uncover but its potential to adversely impact through litigation and regulation as well as on the corporation’s bottom line. It is interesting to note that in the same year Telstra was informing its investors that a risk existed, it was also telling the Australian public that there was no health risk from their use of mobile communications.
Now we have ACEBR suggesting that their provocation research indicates that those “adverse health effects” that so worried Telstra in 2004 are likely just a nocebo effect caused by the “belief of being exposed”.
Just how far will ACEBR push this line of reasoning?
- ACEBR, Research Programs, https://acebr.uow.edu.au/research-programs/UOW164837.html
- Maisch D., Spin in the Antipodes, in Corporate Ties That Bind, Ed. Martin Walker, 2017, pp. 305-306.
- Rubin J, et al. “Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: a systematic review of provocation studies”, Psychosomatic Medicine, 2005 Mar-Apr; 67(2), pp.224-32.
- McDonald D, Review of “Statistical Design for EMF provocation testing” unpublished, October 12, 2011 (Permission from Liz McDonald)
- Leszczynski D., “Nocebo effect” proves: available EHS research is useless for decisions-making, https://betweenrockandhardplace.wordpress.com/2015/07/14/nocebo-effect-proves-available-ehs-research-is-useless-for-decisions-making/
- Havas M, Marrongelle J. Pollner B, Kelley L. Rees C, Tully L, Provocation Study using Heart Rate Variability shows Radiation from 2.4 GHz Cordless Phone Affects Autonomic Nervous System, European Journal of Oncology Library Vol. 5, 273-300.
- Marino A, et al, Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: Evidence for a Novel Neurological Syndrome, Int, Jur. Of Neuroscience, Vol.121, 2011- Issue 12, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/00207454.2011.608139
- Smart Meter Case Histories, https://www.emfacts.com/download/SM_case_studies.pdf
- Lamech F, ‘Self-Reporting of Symptom Development From Exposure to Radiofrequency Fields of Wireless Smart Meters in Victoria, Australia: A Case Series’, Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine , Nov. 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25478801
- Leszczynski D., Report from NIR session at the ARPS2017, https://betweenrockandhardplace.files.wordpress.com/2017/09/updated-report-from-arps-20171.pdf
- ARPANSA Technical Report 178 – June 2017, Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Energy and Health: Research Needs, https://www.arpansa.gov.au/research-and-expertise/technical-reports/radiofrequency-electromagnetic-energy-and-health-research
- NHMRC Centres of Research Excellence (CRE) for Funding Commencing in 2017 https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/grants/fellows/funded/outcomes/centres_of_research_excellence_for_funding_2017_0.pdf
- ACEBR, Research Programs, op.cit.
- Maisch D, op. cit. p. 308.