Electrohypersensitivity disorder

The new name for an old problem

by Magda Havas


• At the turn of the 20th century a mysterious illness emerged. The first people to be affected by it were the telegraph line installers and the telephone switchboard operators. The symptoms of the illness included nerve disorders – hence the name neurasthenia or nervous asthenia – depression, extreme anxiety, exhaustion, convulsions, unconsciousness, rashes and a whole host of other malaises.

The afflictions became so bad that, in 1907, the Bell telephone switchboard operators in Toronto went on strike. They demanded much shorter working hours and better working conditions. In the 1950s, with the invention of microwave frequencies, radar operators started suffering with similar symptoms that they called radio wave or microwave illness.

Now, at the turn of the 21st century with the introduction of personal wireless technologies, the general population seems to be plagued with the same symptoms, which we call electrohypersensitivity disorder or EHS.

What do these three events have in common? The introduction of chronic overexposure to electromagnetic fields.

In the telephone switchboard operator case, the personnel would manually place jacks into a switchboard panel to connect one telephone caller to another individual by the use of a switchboard cable. Their proximity to the switchboard caused them to be chronically exposed to hundreds of live telephone connections for up eight hours each. They sat with electromagnetic fields on their head from the speakers in their headset and their bodies came into contact with voltage by the individual connections.

In the case of the radar operators, they worked near large radar antennae that were broadcasting and receiving wireless electromagnetic fields.

In the third case, we now wear microwave transmitters in the form of smart phones, wireless tablets that constantly emit Wi-Fi, bluetooth and cellular data.

Basically, neurasthenia, radio wave illness and electrohypersensitvity are one and the same. However, neurasthenia is classified as an illness in the WHO list of diseases and EHS is relegated to idiopathic environmental illness, which basically means we don’t know the cause. In reality, the medical community knew it was a problem but in order to allow technology to progress the use of the word neurasthenia fell out of favour and is rarely used today as a diagnosis.

With the help of Microsoft and the University of California, the Royal Commission document headed by the former Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King, of the plight of the Bell Switchboard Operators was documented and digitized. It is a fascinating read and the transcription of the hearing deserves to be turned into a feature film or at least an audio book.

The entire Royal Commission Report is available at www.magdahavas.com Search for the article, “The disease of ‘modern’ civilization…neurasthenia.” There is a link to the report at the end of the article.

Magda Havas is associate professor of Environmental and Resource Studies at Trent University where she teaches and does research on the biological effects of environmental contaminants. Dr. Havas received her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. www.magdahavas.com

Leave a comment