The microwave syndrome or electro-hypersensitivity: historical background

David O. Carpenter 1
  • 1 Institute for Health and the Environment, University at Albany, 5 University Place, A217, Rensselaer, NY 12144, USA
David O. Carpenter

Abstract

Microwave generating equipment first became common during World War 2 with the development of radar. Soviet bloc countries reported that individuals exposed to microwaves frequently developed headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite, sleepiness, difficulty in concentration, poor memory, emotional instability, and labile cardiovascular function, and established stringent exposure standards. For a variety of reasons these reports were discounted in Western countries, where the prevailing belief was that there could be no adverse health effects of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) that were not mediated by tissue heating. The reported Soviet effects were at lower intensities than those that cause heating. However, there were several accidental exposures of radar operators in Western countries that resulted in persistent symptoms similar to those described above. The Soviets irradiated the US Embassy in Moscow with microwaves during the period 1953–1975, and while no convincing evidence of elevated cancer rates was reported, there were reports of “microwave illness”. Officials passed these complaints off as being due to anxiety, not effects of the microwave exposure. There is increasing evidence that the “microwave syndrome” or “electro-hypersensitivity” (EHS) is a real disease that is caused by exposure to EMFs, especially those in the microwave range. The reported incidence of the syndrome is increasing along with increasing exposure to EMFs from electricity, WiFi, mobile phones and towers, smart meters and many other wireless devices. Why some individuals are more sensitive is unclear. While most individuals who report having EHS do not have a specific history of an acute exposure, excessive exposure to EMFs, even for a brief period of time, can induce the syndrome.

  • 1.

    World Health Organization. Electromagnetic fields and public health: Electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Available at: http://www.who.int/peh-emf/publications/facts/fs296/en/. Accessed March 30, 2013.

  • 2.

    Hallberg O, Oberfeld G. Letter to the editor: will we all become electrosensitive? Electromag Biol Med 2006;25:189–91.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 3.

    Eltiti S, Wallace D, Ridgewell A, Zoughou K, Russo R, et al. Does short-term exposure to mobile phone base station signals increase symptoms in individuals who report sensitivity to electromagnetic fields? Environ Health Perspect 2007;115:1603–8.

  • 4.

    Eltiti S, Wallace D, Russo R, Fox E. Aggregated data from two double-blind base station provocation studies comparing individuals with idiopathic environmental intolerance with attribution to electromagnetic fields and controls. Bioelectromagnetics 2015;36:96–107.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 5.

    Rubin GJ, Hillert L, Nieto-Hernandez R, van Rongen E, Oftedal G. Do people with idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields display physiological effects when exposed to electromagnetic fields? A systematic review of provocation studies. Bioelectromagnetics 2011;32:593–609.

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Export Citation
  • 6.

    Rubin GJ, Nieto-Hernandez R, Wessely S. Idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (formerly ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’): an updated systematic review of provocation studies. Bioelectromagnetics 2010;31:1–11.

    • PubMed
    • Export Citation
  • 7.

    Rea WJ, Pan Y, Yenyves EJ, Sujisawa I, Samadi N, et al. Electromagnetic field sensitivity. J Bioelect 1991;10:241–56.

  • 8.

    McCarty DE, Carrubba S, Chesson AL, Frilot C, Gonzalex-Toledo E, et al. Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: Evidence for a novel neurological syndrome. Int J Neurosci 2011;121:670–6.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 9.

    Röösli M. Symptoms of ill health ascribed to electromagnetic field exposure–a questionnaire survey. Int J Hyg Environ Health 2004;207:141–50.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 10.

    Lamech F. Self-reporting of symptom development from exposure to radiofrequency fields of wireless smart meters in Victoria, Australia: A case study. Alter Ther 2014;20:28–39.

  • 11.

    Marha K. Microwave radiation safety standards in Eastern Europe. IEEE Trans Microwave Theory Tech 1971;MTT-19:165–8.

  • 12.

    Dodge CH. Clinical and hygienic aspects of exposure to electromagnetic fields: a review of the Soviet and Eastern European literature. 1979. In: Biological Effects and Health Implications of Microwave Radiation, Symposium Proceedings. Richmond, Virginia. BRH/DBE 70–2, PB 193 898.

  • 13.

    Silverman C. Nervous and behavioral effects of microwave radiation in humans. Am J Epidemiol 1973;97:219–24.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 14.

    Frey AH. Behavioral biophysics. Psych Bull 1965;63:322–37.

  • 15.

    Michaelson SM, Dodge CH. Soviet views on the biological effects of microwaves – An analysis. Health Phys 1971;21:108–11.

  • 16.

    Pollack H. The microwave syndrome. Bull NY Acad Med 1979;55:1240–3.

  • 17.

    Silverman C. Epidemiologic studies of microwave effects. Proc IEEE 1980;68:78–85.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 18.

    Lillienfeld AM. Practical limitations of epidemiologic methods. Environ Health Perspect 1983;52:3–8.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 19.

    Elwood JM. Microwaves in the cold war: the Moscow embassy study and its interpretation. Review of a retrospective cohort study. Environ Health 2012;11:85.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 20.

    Johnson-Liakouris AG. Radiofrequency (RF) sickness in the Lillenfeld study: an effect of modulated microwaves? Arch Environ Health 1998;53:236–8.

  • 21.

    Goldsmith JR. Ethical problems arising when the trail of professional work lead to evidence of cover-up of serious risk and misrepresentation of scientific judgement concerning human exposures to radar or microwaves. Eubios J Asian Internat Bioethics 1995;5:92–5.

  • 22.

    Goldsmith JR. Epidemiologic evidence relevant to radar (microwave) effects. Environ Health Perspect 1997; 105(Suppl 6):1579–87.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 23.

    Djordjevic Z, Kolak A, Stojkovic, Rankovic N, Ristic P. A study of the health status of radar workers. Avia Space Environ Med 1979;50:396–8.

  • 24.

    Williams RA, Webb TS. Exposure to radio-frequency radiation from an aircraft radar unit. Aviat Space Environ Med 1980;51:1243–4.

  • 25.

    Forman SA, Holmes CK, McManamon TV, Wedding WR. Psychological symptoms and intermittent hypertension following acute microwave exposure. J Occup Med 1982;24:932–4.

  • 26.

    Schilling CJ. Effects of acute exposure to ultrahigh radiofrequency radiation on three antenna engineers. Occup Environ Med 1997;54:281–4.

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Export Citation
  • 27.

    Schilling CJ Effects of exposure to very high frequency radiofrequency radiation on six antenna engineers in two separate incidents. Occup Med 2000;50:49–56.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 28.

    Reeves GI. Review of extensive workups of 34 patients overexposed to radiofrequency radiation. Aviat, Space Environ Med 2000;71:206–15.

  • 29.

    Westhoff JL, Roberts BJ, Erickson K. Vehicle-mounted high-power microwave systems and health risk communication in a deployed environment. Mil Med 2013;178:34–6.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 30.

    Deadman JE, Camus M, Armstrong BG, Heroux P, Cyr D, et al. Occupational and residential 60-Hz electromagnetic fields and high-frequency electric transients: exposure assessments using a new dosimeter. Am Ind Hyg Assoc J 1988;49:409–19.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 31.

    Deno DW, Carpenter DO. Sources and characteristics of electric and magnetic fields in the environment. In: Carpenter DO, Ayrapetyan S, editors. Biological effects of electric and magnetic fields: sources and mechanisms. Waltham, MA, USA: Academic Press, 1994:3–51.

  • 32.

    Vignati M, Guiliani L. Radiofrequency exposure near high-voltage lines. Environ Health Perspect 1997;105(Suppl 6):1569–73.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 33.

    Milham S, Morgan LL. A new electromagnetic exposure metric: High frequency voltage transients associated with increased cancer incidence in teachers in a California school. Am J Ind Med 2008;51:579–86.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 34.

    Cleveland RF Jr. Radiofrequency radiation in the environment: Sources, exposure standards, and related issues. In: Carpenter DO, Ayrapetyan S, editors. Biological effects of electric and magnetic fields: sources and mechanisms. Waltham, MA, USA: Academic Press, 1994:53–81.

  • 35.

    Urbinello D, Joseph W, Verloock L, Martens L, Röösli M. Temporal trends of radio-frequency electromagnetic field (RF-EMF) exposure in everyday environments across European cities. Environ Res 2014;134:134–42.

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Export Citation
  • 36.

    Frey AH. Human auditory system response to modulated electromagnetic energy. J Appl Physiol 1962;17:689–92.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 37.

    Frey AH. Brain stem evoked response associated with low-intensity pulsed UHF energy. J Appl Physiol 1967;23:984–8.

  • 38.

    Litovitz TA, Krause D, Penafiel M, Elson EC, Mullins JM. The role of coherence time in the effect of microwaves on ornithine decarboxylase activity. Bioelectromagnetics 1993;14:395–403.

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Export Citation
  • 39.

    Penafiel LM, Litovitz T, Krause D, Desta A, Mullins JM. Role of modulation on the effect of microwaves on ornithine decarboxylase activity in L929 cells. Bioelectromagnetics 1997;18:132–41.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • 40.

    Carpenter DO. Human disease resulting from exposure to electromagnetic fields. Rev Environ Health 2013;28:159–72.

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Export Citation
Purchase article
Get instant unlimited access to the article.
$42.00
Log in
Already have access? Please log in.


or
Log in with your institution

Journal + Issues

Reviews on Environmental Health is an international quarterly periodical that fills the need for rapid publication of specialized comprehensive review articles on hot topics in the field of environmental health. The journal is an inspiring forum for scientists, environmentalists, physicians, engineers and students active in the area of public health, including quality of life.

Search