Segerbäck was once an elite telecommunications engineer. He worked for Ellemtel, a division of the Swedish telecom giant Ericsson, for more than 20 years, leading an engineering group that designed advanced integrated circuits for prototype telecommunication systems. He used the newest and most advanced computer and telecom equipment available, the kind of stuff only Ericsson and the Swedish military had access to. He was, as a result, up to his eyeballs in a non-ionizing radiation bath, from computers, fluorescent lights and the telecom antenna located right outside his window.
He noticed his first symptoms -- dizziness, nausea, headaches, burning sensations and red blotches on his skin -- in the late 1980s, a decade into his telecommunications research work. All but two of the 20 or so other members of his group reported similar symptoms, he says, although his were by far the most severe. His EHS worsened and now, he says, even radar from low-flying aircraft can set it off. Segerbäck is convinced that the perfect storm of EMFs in his office, combined with potentially toxic fumes from his brand-new computer, were responsible for his condition. "The company doctors didn't understand what was going on," he says.
Agne Fredriksson, who managed Segerbäck's group at Ellemtel and retired from Ericsson in 2006, says a commonly reported symptom was "a feeling of heat in the face," which everyone attributed to the new computer workstations. When members of Segerbäck's group started calling in sick and people from other departments began reporting similar symptoms, Fredriksson recalls, "that's when we started to look into what could be done about it. There was a lot of worry from the groups in which people reported the most symptoms."
A new office space was created for the worst-affected employees; about half a dozen people shared this fully shielded room. Others switched to different computer workstations, while others managed by spending less time in front of their screens. No one had ever encountered anything like it before. "Why are we so special?" Fredriksson remembers wondering. He later learned that other companies faced similar situations at the time, although that information remained internal.
Ericsson went to great lengths to keep Segerbäck, a key member of the firm's design team, on the job. In the early 1990s, the company installed metal shields around his bedroom and study at home so he could sleep and work without radiation exposure. To enable him to go outside, medical authorities gave Segerbäck an EMF-resistant suit like the ones worn by engineers working in close proximity to live telecom towers and high-voltage power lines. The firm even modified a Volvo so he could travel safely to and from work. His commutes ended when cellphone towers began to spring up around Stockholm in the mid-1990s, eventually forcing his retreat to the woods.
In 1993 Ericsson produced a report, "Hypersensitivity in the Workplace," about what happened at Segerbäck's lab. In the foreword, Ellemtel's vice president Örjan Mattsson and administrative chief Torbjörn Johnson wrote: "A new problem in the work environment has appeared: hypersensitivity. When dealing with traditional occupational injury, as a rule you can establish a cause and effect relationship. Not so with regard to hypersensitivity. When the first serious cases occurred at Ellemtel at the end of the 1980s, we were not prepared. Soon, we came to look upon hypersensitivity as a serious threat to the company business. . . . We started wondering if we were faced with a modern-day scourge."
Ulrika Aberg, a Swedish physician specializing in EHS who treated Segerbäck in the early days of his condition, has worked with more than 800 hypersensitive patients. She says she's seen a sliding scale of symptoms, from sleep disturbance and dizziness on one end to the more severe effects experienced by Segerbäck on the other. "There is electrical activity going on in all cells all the time, so it's no wonder the whole body [of an EHS patient] is affected," she says.
For those reporting milder symptoms, Aberg suggests removing any wireless electronics from the home, including cell and cordless phones and wireless Internet connections. But that still leaves people exposed to the wireless devices of others. There are several hundred EHS "refugees" in Sweden, she says, people who have had to move, some more than once, to escape the effects of EMFs. She describes one hypersensitive couple that lives in a mobile home so they can quickly relocate if their symptoms worsen. "EHS is a controversial diagnosis, and many people don't know or care about it," Aberg says. "But many [EHS sufferers] can't feel safe where they live. We shouldn't produce more and more EMFs without taking account of how people react to them."
The main source of EMFs from cellphones is the antenna, located inside the handset. When sending signals and held against the side of the head, the phone produces radiation that can penetrate into the brain. The precise depth depends on the frequency of the EMFs; the higher the frequency, the lower the depth of penetration. Cellphones typically operate in a range of frequencies between 800 and 2,200 megahertz. Radios and TVs operate at slightly lower frequencies, and microwave ovens and radar operate at higher frequencies.
Research into the health effects of EMFs started in the 1950s, when scientists began studying medical applications and radar. As microwave ovens started appearing in kitchens in the 1960s, EMF research entered the mainstream, and with the proliferation of computer display terminals in the 1970s and cellphones in the 1980s, the research really took off. "With every new device, people worry," says Michael Repacholi, the former coordinator of the World Health Organization's Radiation and Environmental Health Unit and now a visiting professor at the University of Rome. Repacholi launched the WHO's International EMF Project in 1996 in response to growing public concern. That group's conclusion: There is no evidence to indicate any health effects from cellphone EMFs. There was a clutch of lawsuits in the mid-1990s alleging that cellphones had caused brain cancer in specific individuals; none succeeded.
The Interphone project, a collaboration among 13 countries that carried out studies between 2000 and 2005 coordinated by the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer, was set up to settle the matter of whether cellphones cause brain cancer. It, however, has been plagued by controversy over methodology, bias and contradictory results. Interphone spans a period during which cellphones and their use have changed greatly. Children were not included in the study, for instance, because cellphone use by kids was low when it began in 2000.
Bias is a concern for all studies of this type, says the head of the Interphone study, Elisabeth Cardis of the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona, Spain. "We have from the beginning made efforts to minimize bias as much as possible, to identify and quantify any remaining bias, and to try and take it into account in the most scientific way," she says.
The results are inconclusive. A Danish Interphone study of 106 cases of acoustic neuroma, a kind of brain tumor, showed no elevated risk from long-term cellphone use, although only two cases were long-term users. A Swedish Interphone study of 148 cases found a slightly elevated risk.
When the Interphone results are finally released, after years of closed-door debate, they are not expected to settle anything. In the end, Cardis says, "further studies will be needed to confirm the Interphone results, particularly with regard to the use of phones by children."single page
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