Electrosensitivity caused by chronic nervous system arousal – Dr Roy Fox
Pollutant avoidance and detoxification are preferable to neuroactive medication if you suffer from electrosensitivity or chemical sensitivities, says Dr Roy Fox, Medical Director of the Capital Health Integrative Chronic Care Service, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Dr Fox will be speaking on this topic in Montreal next May 25th at the Project ECOSPHERE Environmental and Ecohousing Fair.
French version of this interview
Contrary to a common medical practice worldwide, one of Canada’s few experts in environmental medicine says avoiding pollutants and detoxifying the body are the best ways of reducing symptoms of environmental sensitivities and that use of neuroactive drugs is a risky last resort.
“I would never prescribe antidepressants or anxiolytics to someone with electrosensitivity unless they were obviously depressed or anxious and had been treated with psychotherapy or learned some self-management tools and were not responding, Dr Roy Fox said in an interview. Also, the anxiety or depression would need to be diagnosed by the usual criteria and be a clearly significant clinical issue. If I do prescribe medication, then I anticipate limited tolerance and therefore start with a medication I am most familiar with, is usually well tolerated and also at a low dose. A high percentage of patients who are electrosensitive have limited tolerance to medications and particularly antidepressants/anxiolytics. Side effects are more frequent. I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that such medications are beneficial in this situation.”
A chemically-sensitive physician
A gastroenterologist by training and professor of geriatrics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Dr Roy Fox speaks from experience. In 1990-1991, he was among more than 600 people who became ill because of indoor air quality problems at Camp Hill Medical Centre, near Halifax. The major cause of their illness was thought to be neurotoxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), specifically mixtures of amines added to the boiler for their anticorrosive properties, accidentally introduced into the hospital’s environment for humidification purposes.
More than 100 of those affected, including senior staff such as Dr Fox, Camp Hill’s first Director of the Centre for Health Care of the Elderly, developed a condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). Many remained disabled five years later and were unable to pursue any gainful employment. A significant proportion of those who became ill also developed electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), also known as electrical sensitivity (ES).
Loss of tolerance
“Lessening of ES appeared to parallel improvement in health and reduction of chemical sensitivity… In the [few] patients where this has been identified as a major factor, addressing total body [pollutant] load or the use of desensitization techniques to lessen chemical sensitivity and allergy has resulted in significant amelioration of ES symptoms’’, Dr Fox wrote in a paper presented at the 1997 Annual International Symposium on Man and his Environment, which focused on bioelectricity. He explained how those poisoned at Camp Hill were affected: “The negatively charged amines have a more profound effect on membrane functions such as permeability. These changes in membrane function (…) are likely to result in altered function and altered electromagnetic characteristics.’’
(In a letter written to someone with EHS who forwarded it to us, Parisian oncologist Dr Dominique Belpomme highlights that “most living organisms — including bacteria — are electrosensitive. What individualises electrosensitivity is that certain susceptible organisms become more intolerant to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) than others as a result of prolonged EMF exposure.’’ Dr Belpomme has asked the World Health Organization to stop using the term Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity and adopt the one he coined, Electromagnetic Field Intolerance Syndrome.)
Following the Camp Hill poisoning, Dr. Fox completed a year-long fellowship in Environmental Medicine at the Environmental Health Centre, Dallas (EHCD) and Tri-City Hospital, Dallas, Texas. EHCD’s founder, cardiac surgeon William J. Rea, co-wrote the first scientific paper describing an effective method to evaluate electromagnetic field hypersensitivity. It was published in the Journal of Bioelectricity in 1991.
A unique medical centre
In 1994, Dr Fox was appointed Interim Director of the new Nova Scotia Environmental Health Centre, a 2-million-dollar state-of-the-art facility built by the province with ceramic tiles and other healthy building materials tolerated by chemically sensitive patients. He was appointed Director in 1997 and today he is Medical Director. The Centre, part of the Capital District Health Authority and renamed the Integrated Chronic Care Service, specializes in the treatment of individuals with complex chronic conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and acquired environmental sensitivities.
“We always have about 600-700 patients at any one time.’’ Some of them come from Quebec, which reimburses their medical fees because the province has no similar treatment facility. The fact that Nova Scotia physicians became hypersensitive “certainly helped’’ to convince the Maritime province to take environmental illnesses more seriously, recognized Dr Fox.
A growing epidemic
Chemical and electromagnetic sensitivities share common characteristics with other conditions that are largely due to environmental assaults on the nervous system, such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, Dr Fox said in an interview. In 2010, an estimated 5% of Canadians suffered from at least one or a combination of MCS, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue and many of them are too sick to work full time, according to a study co-written by family physician Lynn Marshall of the University of Toronto and president of the Environmental Health Institute of Canada.
In 2007, Statistics Canada reported that 3% of Canadians had received a medical diagnosis of Environmental Hypersensitivity or MCS. In addition, European polls revealed that up to 13% of people say they have become electrosensitive. And up to 35% (2.3 billion people) seem to have become intolerant to EMFs, according to environmental toxicologist Magda Havas, an expert in the health effects of EMFs including transient high frequencies, a form of electrical interference commonly called dirty electricity. “When we cleaned up the dirty electricity in classrooms, the health of about 30% to 35% of the teachers improved, adds Havas, Associate Professor of Environmental & Resource Studies at Trent University, in Peterborough, Ontario. I believe that between 1% and 5% of the population are extremely sensitive and another 30% to 35% are moderately to mildly sensitive.’’
Characteristics of chemical sensitivities
In 1999, six consensus criteria were identified by researchers for the diagnosis of MCS, which can be triggered by an acute or chronic chemical exposure:
• Symptoms are reproducible with repeated exposures.
• The condition has persisted for a significant period of time.
• Levels of exposure lower than commonly tolerated result in increased sensitivity.
• The symptoms improve or resolve completely when the triggering chemicals are removed.
• Responses often occur to multiple chemically unrelated substances.
• Symptoms involve multiple organs.
Overstimulated nervous system
The same criteria can be applied to EHS, according to Dr Fox. “I see chemical and EMF sensitivities not as separate and unique illnesses, but as the manifestation of a common underlying change in the central nervous system. In the literature, central sensitivity or sensitization syndrome appears be a pathophysiological change that accounts for MCS, migraines, irritable bowel and bladder, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and difficult to treat chronic pain. Those affected have a lower threshold [of tolerance to various stressors] and higher excitation within the nervous system. Reviews on central sensitization were written in the USA by professor of rheumatology Muhammad B. Yunus. A whole variety of things keep this sensitization going, such as infection, endocrine dysfunction, environmental stress, psychosocial stress or chronic joint inflammation. Patients learn to limit their reactivity by avoiding the environmental triggers.’’
Yet there is no medical consensus around the diagnosis and treatment of environmental hypersensitivities, which many physicians consider to be psychosomatic. “I can confirm that 90% of patients referred to our Center have a history which confirms they are environmentally sensitive, 10% of whom had severe reactions, some with anaphylaxis or severe asthma, Dr Fox said. The hypersensitive don’t suffer from more mental illnesses than other groups of patients.” He is thus categorical when he says electrohypersensitivity is not psychosomatic: “It’s not a phobia, said this author of more than 110 scientific papers. Ever since I’ve been in this field, that diagnosis of psychosomatic or somatoform illness has always bothered me. People are so linear, black and white in their thinking.’’
But he understands why doctors tend to pose such a diagnosis: “It’s very difficult when there is no objective confirmation or immediate treatment.’’ But he adds that while the cause of environmental diseases is not psychological, “you can’t ignore the psychological impact of suddenly becoming sensitive to things you use daily in modern life. We have patients where psychological issues are important, but a very small number, fewer than 5%, where there is a clear psychiatric diagnosis which is the most important clinical feature. This is no more than in the general population. However in the other 95%, psychological issues may be contributing to their ill health and limiting their potential to heal. We can help if we lower the stress of isolation, financial problems, etc. When the nervous system is in a high state of arousal where you react to the environment, it’s interpreted as being anxious. But any kind of health problem that compromises the body’s overall ability to function in a cohesive, normal way is a stress and alters nervous system function. Threats to the person switch the nervous system into a high state of arousal leading to overprotective responses. Heightened sensitivity is really an over-protective self-protection mechanism. Vulnerability to environmental stress varies and different people are affected in different ways. Multiple body systems are usually involved and most of our patients have multiple diagnoses.’’
Despite Dr Rea’s 1991 study and one coauthored in 2011 by biophysicist Dr Andrew Marino who teaches medicine at Louisiana State University, the World Health Organization still stands behind its 2005 assertion that ‘’there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure.’’ Nevertheless, Dr Fox and thousands of other physicians worldwide say they are indeed linked (details on the International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety (ICEMS) and Cellular Phone Task Force websites).
Difficult to demonstrate scientifically
Dr Fox has seen patients with major problems with electrohypersensitivity, also known as microwave sensitivity or electric sensitivity. But he says it’s indeed a very difficult thing to prove by exposing patients to EMFs in a laboratory, as Drs Rea and Marino have achieved. “I tried here in the Center but it’s very difficult to exclude the presence of EMFs in the modern world.’’ A colleague at the Microwave/RF and Wireless Research Laboratory in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Dalhousie University has a chamber where microwave intrusion can be eliminated. “However, we found it very difficult to test our patients there: its building materials are very smelly and off-gas pollutants that made them sick.’’
The nervous system of every species including humans can detect EMFs but it is not developed in most humans, Dr Fox added. “They have not learned to be aware of EMFs because it was not useful historically. But when the nervous system detects a change, for example when entering in a strong electromagnetic field that is interpreted as a threat, it goes into arousal and a fight or flight response.’’
Calming this response by avoiding exposure to pollutants is also very difficult to do in modern life. “Many aspects of modern life can trigger this heightened state of arousal, such as mold or anything that the body senses is harmful. Our approach to environmental sensitivities is we recognize that and teach people how to limit their exposure to bring down their level of arousal.’’
One of his patients who was very ill had worked at Camp Hill and worked long hours on a computer over a weekend to finish a report. “He became very sensitive to EMF exposure. He talked to somebody in the power generating industry who told him they grounded themselves. He tried [earthing devices backed by scientific research] as well as Chi Gong. That helped relieve his symptoms.’’
Frog in hot water
People who are in a constant state of nervous system arousal suffer the most. “When they get additional exposure, what happens is the nervous system, which is a very complex network, goes from order into a state of chaos. What we take for granted as humans becomes disrupted: they get brain fog, uncomfortable sensory experiences in parts of the body, pain, incoordination, anticipation and fear.’’ He compares our reaction to the ever rising levels of background EMFs with putting the proverbial frog in a pot of slowly heating water where it stays and gets cooked. Most people have adapted and tolerated the progressive increase and stayed in the pot, whereas today the high peaks of pulsating RFs are making more and more people jump out as if they were in boiling water.
McGill physician disagrees
Dr Gilles Thériault, a professor of occupational epidemiology at McGill University and a clinician at the Montreal Chest Institute’s Environmental Health Clinic, is one of Quebec’s rare medical experts on EMFs. He disagrees with ICEMS scientists and the coauthors of the most recent BioInitiative 2012 report (including his McGill colleague physicist Paul Héroux) who say EMFs may well cause or foster many diseases including cancer. Last year, Dr Thériault wrote us by email: “I am still of the opinion that there is no scientific evidence to justify worrying about the effect of EMF on human health. I am also of the opinion that there is a lack of knowledge and I regret that there is little financial resource for such studies to be conducted by independent researchers. About electrosensitivity, I see patients in the clinic and in a large proportion, they carry diseases whose symptoms they attribute to EMF or RF exposure. Our role is to direct them towards adequate clinical care to treat their underlying diseases.’’ Dr Thériault also wrote us that the last thing he tells his patients is to avoid exposing themselves to the pollutants they believe are harming them, to avoid aggravating their fear and perceived intolerance of their environment.
Roy Fox said that approach is “right, but limiting. It’s very important not to teach people to retreat and live on a desert island. People who are ill become very passionate about what is making them sick and they want to change the world. That makes it difficult because if the only answer for them is for everybody to stop using mobile phones, that’s impossible and they’ll never get better. But when you become ill and everything you are exposed to makes it worse, you have to reduce your exposure so the body can focus on healing. We still teach our patients how to reduce chemical and electromagnetic exposure and when they do that their health improves.’’
Dr Brundtland is also electrosensitive
The challenge is that EMFs are ubiquitous and that since the turn of the century, more and more people say they are particularly hypersensitive to microwave emissions from cell phones, other wireless devices, including cell towers, radio, television and radar antennas located one to several kilometres away. For one, Dr Gro Harlem Brundland, the former Premier of Norway and former Executive Director of the World Health Organization, says she gets headaches from cell phones located 3 to 4 meters away and turned on but not even in use. (Here is her story which she recounted to Magda Havas in front of an Ontario audience in April 2012.)
That’s one reason why wireless devices are not used in Dr Fox’s Centre. “We don’t have Wi-Fi in our Center and we encourage people to turn their cell phones off [by putting it in airplane mode]. When we built the clinic, we created it so in some rooms power can be completely turned off. We do have fluorescent lights but clinicians leave them off. In the last 10 years, all medical records have become electronic, so we use computers daily but not Wi-Fi. We haven’t seen a need for it.’’
U of T: same approach
Dr Marshall’s group at the University of Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital has the same approach. As its website states: “We at the Environmental Health Clinic are of the opinion that the true safety limits for wireless computers (Wi-Fi) and cell phones are not yet known, so it would be wise to exercise precaution. Toronto Public Health has information on this topic and a fact sheet – Cell phone Use by Children and Youth.’’ This fact sheet states about radio frequency (RF)/microwave exposure: “…in light of the limitations of the research, we cannot rule out the possibility that children require greater protection from RF exposure. In 2005, TPH began to promote parents’ awareness of the need to minimize children’s use of cell phones among other important practices (…) Consistent with messages from the British Department of Health, Toronto Public Health is recommending that children, especially pre-adolescent children, use landlines whenever possible, keeping the use of cell phones for essential purposes only, limiting the length of cell phone calls and using headsets or hands-free options, whenever possible.’’ Dr Fox goes even further and says: “We need regulations and exposure limits, for example, so children don’t spend hours on cell phones.’’
Despite the lack of scientific consensus over the causes and cures of environmental illnesses, Dr Fox’s team’s approach has been supported by the Nova Scotia government and population: “Over the years, there has been much controversy, but we seem to have more acceptance because people have seen we are trying to help people with a rational approach. For a lot of things, we don’t have much scientific evidence to help our understanding.’’
He says people must consider not only pollution’s impact on the nervous system, but also the non-stop, fast pace of modern life. “There are a number of things that provide high levels of stimulation to humans. When we try to help people, one of the hard things is to get them to slow down. The way our appliances are used, they really speed up and limit down time in people. I meditate and teach patients ways of calming the mind, such as Cardiac coherence. Based upon the programs of the Institute of HeartMath which has done good research in this area and developed interesting electronic tools to use biofeedback, this approach to emotional and stress management has a great deal of evidence in peer reveiwed literature to support it. We also teach mindfulness, and use an approach based upon the work of Jon Kabat Zinn, again with much documentation of efficacy in peer reveiwed literature. I also recommend Qi Gong, Tai Chi, yoga and other grounding techniques. As a physician I will of course determine whether the person has features of a clinical depression and if so will seek the help of my colleagues. It should also be noted that being electrically sensitive does not preclude someone from having concomitant anxiety or depression. I will treat whatever is appropriate. Some people who cannot accept the need for a self management approach will be prescribed an anxiolytic, when prescribed this may offer some help when symptoms are very disturbing. However this is never front line therapy and in my experience never « cures » the problem.’’
Dr Fox’s team treats its patients holistically: “We treat the whole person, ensuring they have a good balanced diet that does not contain what their body can’t adapt to. Our approach is to get people in a state of optimal health so they can tap into their own ability to restore balance. And it works: while it does not eliminate sensitivities, patients generally react less and manage their symptoms, which lessen, more effectively.’’
When we asked him why he does not use vitamins and supplements such as Dr Rea does in Dallas, Dr Fox responded : “The approach by EHC-Dallas is one of many that are used. Naturopaths and environmental physicians add all kinds of nutrients, vitamins and minerals to detoxify. There is little evidence that this improves outcome. My experience is that in very sensitive patients this approach makes them worse. Some of the materials recommended are expensive and with limited resources I prefer that people spend their money on things that will be long lasting in improving health – changes in their home, etc. With environmental cleanup, changes in diet and personal products used, individuals will detoxify and at a rate that they can handle. We do offer sauna and we use intravenous magnesium to offer relief from fatigue and pain in some patients who appear to be deficient. Some of the other treatments offered in Dallas have limited evidence to support their use. Many treatments are utilized to impact the immune system, but there is litte evidence to support the belief that the immune syustem is damaged or deficient. One might ask why Dallas and various naturopathic approaches do not address the whole person and the problem of an aroused nervous system.’’
(Dry infrared sauna helps the body detoxify because sweat often contains neurotoxins such as pesticides and heavy metals. These “attract and enhance electrical frequencies like a lightning rod’’, according to nutritionist Brian Clement, director of the world-famous Hippocrates Health Institute, a Florida center founded in 1956 by Ann Wigmore, a pioneer in a vegan, living and enzyme-rich diet complemented by exercise, positive thinking and non-invasive therapies.)
Finally, Dr Fox left us with perhaps this wise piece of advice: “Creating space in your life does not mean to stop being active, but to learn to pace yourself, to match demands with your body’s capacities. To do that, you must become aware of those capacities.’’
For more information
The Capital Health Integrated Chronic Care Service
Electrosensitivity symptoms can be eliminated in 60% of people and significantly reduced in the rest – Dr Brian Clement
Women’s College Hospital diagnoses patients with electromagnetic hypersensitivity