3 November 2005
A Review of Electrical Sensitivity
The Health Protection Agency’s Radiation Protection Division today published a review1 of electrical sensitivity. This is a condition which some people attribute to exposure to electromagnetic fields associated with the electricity supply and electrical equipment. However, the use of the term electrical sensitivity in the review does not imply acceptance of a causal relationship between symptoms and attributed exposure. The review of the phenomenon is from a public health viewpoint looking at how the condition can be defined, its prevalence, possible options for managing it and any similarities with other
conditions. People complaining of the condition can have real, unpleasant and sometimes disabling symptoms.
The review has included papers from the peer reviewed scientific literature but it has also considered other sources of information, such as internet websites maintained by sufferers and self-help groups. In the peer reviewed scientific literature electrical sensitivity and its synonyms largely refer to symptoms attributed to exposure to power frequency electromagnetic fields. Hence the conclusions of the review are applicable primarily to these fields rather than those from radiofrequency transmissions.
Two main groups of symptoms are attributed to electrical sensitivity (also known as electrical hypersensitivity). Firstly, skin symptoms, especially facial symptoms, often associated with using older types of visual display unit. Secondly, a wider range of more generalised symptoms, especially fatigue and headaches, which vary from person to person. These symptoms have been reported in a number of different
countries where studies have been undertaken. The symptoms can be mild but in some people they are severe enough to be disabling and hinder normal life. Such severe symptoms only occur in about 10% of
sufferers. Although the symptoms are attributed to exposure to various types of electromagnetic fields, the review notes there is no proven scientific link between such exposures and symptoms. A number of
studies have looked at diagnostic markers for electrical sensitivity but no consistent marker has been found. The published literature does not suggest that sufferers have a particular set of personal
The prevalence of electrical sensitivity has not been measured in the UK . Using estimates from elsewhere, together with information from self-help groups, the prevalence in countries where it has been measured is estimated to be between a few per thousand and a few
per million of the population.
Most of the peer reviewed scientific reports of electrical sensitivity, especially those published before the widespread adoption of mobile telephony, describe studies of reactions to electrical equipment
and appliances. It is not always easy to define what the attributed triggers were in every study. More recently, similar symptoms have been reported from exposure to radio frequency transmissions and there is some research being carried out in the UK on this
The review found that people who attribute illness to chemical and other environmental exposures report similar symptoms to electrical sensitivity. There are also reports that symptoms can initially be precipitated by one sort of exposure and then bring on symptoms from other types of exposure. However, scientific studies of this phenomenon are few.
1Irvine N (2005). Definition, Epidemiology and Management of Electrical Sensitivity. HPA-RPD-010, Chilton , OX11 0RQ . ISBN 0 85951 570 2. Available to download from HPA website at:
. Printed copy, £13.50 + 10% postage and packing,
available from CRCE Information Office (Tel: 01235
822742/822603, email: email@example.com ).
Notes for Editors
The author of the review is Dr Neil Irvine, Regional Epidemiologist, Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre Northern Ireland , HPA Belfast.
The starting point for this review is recognition, by the Radiation Protection Division of the Health Protection Agency (HPA RPD), of the need to consider electrical sensitivity in terms other than its aetiology, as this position alone could fail to meet the needs of those who consider themselves to be electrosensitive.
The review was commissioned to identify and appraise the literature in order to describe and define electrical sensitivity, review the information on its course, prognosis and treatments, and examine its
overlap with other conditions such as multiple chemical sensitivity. Specifically excluded from the review were attributed health effects in terms of specific disease processes, and examination of the ongoing debate around the possible causes of electrical sensitivity.
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