Popular Science (online)
The Man Who Was Allergic to Radio Waves
By James Geary Posted 15.02.2010 at 9:36 am
Exerpts from the 4 page article:
Your cellphone does not in itself cause cancer. But in the daily sea of radiation we all travel, there may be subtler dangers at work, and science is only just beginning to understand how they can come to affect people like Per Segerbäck so intensely
Per Segerbäck lives in a modest cottage in a nature reserve some 75 miles northeast of Stockholm. Wolves, moose and brown bears roam freely past his front door. He keeps limited human company, because human technology makes him physically ill. How ill? On a walk last summer, he ran into one of his few neighbors, a man who lives in a cottage about 100 yards away. During their chat, the man’s cellphone rang, and Segerbäck, 54, was overcome by nausea. Within seconds, he was unconscious.
Segerbäck suffers from electro-hypersensitivity (EHS), which means he has severe physical reactions to the electromagnetic radiation produced by common consumer technologies, such as computers, televisions and cellphones. Symptoms range from burning or tingling sensations on the skin to dizziness, nausea, headaches, sleep disturbance and memory loss. In extreme cases like Segerbäck’s, breathing problems, heart palpitations and loss of consciousness can result.
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.”
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