Log off, power down, drop out: The public health politics of electrosensitivity

The question of whether the raised levels of electromagnetic radiation accompanying modern living are bad for our health may prove to be the health debate of our age. Nicholas Blincoe’s report Electrosensitivity: Is Technology Killing Us? in The Guardian Weekend (30 March 2013), nourishes appreciation of approaches dear to medical humanities in two interlocking ways. In much of his article, he lays-out the experiences of those who suffer from electrosensitivity through first-person accounts of their history of symptoms and their strategies to minimise exposure. The usefulness of the first-person account within journalistic writing is obvious as it draws the reader into travelling along with the details of an everyday life that is disrupted and damaged through bad luck taking the shape of a sensitisation to an exposure we all encounter everyday and everywhere. For the medical humanities too, first-hand accounts of experience, reflection and response in the face of poor health have informed a rich vein of research on the nature and purpose of narrative including the attention given to narrative medicine, arguably the field’s greatest success story to-date and certainly in terms of impact on clinical practice.

Blincoe then goes a step further. In the last part of his article, Blincoe examines the value of individual narratives further to tease out one of the underlying issues in examining this debate, the basis of legitimate knowledge and evidence. Whilst this is a wide-ranging debate, Blincoe limits his discussion to contrasting evidence-based research programmes within the established medical traditions, illustrated through the work of two researchers, Dr James Rubin at King’s College Institute of Psychiatry and Professor Andrew Marino at Louisiana State University’s Department of Neurology. The approaches differ in scale and whether you start from a general population or from those experiencing the condition. The large-scale study involving statistical analyses and modelling examines responses to exposure. Critics argue that these studies average out experiences and are unlikely to produce evidence of a population level effect. An alternative approach is to focus on those who have diagnosed their condition as related to electrosensitivity. The latter approach has a longitudinal design, attends to people’s own accounts and works with them in their everyday lives to try to identify the sources of their poor health. This is the approach that has informed not only the identification of allergies but also clinical practice through the traditional case study and this alternative and legitimised approach to what constitutes evidence also has much in common with approaches in medical humanities.

The two researchers Blincoe draws upon may disagree about the bases for evidence that electromagnetic sensitivity is a health issue, but they do agree that this does not constitute a population health risk. Even Professor Marino views sufferers as particularly sensitive, not as indicating that we are all at risk. Some activists would disagree. But assuming Marino is right, we are still left wondering about the next step in this debate, an issue not raised by Blincoe.  Should we define health policy and intervention to cover only the majority or to cover all?  Do we limit environmental exposure to protect all, including the outliers? Do we provide free resources for those who are particularly sensitive to protect themselves? Or do we consider it acceptable that the health and lives of a small minority will be seriously disadvantaged by the undoubted benefits to the majority of modern lifestyle technologies ?

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