In the spring of 2013, a young boy at a prestigious Massachusetts grade school began coming home with headaches, itchy skin, and a rash. It was a mild start to a mystery illness that would later bring serious symptoms—prompting his parents to sue the school over what, they believe, is making him ill: WiFi.
According to the 45-page complaint filed this summer, G’s* symptoms always emerged during school hours, then slowly disappeared once he got home. On weekends and holidays, they were all but nonexistent; but as soon as he’d get back in the classroom, they would return. In 2014, they started to get worse. Headaches and itchy skin gave way to nosebleeds, dizziness, heart palpitations, and nausea.
When his condition stumped doctors, his parents “commenced research” of their own. According to the complaint, The Fay School, where G had been a student since 2009, had installed a stronger wireless Internet service in the spring of 2013—the same time he showed symptoms. After linking the two, his mother concluded that he had “electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS),” a host of symptoms allegedly caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields. Fay’s sophisticated WiFi system, she decided, was making him sick.
G’s parents say Fay should switch to Ethernet or find a way to lower emissions in order to accommodate his EHS, which they argue is a disability. The case is unprecedented, not simply because two parents are suing a school over WiFi, but that the condition at the crux of their case (EHS) remains, largely, a mystery. The decision has implications not just for New England schools’ Internet procedures, but the rest of America’s too.
EHS is an enigma, a condition that’s as controversial as it is vague. Many who suffer from it are self-diagnosed. Those that claim to have it exhibit a range of symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, rash, heart palpitations, digestive disturbances, and fatigue—all of which they attribute to electromagnetic fields.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has a “fact page” on its website that says, while EHS is not a “medical diagnosis,” that the symptoms are “certainly real,” and can cause people to “cease work and change their entire lifestyle.” Indeed, there have been stories worldwide of those with EHS being forced to retreat from society all together—like an Iowa woman whose husband built her a WiFi-free “cage” to live in in West Virginia.
Overall, scientists don’t dispute that the symptoms are present. When patients who claim to have EHS are aware they are being exposed to EHS, they often do present negative reactions like the ones described above. Alone, those could be seen as proof that the condition is real. But in subsequent studies, when the patients are not told whether or not they are being exposed, the reaction is not the same.
In a 2010 paper published in the journal Bioelectromagnetics, Dr. James Rubin performed a systematic review of 46 different blind or double blind studies on 1,175 individuals who self-diagnosed as having EHS. He found “no evidence” that exposure to electromagnetic fields alone was the cause. Instead, due to similar reactions that occurred when participants thought they were being exposed but were not, he hypothesizes that the problem may be more closely aligned with mental health. “As sham exposure was sufficient to trigger severe symptoms in some participants, psychological factors may have an important role in causing this condition,” he writes.
In a February piece for The Guardian, Rubin attributes the symptoms to the “nocebo effect,” or the “tendency for people to feel unwell when they think they have been exposed to something hazardous.” For EHS he says that “believing that you are being exposed to electromagnetic fields (EMF)” is harmful, not the exposure itself. He blames this, in part, on the media, for perpetuating theories about EMF that have not been confirmed by science.
Bad Science Watch—an independent consumer protection watchdog in Canada—published a report on the topic in January 2013. Michael Kruse, chair of the organization’s Board of Directors, came to the same conclusion about symptoms. “This is a condition that is mediated by the person's perception of exposure, not actual exposure, which points to a somatoform, or psychosomatic in older terms, disorder,” Kruse tells me. “This combined with no recognized mechanism for the physiological effects says that this condition is not caused by EMF, but has a different source.”
The diagnosis is not listed in the International Statistical Classification of Disease, the standard manual for accepted diagnoses, meaning that treatment options are limited. Krause says that some have had success treating the condition through cognitive behavioral therapy, but that many do not and must “continue to suffer and be socially isolated.”
Those who believe that EHS is caused directly by electromagnetic radiation, and not the perceived risk associated with it, point to a handful of studies. In the first, a study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience in 2011, researchers concluded that EHS is a “novel neurological syndrome.” “EMF hypersensitivity can occur as a bona fide environmentally inducible neurological syndrome,” the paper reads.
Another, also from 2011, is a study from European Journal of Oncology. In it, an electro-sensitivity expert named Dr. Magda Havas tested the effect of electromagnetic fields on the heart function of 25 individuals. In at least 10 of the subjects, exposure to EMF caused heart palpitations—one of the symptoms of EHS.
Several pages of G’s parents complaint against Fay revolve around the definition of EHS, and the proof that it is not a “speculative condition.” They note that the Indoor Environmental Quality by the United States Access Board has recognized electromagnetic sensitivities as a disability if they “so severely impair the neurological, respiratory, or other functions of an individual that it substantially limits one or more of the individual’s major life activities.” G’s situation, they write, should therefore qualify as a disability, and be given the same accommodations.
The lawsuit also cites a 2013 study from two Indian scientists that is mentioned in a book by Norm Alster titled Captured Agency. In the study, the authors concluded that: “Based on current available literature, it is justified to conclude that... [electromagnetic fields]... can change neurotransmitter functions, blood-brain barrier, morphology, electrophysiology, cellular metabolism, calcium efflux, and gene and protein expression in certain types of cells even at lower intensities.”
Also included as evidence are multiple letters from doctors who believe that EHS is a direct result of electromagnetic fields, as well as one from Dr. Jeanne Hubbuch, officially diagnosing G with EHS. After noting his complaints of headaches, nausea, and dizziness—and the fact that his symptoms disappear at home—she writes: “It is my opinion that G has electromagnetic fields hypersensitivity and should be accommodated in a reduced environment.”
This past summer, before the start of a new school year, G’s parents brainstormed ways that the school could make up for the high emissions. Perhaps G’s classmates could use Ethernet cords, for example. When Fay officials didn’t cooperate with the requests, G’s parents decided to take them to court. The lawsuit asserts that Fay ignored the “science” behind EHS, which is “compelling enough to warrant such accommodations by Fay.”
In a letter on the school’s website, Rob Gustavson, the head of Fay, refutes the claim that nothing was done—writing that the school brought in an independent technology firm called Isotrope (recommended by G’s parents), to test the school. Isotrope concluded that Fay’s WiFi emissions were “substantially less than one ten-thousandth of the applicable safety limits (federal and state).”
G’s family lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
*Name has been changed.