Wrapped in a thick white sheet, William looks like a tall boy dressed as a ghost. He lives as a hermit, isolated in a remote cabin in Sweden, and talks about the pain that prevents him from leading a normal life: “It’s like having your head stuck in a vice.”
A former master’s student and aspiring musician, he is now 40 years old and has lived like this for over a decade, his family bringing him water and food to keep him alive. William’s story is told in a new documentary, Electric Malady, which addresses the issue of Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS), a supposed sensitivity to electromagnetic fields from mobile phones, WiFi and other modern technologies.
EHS is not a scientifically recognized condition, and years of “double-blind” controlled studies – in which neither the participants nor the investigator knew whether the equipment was on or off until the end of the trial – have found no evidence that modern technology is the physical cause of the symptoms.
He received increased awareness a few years ago thanks to breaking bad spin-off Better Call Saul, which saw Saul’s brother Chuck living as a recluse, often wrapped in a silver blanket and living by candlelight.
Many experts say that it is psychosomatic. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that EHS is not a medical diagnosis, but acknowledges that the symptoms are real and that it can be “a disabling problem for the affected individual.”
‘We completely renovated the house’
Electric Malady was directed by Marie Liden, who was nominated in the Outstanding Debut category at this year’s BAFTAs for the project. She was inspired to tell William’s story when his mother experienced symptoms for several years.
“I was eight years old when Mom got sick,” he says. “We completely rewired the house and used oil lamps and candles instead of lamps. It was an unusual childhood, but it became normal.”
She notes that William’s experience is extreme, but says she wanted to tell his story because he “spoken so well about the kind of otherness and isolation and loneliness that comes from going through something like this.”
Filming, with the technology involved, was always going to be a challenge; Liden used a battery-powered camera with no lights. “The devices had to be kept out of his house and we used long glasses to keep as far away from him as possible,” she says. “Sometimes after a few hours or a day of filming, we would have to stop and he would spend a whole day recuperating.”
a controversial issue
Like William, Liden’s mother believed her EHS began after a mercury filling came loose in her teeth. “She was 19,” Liden says. “It was a long process because every time she took one out, it got worse.”
The filmmaker says that her mother is now doing well after having her fillings removed. “She uses a cell phone now, she tries not to hold it against her head or sleep with it next to her bed, or anything like that. But she lives a normal life.”
The British Dental Association says that dental amalgam is safe and long-lasting. There is no evidence to suggest that the exposure has an adverse effect on a patient’s health, says Mick Armstrong, chair of the organization’s health and science committee.
Erica Mallery-Blythe, a former A&E doctor who created PHIRE (Physicians Health Initiative for Radiation and the Environment), says less than 1% of the population would suffer as much as William.
“You have a spectrum of less severe cases, but nonetheless very life-threatening, where they can no longer work, can no longer live in a normal residential area,” she says.
“Then you have what I would call moderate cases, where they’re not feeling well but still manage to get a job, still manage to live at home in a relatively normal environment. And then you have very mild cases; it can be people who, for example, They just have headaches.”
Warnings to activists
In the modern world, it is a subject that must be approached with caution. When technology is unavoidable for most people, there is a very real danger of scaremongering.
In 2020, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) warned the charity Electrosensitivity-UK about a poster with a headline asking the question: “How secure is 5G?” and listed a variety of what he claimed were health effects, such as “reduced male fertility, depression, sleep disturbances, and headaches, as well as cancer.”
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Banning the ad after evaluating WHO and government guidance, the ASA told the charity to ensure they did not make claims that implied “strong scientific evidence” of negative effects on human health without proper justification. .
In 2007, the BBC upheld complaints against an edition of its current affairs program Panorama, entitled Wi-Fi: A Warning Sign, after two viewers said it exaggerated the evidence out of concern about potential health risks.
‘It’s a tragic situation’
Kenneth Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania who has spent decades studying the impact of radiation, says that the symptoms of electrosensitivity are real, but no well-controlled studies have shown that they are related to actual exposure.
“[People with EHS symptoms] strongly resist any suggestion that the symptoms are psychological in nature, even though the evidence seems to point in that direction,” he tells Sky News. “It is a tragic situation that has existed for many years. I don’t see any easy solution.”
Another radiation expert, Eric van Rongen, says that while there is no scientific evidence for EHS, and he believes that mental health plays a role for many people who suffer from it, he doesn’t rule out the possibility that there are people who actually are physically sensitive.
Studies have shown that awareness of exposure influences complaints, he says. “Then there is certainly a psychosomatic component to the whole problem. But if that is the explanation for all the problems that people experience, that is not clear. The possibility that there are people who are actually electro-hypersensitive cannot be excluded.”
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One theory is that the condition is comparable to allergies to peanuts, penicillin, or insect bites, for example.
“There are still many mysteries in the human body,” says Dr. Van Rongen. He concludes by assuring that the world has been exposed to electromagnetic fields for a long time. “It’s certainly not a major health problem for the general population.”
Liden says she feels EHS is “still very controversial and really toxic to talk about,” but she was determined to get noticed.
“I’ve seen the physical reactions firsthand, with my mother,” she says. “If we drove under overhead power lines, she would have a reaction. She would get very sick, it would swell in her face and she would be very nauseated.”
“My film isn’t trying to prove whether this is real or not. It’s looking at the sometimes really extreme situations that people are forced to live in because they have nowhere to go.”
Electric Malady is already in theaters