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November 11, 2005

Compulsive Risk Assessment Psychosis: a modern mental illness - an open letter to Rod Read, director of Electrosensitivity-UK

Posted by John Adams

An open letter from Prof. John Adams - Britain's leading academic expert on risk and the author of Risk - to Rod Read, director of Electrosensitivity-UK.

Dear Director

On 4th November you sent me an email that, amongst other things, called me a "bullying, browbeating ignoramus". You were complaining that I had been rude about a report published the day before by the Health Protection Agency [N Irvine, Definition, Epidemiology and Management of Electrical Sensitivity, HPA-RPD-010, Health Protection Agency, November 2005], a report that your website describes as "pusillanimous, weak-kneed, evasive" and "smelly". You also posed a question:

We would be interested to know your reasoning for dismissing the 300,000 government registered ES [electro-sensitive] sufferers in Sweden.
Allow me to explain to readers unfamiliar with Electrosensitivity-UK what I think was bugging you.

You had perhaps had your hopes raised by an article in the Sunday Times of 11th September that purported to know what was going to be in the report. Under the headline Electrical fields can make you sick, its medical correspondent said:

A Government agency has acknowledged for the first time that people can suffer nausea, headaches and muscle pains when exposed to electromagnetic fields from mobile phones, electricity pylons and computer screens. The condition known as electrosensitivity, a heightened reaction to electrical energy, will be recognised as a physical impairment.
 This provoked a headline on the website of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health: Electrosensitivity now a recognised syndrome.

A contributor to the discussion forum found the prospect exciting:

I think it could have enormous impact. Just think about all those electrical items in the workplace and I am particularly thinking of computer screens in offices.
This official recognition of cause and effect is something that you have long been campaigning for.

Unfortunately for your campaign the report did not quite say this. It said that some people experience these, and other physical symptoms, when they think they have been exposed to electromagnetic fields below levels shown by peer-reviewed science to cause adverse health effects. In the words of the report:

the use of the term ES in this review does not imply the acceptance of a causal relationship between symptoms and attributed exposure.
For evidence relating to a possible causal relationship the report refers the reader to another study by G Rubin et al, published appropriately in Psychosomatic Medicine [G Rubin, J Das Munshi and S Wessely, 'Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: A Systematic Review of Provocation Studies', Psychosomatic Medicine, Volume 67(2), March/April 2005, pp 224-232]. The study begins:
"Electromagnetichypersensitivity" (EHS) is a relatively new phenomenon in which sufferers report a range of symptoms that are apparently triggered by the presence of weak electromagnetic fields (EMFs). These symptoms show no cohesive pattern but are typified by nonspecific sensations such as sleep disturbance, headaches, fatigue, and subjective cognitive problems. In its more severe form, EHS can be disabling, preventing sufferers from pursuing normal work or social lives.
The Rubin report acknowledges the existence of a real phenomenon with real, sometimes disabling, physical symptoms, but by embracing the term with quotation marks, it distances itself from the assumption of a causal relationship.

How might one settle an argument between those who believe the cause of their illness to be exposure to very low-level electromagnetic fields, and those who believe it is psychosomatic? The Rubin report proposes examining the results of carefully controlled blind and double blind experimental provocation studies in which the subjects are kept in ignorance of the fields to which they are exposed. Their search for such experiments was thorough. Their conclusion:

this systematic review could find no robust evidence to support the existence of a biophysical hypersensitivity to EMF.
Following a Google trail that started with your website I found numerous websites that preferred a different sort of evidence – what the scientific world calls anecdote. Anecdotes can be very useful as a source of hypotheses to be tested but, untested, are not accepted by mainstream science as robust evidence. A disproportionate number of the websites I encountered were Swedish. On the website of The Swedish Association for the ElectroSensitive I found a notice of a meeting on October 25, 2004 headed 400 Swedish Electro-Hypersensitives witness at WHO-seminar in Prague. "Witness" may be a literal translation from the original Swedish, but used as an intransitive verb in English it conveys the evangelical spirit of many of those testifying to their beliefs in electro-hypersensitivity.

The Prague workshop apparently found the Swedish witnessing less than convincing. The Workshop Summary notes that:

The term "Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance (IEI) with attribution to EMF" was proposed by the working group to replace EHS since the latter implies that a causal relationship has been established between the reported symptoms and EMF.
The Workshop Summary concludes:
Governments should also note that IEI patients have real symptoms, but that there is no scientific evidence of causal link with EMF exposure, and therefore no grounds to use IEI as a diagnostic classification. Further there is no indication that lowering internationally accepted limits would reduce the prevalence of symptoms attributed to EMF.
Why, as a spectator at the debate about electro-magnetic-hypersensitivity, do I prefer mainstream science to anecdote? Googling my symptoms of mild arthritis I got 7.5 million hits for "electrical therapy" – compared with 5.8 million for electrical sensitivity. How about magnetic? 6.4 million for therapy, only 4.8 million for sensitivity.


I confess that I have not examined all the hits. But a sample uncovered the same evangelical spirit amongst the therapists that I found amongst the sensitives. On the whole I was inclined to side with the therapists over the sensitives. It had not occurred to me to blame my complaint on electromagnetic fields – rather too much squash and jogging – but I am tempted by those with magnets who offer relief.

Or was tempted, until I read Voodoo Science by Robert Park, who completely demolished my wishful thinking. Park is either a wonderfully convincing mainstream scientist, or a diabolically clever member of a massive conspiracy to cover up the evidence of the harm caused by low-level electromagnetic fields. If the latter he is also, somewhat inconsistently part of an even larger conspiracy to cover up the benefits. The contested fields, he has persuaded me, with the support of mainstream science, are too weak to be either harmful or therapeutic.

Your question about the 300,000 government registered ES sufferers in Sweden provokes further questions. Until your email I was not aware of their existence. Google has been no help. How does one register? Are there financial incentives for those who register? Are there certified ES specialists who register the sufferers? How are they trained and certified? 300,000 makes it an extremely common affliction – one Swede in 30. Why have I never met, or know anyone who has ever met, anyone with this common complaint? Is there a similar number enjoying the therapeutic benefits of low-level electromagnetic fields in Sweden?

From your website I offer another example of an argument that induces skepticism.

C'mon, tell it like it is. I bet half of you consider we had slipped a few gears suggesting trampolining in our helpsheet for EHS. Well here is why, forwarded from a scientific advisor. Try it!

Bouncing or Jumping is a Cellular Exercise.

Your body has about 60 trillion cells. The 2 to 4 G forces (gravitational pull) involved in bouncing squeezes out toxins. Then, during the brief weightless period when the body is suspended in the air, the lower pressure in the cell promotes the movement of nutrients into the cells. Thus the flow of materials to and from cells is improved. It is like getting every cell in your body to exercise. Its the old Hokey-Cokey "in out in out, shake it all about"!

Whenever I encounter a bit of advice like this that I hope is true, but suspect is nonsense, I go to Google to see what I can find about the track record of the scientific advisor. In this case he/she has no name. If Park and Rubin and numerous other named scientific advisers are right, the risk to those following this advice of harm from a trampolining accident is likely to exceed the therapeutic benefit.

I do not doubt that many people enjoy the very real placebo effects that flow from their belief in the efficacy of therapeutic magnets, and that many suffer from very real physical effects that they attribute to their sensitivity to low-level electromagnetic fields. I do doubt, on the available evidence, the physical causality attributed by the believers.

Adrift on a turbulent sea of scientific uncertainty, and confronted by millions of passionate believers on opposite sides of an argument, I look for a sheet anchor. Mine is mainstream science. It is not infallible. Just less fallible than any alternative I know.

The main complaint in your email was triggered by my comment, reported in a number of newspapers, that the interminable attempts by agencies, such as the HPA, to prove a negative – i.e. no causal connection between exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields and the large range of complaints attributed to them – was an example of a syndrome that I labeled CRAP.

I discovered CRAP recently when I was invited to speak to a conference of psychiatrists. They, like the rest of the medical profession, practice defensively, and labour under incessant demands for the assessment of the risks of everything they do. I boasted that I had found a new mental disorder called compulsive risk assessment disorder. One of them volunteered that the condition I was describing they would call a psychosis - a mental disorder in which contact with reality is lost or highly distorted. Certainly Compulsive Risk Assessment Psychosis produces a more compelling acronym.

Best wishes

John Adams is emeritus professor of geography at University College London and the author Britain's leading academic expert on risk and the author of the seminal study Risk.

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Dear John,

it seems unfortunate that we should have got off on such a confrontational and indeed rather rude basis. On reflection it is never wise to take the press too seriously as accurate, a little stirring may have gone on.

However you are still very dismissive of the reality of this condition which wounds our ES sufferers, they have a bellyfull of ridicule which stirs me to be aggressive on their behalf on occasion. Yes you are right about disappointment over the HPA report as they had encouraged anticipation of something rather more definite, it is as we say, pusillanimous. Timid in the face of huge interests and duplicitous in downplaying their responsibility for defining this as a medical issue when they have great influence over the Dept of Health as scientific advisors.

It is good to see you take the time and make the effort to confront this issue in a rational way 'with more developed thoughts'. I do believe we got under your skin a little, well so be it, good even, it seemed necessary, our ill people were much angered by your trite attept at a humurous dismissal of what bothers them day and night, unrelentingly, and it may be productive.

The "bullying and browbeating" was taken from an upset ES sufferer and is indeed how many feel upon hearing the many ignorant 'scientific' pronouncements from on high debunking their health situation and the evidence, especially Michael Clark of the HPA who really should know better. Ignorant because such comments show 'a lack of knowledge', and ignore the real personal experience of genuine human suffering, pain undeniably felt when in proximity to electromagnetic sources. Some of whom themselves have PhDs and are scientifically informed.

Real experience and evidence, which you and others dismiss as merely 'anecdotal' . For them it is as real as real can be.

As far as evangelising goes it is in fact our registered 'object' under charity commission terms to "educate the public in all areas related to the issue of electromagnetic hypersensitivity". So it is a duty, voluntarily undertaken, on behalf of those handicapped in undertaking their own defence.

As time allows, and bearing in mind I must put the urgent and individual needs of our sufferers first, (our other registered 'object') and that we have virtually no resources, I will try to deal with some of your points.

As you are knowledgeable in the field of risk let us point you to our website link on the Swiss-Re version on this issue, 'Electrosmog a Phantom Risk', it should interest you. Its concern is of course EMF effects on health, perhaps you know it? This should find it:

They warn that "it must be expected that plaintfiffs will win suits dealing with this issue".

It is rather dated, coming before the massive mobile telecommunication expansion we now see around us, but as a commercial application of your subject and my issue it seems apt. They by no means think the issue is easily able to be contemptuously dismissed, they ain't 'evangelisers', but a very hard-headed and wealthy important business institution in the giant 'Gherkin'.

Real world risk calculators with billions dependent on their work.

Best wishes to you too,

Rod Read

Posted by: Rod Read at November 15, 2005 06:33 PM

Dear John and Rod

As first author of “The Rubin Report,” might I be allowed to add a couple of thoughts? And I’ll try hard to be neither pusillanimous nor evangelical about it.

It is interesting that Rod cites Swiss Re’s report on the insurance implications of weak electromagnetic fields (EMF). This document is often used to suggest that EMF must pose a real danger, or why else is the insurance industry getting their knickers in a twist. In fact, when it comes to evaluating the health effects of weak EMF, Swiss Re’s assessment is that “one cannot measure the risk to health posed by weak electromagnetic exposure that does not result in clearly identifiable irritation” because “this risk is incalculably small” [p 19].

They are actually less concerned with the biological effects of EMF, and more concerned with their psychological and social effects. As they say

“These risks are imaginable but not demonstrable, which is why they are occasionally referred to as phantom risks. Even though we do not know whether they actually exist, they are real to the extent that they exist in people’s minds and thus affect them, if only to stimulate insecurity and concern. There is nothing that frightens people more than an uncertain danger, even though it may not exist.” [p32]

And what really concerns Swiss Re is not that weak EMF might have objectively measurable health effects, but that lobbying groups might eventually force the government or the courts to take action regardless of the scientific evidence.

“Due to its phantom like nature […] the EMF problem is almost ideally suitable for liability claims aimed at achieving enrichment or political effect: all the more so because the subject matter is so complex and complicated that average people can very easily be mislead into drawing false conclusions. […] This exerts great socio-political pressure on legislators and courts. Should they yield to this pressure, every manufacturer and operator of electrical and electronic installations could be sued more or less successfully. […] Even in a best-case scenario, the costs incurred for defence will be nothing less than enormous.” [p32]

Rather patronising to “average people” but that’s what they said. So are Swiss Re concerned about insuring against EMF claims? Yes. But is this because they know about some hidden biological dangers posed by weak EMF? No. What they are concerned about is the climate of fear towards EMF, not whether that fear is justified.

Another important issue highlighted in your exchange is whether people are dismissive of EHS. I speak to EHS sufferers on a regular basis and Rod is quite right, many do face disbelief or ridicule, not just over what causes their illness but also whether they are really ill at all. If there’s one thing I hope we can agree on, it’s that we should not be dismissive of them. Their symptoms are genuine and it is a terrible state of affairs that some feel they have to withdraw from modern society because their symptoms are so severe. I have seen nothing and read nothing to make me believe that anyone is ‘putting this on,’ or that these symptoms are ‘imaginary,’ whatever that means. It is true that what causes these symptoms is still being debated and studied. But in the mean-time that does not mean that we can’t accept the symptoms as real and show some compassion and some ingenuity in looking for treatments that might help to alleviate them. The HPA’s report may be pusillanimous (I’d need to check my dictionary to be sure). It may even be smelly. But at least it highlights the need for more studies into how we can treat this condition and for that, at least, we should welcome it.


James Rubin
King’s College London

Posted by: James Rubin at November 16, 2005 04:00 PM

It may surprise some but there is evidence for the health effects of trampolining.

NASA Research confirmed Rebounding Benefits.
Rebound Exercises Strengthen your Whole Body

"…For similar levels of heart rate and oxygen consumption, the magnitude of the biomechanical stimuli is greater with jumping on a trampoline than with running, a finding that might help identify acceleration parameters needed for the design of remedial procedures to avert de-conditioning in persons exposed to weightlessness," NASA Journal of Applied Physiology 49(5): 881-887,1980

Furthermore, research revealed that rebounding on a trampoline offers the perfect G-Force measurements for training. Just ten minutes of bouncing on a rebounder is equivalent, in effect, to 30 minutes of jogging.Rebounding on a trampoline helps you harness the G-force to build healthy cells.

Gravity, one of the four fundamental forces of the universe, continually influences your posture and health.

Poor relationships with gravity are responsible for many cases of spinal compression, impaired circulation, disc degeneration and a diminished functioning of glands, tissues and cells.

When exploring outer space, astronauts are faced with the effects of zero gravity, weakening tissues and bones, due to lack of stress on body cells. NASA carried out the first ever research into using a trampoline, to conclude that bouncing provides a more effective and efficient form of exercise than jogging.

The measure of the force of gravity affecting your body at rest is 1G. Speedy motion in the horizontal plane or a change of direction in a vertical plane increases the G-force acting on the body.

Rebounding on a trampoline enables you to make the most of the additional G-Force values, combining the additional forces of acceleration and deceleration in the vertical plane, without shock or stress impact loading on your body.

At the top of each bounce when using a trampoline the force of gravity, known as the G-force, is non-existent. Your body momentarily experiences total weightlessness, like an astronaut in space - even when you are gently pulsing.

When you depress the trampoline mat the pull of the G-force is increased 2/3 times that which you usually experience. This rhythmical motion, when rebounding approximately 100 times per minute, places all cells, from the tiniest cell to the largest bone, under consistent rhythmical pressure, stimulating remarkable effects - detoxifying, nourishing, and strengthening all body cells simultaneously.
(Basically this is what we said and why we recommended it, ES-UK)

"The mini trampoline [rebounder] provides a convenient form of exercise with a major advantage being its apparent low level of trauma to the musculoskeletal system." Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation, 1990: 10; 401-408

"Exercise can be helpful in building and maintaining strong bones. Exercise that forces you to work against gravity – so called weight bearing exercises such as walking or jogging [and rebounding] are beneficial ...If you are at risk for osteoporosis, your doctor will most likely include exercise as part of your overall treatment program." National Osteoporosis Foundation,

'nuff for now, we have 10 new paying up urgently needy sufferers to deal with, individually, by snail-mail for obvious reasons.

Rod Read

Posted by: Rod Read at November 17, 2005 12:24 PM

More on John Adams, Professor Crap of UCL, his open letter to me and us at ElectroSensitivity-UK

Why on earth does he say such things?

Reflecting and speculating on the offensive remarks about people made ill by EMFs due to electromagnetic hypersensitivity we think it is the height of arrogance to be using mental health concepts about individuals John has never met. Some medics, usually arrogant consultants or psychiatrists, hit the news doing this, but a Professor of Risk!

Maybe experts on risk study such conditions as psychosis, CRAP being an acronym we understand as employing that term. I know it quite well, being a practicing psychologist in daily interaction with the group to whom he insultingly applies this label as some kind of sneering humourosity. As far as we know he has never met any ES sufferers, perhaps he will correct us if this is a wrong assumption? Maybe he, as a scientist, has assembled evidence for this description? Or is it merely an arrogant assertion made outside any field of his own expertise, an egotistical kneejerk when consulted by the media? De haut en bas.

When forty concerned scientists of the Electromagnetic Biocompatibility Association, including medical doctors, met in the Wimpole Street Royal College of Medicine in September 2003 they applied themselves to the single question “Is Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Real or Imagined?” Pooling their knowledge they unanimously decided it was real. Some few of us then proceeded to set up this charity to investigate the condition and support ES sufferers, including those who attended the meeting to share their first-hand experience.

By what moral, ethical and intellectual convolutions can any responsible or public figure arrogate to himself alone the status to dismiss ongoing earnest and genuine intellectual effort by expert and serious professionals. In the public media too, and in such foolish terms, with presumably a desire to ridicule, to hurt. It is tempting to behave in the same silly way and ask just who is the psychotic here, deluding and self-deceiving, living in some unreal reality of his own creation. We will not wrench a mental health concept by so doing in our speculations, it was probably merely thoughtless and careless, or more strongly, hubris, ‘overbearing pride or presumption’ we guess. Maybe an apology will come along, who knows.

In our view he demeans himself, University College and the status of all senior academics, losing them respect in the public eye. We wonder what Dr William Rea of the Allergy Clinic would have made of it. He treated numerous patients, electrical hypersensitives included over decades and was one himself. It would be good if he were still around to forward such remarks to for comment. Maybe the ex secretary-general of the WHO, and former Norwegian Prime-minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, another ES sufferer would oblige, perhaps we will ask, assuming she is not too psychotic to communicate!

Oh yes, and by the way, the figure for 280,000 ES registered sufferers in Sweden (not psychotics) was forwarded to us by Professor Olle Johansson of the Karolinska Health Institute of Stockholm University FYI. Try
or www. Where you can read “Most recently a possible link has been demonstrated between exposure to power-frequent electromagnetic fields and breast cancer in elderly women”. Precautions might be wise, here be risks indeed.

Rod Read

PS we are not hearing very much from that other offensive and hegemonic professor, Simon Wessely, at King's College, about the recent belated recognition of Gulf War Syndrome. Doubtless we will as we have before, and a few thousand soldiers will be similarly publicly labelled as self-deluding.

Posted by: Rod Read at November 18, 2005 11:40 AM

I have read your comments above with great interest. I myself am an ES sufferer, and for me the condition is very real.

I have been ridiculed and patronised by my family and friends. One so called friend even told me that I should seek psychiatric help.

I had to give up a well paid job in retail because my employer installed a wireless LAN computer connection. I now find that I can not be near people using mobile phones as this causes headaches that can sometimes last for days.

I keep hearing this statment in the media "There is no evidence to prove that mobile phones have adverse health effects". However by the same token there is no evidence to prove that they are 100% safe to use.

I think that this is going to be the tip of the ice berg. We are going to see allot more people suffering from this condition, as more people are using mobile phones.

I got rid of my mobile phone. I would choose health over communication any day.

Posted by: Ryan Warne at November 18, 2005 01:42 PM

Dear John and Rod,

I am not even going to touch the Electrosensivity issue, but as regards trampolining, I am quite prepared to accept that there are health benefits, especially to those who are going to be accelerated or tumbled about in the cockpit of a fighter jet or a space capsule. However, when I read something like the 60 trillion cells piece, it reminds me of all those advertisements for skin and hair care which "explain" what Formula X does for your proteins.

I doubt if the author has any understanding of chemical transport across cell membranes or of viscosity at the micro-level, and when he talks about G-forces I would be less sceptical were he to show that he understands (in general terms) classical mechanics and the equivalence principle. But since he writes like an advertising agent, I am instantly put off.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 19, 2005 09:33 AM

I presume the third Rod Read comment above is a fake. Otherwise, Electrosensitivity-UK are very poorly served by a director whose postings do little to convince that electrosensitivity is a primarily organic illness.

Posted by: Jim McQueen at November 23, 2005 08:48 PM

Aaah, the stupid, it hurts!

Dear "ES" sufferers: When someone says "I'm sure your symptoms are real, I just don't think they're caused by EM radiation", they are NOT denying the reality of your pain and suffering. Some basic reading comprehension would help here.

You're also being incredibly intolerant of mentally ill people here, by the way. Being "mentally ill" does not make someone "crazy" or a "nutcase". It means they have a very real, often debilitating illness, which happens to affect their mind rather than their body. So when you react to the suggestion that "EHS" is a mental or psychosomatic illness (of sorts) with an indignant "are you saying I'm crazy", YOU are denying the reality of the serious suffering that the mentally ill go through!

Just a thought, before you accuse mainstream science and medicine of being intolerant and closed-minded. Try a little tolerance and open-mindedness yourself!

Posted by: Julius at October 14, 2007 02:40 PM
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