Wrapped in a thick white sheet, William looks like a tall child wearing a ghost costume. He lives as a hermit, isolated in a remote hut in Sweden, and speaks of the pain that prevents him from leading a normal life: “It’s like having your head in a vise.”
A former master’s student and aspiring musician, he is now in his 40s and has lived that way 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 tackles the subject of electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) – an alleged sensitivity to electromagnetic fields from cell phones, Wi-Fi and other modern technologies.
EHS is not a scientifically recognized condition, and years of controlled, “double-blind” studies – in which neither the participants nor the researcher knew whether the equipment was on or off until the end of the study – found no evidence that modern technology is the physical cause of the symptoms.
It received greater 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 it is psychosomatic. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that EHS is not a medical diagnosis, but recognizes that the symptoms are real and that it can be “a disabling problem for the affected individual”.
‘We completely changed the wiring of the house’
Electric Malady was made by Marie Liden, who was nominated in the Outstanding Debut category at this year’s BAFTA for the project. She was inspired to tell William’s story because his mother had had symptoms for several years.
“I was eight when Mom got sick,” she says. “We completely rewired the house and used oil lamps and candles instead of light bulbs. It was an unusual childhood, but it eventually became normal.”
She points out that William’s experience is extreme, but says she wanted to tell his story because it “spoke so beautifully about the kind of otherness and isolation and loneliness that comes from suffering something like this.”
Filming, with the technology involved, was always going to be a challenge; Liden used a battery-powered camera and no lights. “The braces had to be stored outside his house, and we used long lenses to get as far away from him as possible,” she says. “Sometimes after a few hours or a day of shooting we would have to stop and he would spend the whole day recovering.”
a controversial subject
Like William, Liden’s mother believed her EHS started after a mercury filling in her teeth came loose. “She was 19,” says Liden. “It was a long process because every time she took one out, it got worse.”
The filmmaker says her mother is now fine after having her fillings removed. “She uses a cell phone now – she tries not to hold it to 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 durable. There is no evidence to suggest exposure has an adverse effect on the patient’s health, says Mick Armstrong, chair of the organization’s health and science committee.
Erica Mallery-Blythe, a former A&E physician who set up 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 but still very life-disrupting cases where they can no longer work, they can no longer live in a normal residential area,” she says.
“So you have what I would call mild cases, where they’re quite unwell, but they still get a job, they still manage to live at home in a relatively normal environment. And then you have very mild cases; they can be people who, for example, are just having headaches.”
Notices to activists
In the modern world, it is a subject that needs to be approached with caution. When technology is inevitable for most people, there is a very real danger of scaremongering.
In 2020, the charity Electrosensitivity-UK was warned by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) about a poster with a headline that asked the question: “How secure is 5G?” and listed a number of what it claimed were health effects, such as “reduced male fertility, depression, sleep disturbances and headaches, as well as cancer”.
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Banning the advertisement after assessing WHO and government guidance, the ASA told the charity to ensure they did not make claims implying “robust scientific evidence” of negative effects on human health without adequate substantiation.
In 2007, the BBC upheld claims against an edition of its current affairs program Panorama, entitled Wi-Fi: A Warning Signal, after two viewers said it exaggerated evidence 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 the symptoms of electrosensitivity are real, but no well-controlled studies have shown that they are linked to actual exposure.
“[People with EHS symptoms] we vehemently resist any suggestion that the symptoms are psychological in nature – although the evidence seems to point in that direction,” he told Sky News. “It’s a tragic situation that has existed for many years. I don’t see any easy solutions.”
Another radiation expert, Eric van Rongen, says that while there is no scientific evidence for EHS, and he believes that mental health plays an important role for many sufferers, he doesn’t rule out the possibility that there may be people who actually are physically sensitive.
Studies have shown that exposure awareness influences complaints, he says. “So there is certainly a psychosomatic component to the whole issue. But if that’s the explanation for all the problems that people experience, it is not clear. You cannot exclude the possibility that there are people who really are electro-hypersensitive.”
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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 issue for the general population.”
Liden says she feels EHS is “still too controversial and really toxic to talk about,” but she was determined to get attention.
“I saw my mother’s physical reactions firsthand,” she says. “If we walked under hanging electrical wires, she would have a reaction. She would get really sick, explode in her face and get really nauseous.
“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 into because they have nowhere else to go.”
Electric Malady is now showing in cinemas