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Can the radiation emitted by electronic devices affect your body and make you feel terrible?

Hosted by: Olivia Gordon

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If you’re watching this episode of SciShow, you’re definitely near an electronic device. And that’s something that around 1-5% of people would say makes them feel nauseated, dizzy, itchy, and otherwise pretty terrible.

They’re convinced they have what some call Wifi Syndrome: that their bodies react strongly to the electromagnetic radiation given off by devices like WiFi routers. But while the symptoms they experience are definitely real, doctors think their cause is something else entirely. The idea that everyday radiation from your router could harm you sounds logical.

Electronics give off radiation, and radiation is bad, right? But the radiation given off by these devices isn’t the ionizing radiation of something like a nuclear reactor. With frequencies between 30 hertz and 30 gigahertz, the waves from electronics simply don’t have enough energy to change the structure of atoms.

Of course, if you are subject to intense enough radiation of any kind, you’ll feel it. Just ask that hot pocket you zapped in the microwave for a few minutes. But again, your WiFi router isn’t giving off enough radiation to heat your cells.

And outside of heating, there isn’t any conclusive evidence that non-ionizing radiation causes harmful health effects. That doesn’t stop people from believing they have. Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity or EHS.

They report that being around routers or other devices gives them all kinds of symptoms, from itchy skin to headaches. And they’re not making those up. The symptoms of EHS are very real.

It’s what’s actually causing them that’s less clear. Things like headaches or nausea are pretty non-specific and don’t point to a single cause. And many studies have tried, but failed, to bring out people’s symptoms by exposing them to non-ionizing radiation in controlled, experimental environments.

A review article published in 2010 noted that 13 out of 46 studies did find differences in symptoms between people with EHS and those without. But not ones you’d expect. Often, EHS participants were less accurate at determining when they were actually being exposed to radiation, and they reported feeling ill both during sham and real exposures.

Even participants who didn’t think they had EHS sometimes reported feeling ill when they were told a radiation source was near, even though it wasn’t. And that suggests the symptoms could explained by the nocebo effect. That’s basically the opposite of the placebo effect:.

If people believe that electronics are making them sick, they feel sicker. It could also be that EHS symptoms have another psychological cause. EHS patients are often diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or high levels of stress.

And they tend to score high on tests for things like compulsive behavior or paranoid thoughts. That might be why, in a Swedish study, social support and mental strategies for dealing with stress helped people recover from EHS. Symptoms could also stem from features of our tech-heavy environment other than electromagnetic radiation.

Bright, flickering screens or fluorescent lights can cause headaches, for example, and that slouchy, uncomfortable office chair can make your muscles cramp up. So, if you’re feeling under the weather after long weeks in the office, you can at least rest assured that it’s not the radiation from your appliances to blame. But still, maybe take a break from all those bright lights and stuffy rooms for a while.

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