Field of Science


How to Convince People WiFi Is Making Them Sick

All it takes is an antenna on a headband. If you've got a breathless video report on the dangers of wireless internet connections, that will help your case. It doesn't take much, though, to turn an ominous hint into a real headache.

Some people consider themselves sensitive to electromagnetic fields. They report symptoms such as burning skin, tingling, nausea, dizziness, or chest pain, and they blame their malaise on nearby power lines, cell phones, or WiFi networks. A recent Slate article described such people moving to a remote West Virginia town where radio-frequency signals are banned. (The town is within the U.S. National Radio Quiet Zone, an area that's enforced to keep signals from interfering with radio telescopes there—telescopes that work because they receive the radio-frequency signals constantly hitting our planet from space.)

There's no known scientific reason why a wireless signal might cause physical harm. And studies have found that even people who claim to be sensitive to electromagnetic fields can't actually sense them. Their symptoms are more likely due to nocebo, the evil twin of the placebo effect. The power of our expectation can cause real physical illness. In clinical drug trials, for example, subjects who take sugar pills report side effects ranging from an upset stomach to sexual dysfunction.

Psychologists Michael Witthöft and G. James Rubin of King's College London explored whether frightening TV reports can encourage a nocebo effect. They recruited a group of subjects and showed half of them a clip from a BBC documentary about the potential dangers of wireless internet. (The BBC later acknowledged that the 2007 program was "misleading.") The remaining subjects watched a video about the security of data transmissions over mobile phones.

After watching the videos, subjects put on headband-mounted antennas. They were told that the researchers were testing a "new kind of WiFi," and that once the signal started they should carefully monitor any symptoms in their bodies. Then the researchers left the room. For 15 minutes, the subjects watched a WiFi symbol flash on a laptop screen.

In reality, there was no WiFi switched on during the experiment, and the headband antenna was a sham. Yet 82 of the 147 subjects—more than half—reported symptoms. Two even asked for the experiment to be stopped early because the effects were too severe to stand.

Witthöft says he expected to see a greater effect in people who had watched the frightening documentary. This wasn't the case overall. Instead, the movie mainly increased symptoms in subjects who described themselves beforehand as more anxious.

"It suggests that sensational media reports especially in combination with personality factors (in this case anxiety) increase the likelihood for symptom reports," Witthöft says.

Plenty of symptoms were reported without the sensationalist TV show, though. The antenna on the head, the researchers' allusion to a "new kind of WiFi," and the instructions to monitor their bodies closely were enough to trigger symptoms in many people who watched the other video.

Witthöft points out that his study would have been stronger if there were a third group of subjects who didn't wear the "WiFi" headband at all, but were simply told to pay attention to their bodies for 15 minutes. This kind of attentiveness might trigger symptoms on its own.

Still, Witthöft says, "I think the high percentage of symptom reports nicely shows how powerful nocebo effects are."

Though the researchers set out to show how irresponsible reports in the media can trigger a nocebo effect, they ended up showing how easy it is to make a person feel sick with just a a prop and a few choice words. Even a National Radio Quiet Zone can't protect against that.

Witthöft, M., & Rubin, G. (2013). Are media warnings about the adverse health effects of modern life self-fulfilling? An experimental study on idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF) Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 74 (3), 206-212 DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2012.12.002

Image: Scott Beale/Laughing Squid (via Flickr)


  1. Interesting, but as the paper is not open access, journalists and others will not be able to learn from it, although it would be important background reading for many people outside academia.

    1. You can get access if you buy it. It is very enlightening, and the abstract does not give the study the credit it deserves for attempting to do real science, in the face of distortions.

    2. Too much unanswered press causes belief. That is basic sociology of the mind. This is how Goebel worked the German public into dismissing what they knew to be repugnant. The sociopathic industrial policy uses this kind of constant mind reinforcement with calculated intent and planned branding strategies so to label their trillion dollar industrial product as ‘safe’- even when your gut tells you that pushing radiation through the air can’t be ‘safe’ for 100% of the population. So people of conscience must weigh in.
      So this psychosomatic sham study was far from conclusive, stating in its own defense that the study has no controls, and they could not ‘definitively say’ their analysis of effects were – as this author headlines- ‘How to convince people that Wi-Fi is making them sick’ In fact, the authors cite that their results are for the use of health and medical professionals, only, and they call for the ‘press’ to be more responsible in accurately portraying real science about health effects of modern technology. The study concludes with a plea that journalists accurately report the state of science. So, what does that tell the layperson? OK, some people are really worried about eating non-ionizing radiation all day. Is that wrong? And many are actually getting ill- the authors do not dispute that fact, they just want the evidence to be accurate and free from fear-based anxiety- they don’t even dispute that the anxiety is warrented. In fact, hundreds of studies prove the mechanized effect that Wi-Fi radiation is really bad stuff, and at really low levels.
      Did the reporter, I mean blogger, report that? No- just made up a flashy headline and hoped for readership. Good job, but rotten journalism- what was your point, then? To ignore the fact that Harvard Doctors, and entire 60,000 MD membership of the American Pediatric association are concerned about Wi-Fi and wireless technology causing brain damage, autism and neurological disease to an entire generation of children and the chronically ill? Way to go with the responsible journalism the psychosomatic scientists pleaded for! And way to go- mischaracterizing a serious study about a serious question. I guess all the real ‘wireless’ radiation poisoning sufferers can just all be classed as crazy ‘nocebo’ eaters- kids too, who cares- and just, I don’t know, just live a sickly life as an outcast, suffer from mystery-autism, have an aneurysm or a heart attack. So why not forget about any scientist pleading for responsible reporting when a by-line is in the offing?
      But the inflammatory reporting just gets worse with deeper research, the reporter says “They recruited a group of subjects and showed half of them a clip from a BBC documentary about the potential dangers of wireless internet. (The BBC later acknowledged that the 2007 program was "misleading.")”. She implies, here that the BBC acknowledges that the ‘potential dangers’ about wireless were misleading- wrong! What BBC actually did that was deemed misleading was portray the ‘wireless-yay’ guy [Professor Repacholi] as more biased than the opposing scientists in their article. Repacholi was biased- nobody disputed that- having been Bellsouth’s expert witness for the wireless industry. But he just objected to BBC’s 3 to 1 gang-up against him in the BBC article.
      Don’t take my word for this reporters ‘misleading’ characterization about ‘misleading-ness’; here’s her own link: Check for yourself how she misrepresented the word ‘misleading’What a crock of BS, that this author based her entire report upon! That’s what will happen when you only ‘skim’ headlines and then make up a story that sounds plausible.
      Maybe the reporter should stick to revealing the results of projects like dissolving a tooth in coca-cola. Then it will be OK when she falls prey to the very syndrome she sought to disprove- confirming her own imagined responses.

  2. Here's the abstract:


    Medically unsubstantiated 'intolerances' to foods, chemicals and environmental toxins are common and are frequently discussed in the media. Idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF) is one such condition and is characterized by symptoms that are attributed to exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF). In this experiment, we tested whether media reports promote the development of this condition.


    Participants (N=147) were randomly assigned to watch a television report about the adverse health effects of WiFi (n=76) or a control film (n=71). After watching their film, participants received a sham exposure to a WiFi signal (15 min). The principal outcome measure was symptom reports following the sham exposure. Secondary outcomes included worries about the health effects of EMF, attributing symptoms to the sham exposure and increases in perceived sensitivity to EMF.


    82 (54%) of the 147 participants reported symptoms which they attributed to the sham exposure. The experimental film increased: EMF related worries (β=0.19; P=.019); post sham exposure symptoms among participants with high pre-existing anxiety (β=0.22; P=.008); the likelihood of symptoms being attributed to the sham exposure among people with high anxiety (β=.31; P=.001); and the likelihood of people who attributed their symptoms to the sham exposure believing themselves to be sensitive to EMF (β=0.16; P=.049).


    Media reports about the adverse effects of supposedly hazardous substances can increase the likelihood of experiencing symptoms following sham exposure and developing an apparent sensitivity to it. Greater engagement between journalists and scientists is required to counter these negative effects.

  3. My father used to tell me, just because someone says something and repeats it over and over again, doesn't make it true. The shibboleth "Wi-Fi can't possibly harm you" is a case in point. Please follow the money-- James Rubin receives his funding from industry- only 25% of industry studies on microwave radiation show biological effects whereas 70%+ of non industry studies show health effects. Pls. read Andy Marino's commentary on Rubin here:

    There are plenty of people (who do not live in the radio quiet zone!) who get severely debilitating headaches in the presence of Wi-Fi and none when they stay away from it. There are at least two scientists in the world who have scanned peoples' brains who have reacted to this radiation, and their blood vessels are literally spasm-ing, a finding consistent with what those who react to Wi-Fi describe describe the sensation to be like. Furthermore, these people have been found to have elevated histamines, a marker of an allergic reaction.

    None of this should surprise anyone who is aware of literature dating back to the cold war documenting microwave sickness. Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity or Electromagnetic Intolerance Syndrome, as it is known in Europe, is just a new name for a very old disease-- there were people in workplace situations (radar workers, heat sealers, etc) became sensitized to microwave radiation who then had to stop working with it to avoid being around it.

    Back then there were shorter-term higher dose exposures-- now in public there are low dose continuous exposures. Whereas the old workers could get a new job to escape it, people who have become sensitized cannot avoid it in courts, hospitals, some restaurants, most schools, etc in 2013. The point is there is no "safe level"- the radiation is cumulative and continual so-called low-level doses have tipped people over into sensitivity.

    There is a reason that the German Government told all of its citizens not to install Wi-Fi or cordless phones at this time as it adds to lifetime cumulative exposure and that the Swiss government acknowledges that microwave radiation has biological effects at levels that are a mere fraction of internationally accepted levels. The Swiss government also says that 5% of its population is electrosensitive and the Swedish government says that it is 3%.

    In the mid 90's, Ericsson published a report acknowledging that some of their employees had developed electrosensitivity and alled it a modern day scourge of the workplace. Note, too that the head of Belgian Telecom, Didier Vallens, acknowledges that cell phones are a problem and he BANNED Wi-Fi from the floor of his office.

    There is a reason the industry is hiring psychiatrists like Rubin to create rigged studies to deny what other governments and researchers have long acknowledged-- because if people came to understand that AT LEAST 3% of the population had become hypersensitive to the WHO-designated class 2b carcinogen wireless radiation- that is emitted from its products that have now become all but ubiquitous in buildings, people would REJECT Wi-Fi. What people should be doing is what they were doing up until a few years ago- hard wire buildings to put in lots of jacks and use Ethernet cards.

    This industry makes Asbestos, Tobacco, and DDT look like minor problems- compared to the health problems created. Anyone who believes that microwave radiation is not severely dangerous to the public health is merely copying and pasting the falsehoods of industry-hired hands, and not reading through the existing body of literature themselves. If they did, they would rationally conclude that simple behavior changes were worth doing to protect themselves from radiation.

    1. have you got any evidence for any of that? I mean real evidence, peer-reviewed papers published in established scientific journals? My aunt believed she was electro-sensitive in her extreme old age, but frankly she was nuts. I tried to find published information at that time, but couldn't, my impression was that this idea is clearly false. Has anything changed in the past ten years?

  4. It's such a shame you science blog guys don't read science research for a hobby. It would be most relevant for you and make you look less ignorant. Your junk science is a disservice to real science. Mentally lazy people do not belong in science.

  5. Seriously, constantly amazed by the level of ignorance amongst you 'debunking' scientists on this issue. There's so much credible research (peer reviewed) out there; I find it extremely hard to believe that genuine scientists could be so incompetent at accessing research. Majority of 'debunking' sites are probably industry spin site. If you're not industry spin than you have to be ignorant scientists. Neither is good.

  6. Wow, this is amazing. I've heard of the placebo effect but not nocebo and I'm really not surprised. I think at this point even the experts don't have the evidence to tell us whether it's negatively affecting us but I'm sure they will in the near future.

  7. I get Wifi sickness. It gives me headaches, and I am unable to concentrate. There is always a noticeable difference when you shut it off. It's funny how people in America are tricked into believing Wifi and cellphone radiation is harmless. Just another control mechanism making an elite few large amounts of money. No wonder they don't want you to believe it harms you. Have you seen how depressed the world is right now? Wonder why... But as it stands, all creatures carry their own bioelectromagnetic field. These foreign frequencies have the ability to effect your own brain output and send you into an 'agitated' state.

    And you can bet your a** this effect is due to the output of our own brain's frequency. Tell all your nonsense nocebo to the lady who conducted the cellphone experiments and now wears a headset after she found the brain is effected by the frequency of cellphones. Have fun with all the tumors and brain frying. Think Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and it will all become clearer to you.

  8. Isn't wifi just a low Mhz light wave. So the sun emits all forms of light waves so we have been bombarded by wifi our whole lives? I'm pretty sure I'm right. Check it out in a book. i did.


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