Wi-fi at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital

The National Post has a story about a physician at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto who has bought into the concept of (EMS). This is a diagnosis that is promoted by a few fringe researchers and not supported by large well-designed studies.

From Tom Blackwell’s article

Every week now, Dr. Riina Bray sees two or three new patients with a similar array of ailments and ends up blaming the same, controversial cause.

Suffering from stabbing headaches, “brain fog,” tinnitus or extreme fatigue, their symptoms seem linked to exposure to Wi-Fi routers, cellphone towers and other sources of radio-frequency radiation, says the environmental health specialist at Toronto’s prestigious Women’s College Hospital.

Dr. Bray’s clinic may be the only mainstream medical facility in Canada that routinely treats patients for a condition known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity. She recently held a seminar to educate physicians about what she calls a major and fast-growing public-health menace, paralleling the explosion of wireless technology in Western society.

“Every year we are getting more and more people coming in,” said Dr. Bray. “I’m very concerned, because the stories are very, very compelling … These are not crazy people. There is a huge, huge problem.”

She advocates major changes to how telecommunications and computer technology are used, such as moving to more hard-wired communication devices.

It is important to note that the list of symptoms, stabbing headaches, “brain fog,” tinnitus or extreme fatigue she ascribes to EMS are a subset of the symptoms of anxiety disorders. It is also important that I am not suggesting that these people do not have physical symptoms. They are very real and can be debilitating. What I am disputing is the cause of these symptoms. There are a large number of well researched articles detailing the lack of solid scientific evidence that anyone is accurately able to determine the presence of electromagnetic fields and the impossibility, given the physics behind electromagnetism, there would be any physiological effect. The WHO and Health Canada, as well as the health departments of most countries do not support the existence of EMS as a valid syndrome.

One of the most telling arguments against an external cause for the symptoms is revealed in an evaluation of effective treatments. While there are not a lot of studies that examine treatments, the most effective method seems to be Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) a common technique in treating many forms of mental illness, especially depression and anxiety disorders. In 2006, Rubin et al conducted a review of the existing material.

A systematic review of treatments for electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
Rubin GJ, Das Munshi J, Wessely S.Psychother Psychosom. 2006;75(1):12-8.

BACKGROUND:
Electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) is a poorly understood condition in which patients report symptoms following perceived exposure to weak electromagnetic fields (EMFs) such as those produced by mobile phones or visual display units. Little is known about the aetiology of the condition although experimental data suggest that EMFs are an unlikely causal agent. In this systematic review we assessed the efficacy of any treatment for people reporting EHS.
METHODS:
Twelve literature databases were examined to identify relevant studies. We also hand-searched conference proceedings and examined the reference sections of reviews and other papers. Only clinical trials that compared the efficacy of a potential treatment for EHS against a control condition were included in the review.
RESULTS:
Nine controlled clinical trials were identified, examining the effects of cognitive behavioural therapy (4 studies), visual display unit screen filters (2 studies), ‘shielding’ EMF emitters (1 study), supplementary antioxidant therapy (1 study) and acupuncture (1 study). The quality of these studies was limited. Nevertheless, their results suggest that cognitive behavioural therapy is more effective than providing no treatment. None of the other therapies have had their efficacy adequately demonstrated.
CONCLUSIONS:
The evidence base concerning treatment options for EHS is limited and more research is needed before any definitive clinical recommendations can be made. However, the best evidence currently available suggests that cognitive behavioural therapy is effective for patients who report being hypersensitive to weak EMFs. [emphasis mine]

The mention of acupuncture in the article also suggests a psychosomatic source for the symptoms as it has been well established that any positive effects of acupuncture are due to the placebo effect. Many people would look at the evidence and ask “What’s the harm in the College Hospital providing treatment?”.  The harm is twofold:

  1. The potential harm to the individual is wasting time and effort on an imaginary illness.
  2. The direct harm is the waste of public money. We are all aware that health care costs are rising, and will continue to rise in the foreseeable future. We cannot afford to waste important financial resources on non-existent disorders.

With Riina Bray, we have a respected hospital wasting public money directly and providing legitimacy to a disorder that is best treated as a type of anxiety.  More appropriately it should be identified and included in the DSM V as a subset of the anxiety disorders.

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