Idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF): a systematic review of identifying criteria

BMC Public Health. 2012 Aug 11;12:643. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-12-643.


Background: Idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF) remains a complex and unclear phenomenon, often characterized by the report of various, non-specific physical symptoms (NSPS) when an EMF source is present or perceived by the individual. The lack of validated criteria for defining and assessing IEI-EMF affects the quality of the relevant research, hindering not only the comparison or integration of study findings, but also the identification and management of patients by health care providers. The objective of this review was to evaluate and summarize the criteria that previous studies employed to identify IEI-EMF participants.

Methods: An extensive literature search was performed for studies published up to June 2011. We searched EMBASE, Medline, Psychinfo, Scopus and Web of Science. Additionally, citation analyses were performed for key papers, reference sections of relevant papers were searched, conference proceedings were examined and a literature database held by the Mobile Phones Research Unit of King's College London was reviewed.

Results: Sixty-three studies were included. "Hypersensitivity to EMF" was the most frequently used descriptive term. Despite heterogeneity, the criteria predominantly used to identify IEI-EMF individuals were: 1. Self-report of being (hyper)sensitive to EMF. 2. Attribution of NSPS to at least one EMF source. 3. Absence of medical or psychiatric/psychological disorder capable of accounting for these symptoms 4. Symptoms should occur soon (up to 24 hours) after the individual perceives an exposure source or exposed area. (Hyper)sensitivity to EMF was either generalized (attribution to various EMF sources) or source-specific. Experimental studies used a larger number of criteria than those of observational design and performed more frequently a medical examination or interview as prerequisite for inclusion.

Conclusions: Considerable heterogeneity exists in the criteria used by the researchers to identify IEI-EMF, due to explicit differences in their conceptual frameworks. Further work is required to produce consensus criteria not only for research purposes but also for use in clinical practice. This could be achieved by the development of an international protocol enabling a clearly defined case definition for IEI-EMF and a validated screening tool, with active involvement of medical practitioners.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Electromagnetic Fields / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity*