Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: a critical review of explanatory hypotheses

Environ Health. 2020 May 6;19(1):48. doi: 10.1186/s12940-020-00602-0.


Background: Electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) is a condition defined by the attribution of non-specific symptoms to electromagnetic fields (EMF) of anthropogenic origin. Despite its repercussions on the lives of its sufferers, and its potential to become a significant public health issue, it remains of a contested nature. Different hypotheses have been proposed to explain the origin of symptoms experienced by self-declared EHS persons, which this article aims to review.

Methods: As EHS is a multi-dimensional problem, and its explanatory hypotheses have far-reaching implications, a broad view was adopted, not restricted to EHS literature but encompassing all relevant bodies of research on related topics. This could only be achieved through a narrative approach. Two strategies were used to identify pertinent references. Concerning EHS, a complete bibliography was extracted from a 2018 report from the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety and updated with more recent studies. Concerning related topics, the appropriate databases were searched. Systematic reviews and expert reports were favored when available.

Findings: Three main explanatory hypotheses appear in the literature: (1) the electromagnetic hypothesis, attributing EHS to EMF exposure; (2) the cognitive hypothesis, assuming that EHS results from false beliefs in EMF harmfulness, promoting nocebo responses to perceived EMF exposure; (3) the attributive hypothesis, conceiving EHS as a coping strategy for pre-existing conditions. These hypotheses are successively assessed, considering both their strengths and limitations, by comparing their theoretical, experimental, and ecological value.

Conclusion: No hypothesis proves totally satisfying. Avenues of research are suggested to help decide between them and reach a better understanding of EHS.

Keywords: EMF health effects; Functional somatic syndromes; Health beliefs; IEI-EMF; Media effects; Modern health worries; Nocebo response; Risk perception.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Electromagnetic Fields / adverse effects*
  • Environmental Health*
  • Hypersensitivity / epidemiology*
  • Hypersensitivity / etiology
  • Radiation Exposure / adverse effects*