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The psychology behind why people think 5G makes them sick

The rise of new technologies often brings up fears.
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LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MAY 28: Fire and explosion damage can be seen on an EE network 5G mast that was attacked by an arsonist earlier this week in Brodie Avenue on May 28, 2020 in Liverpool, England. A lot of the damage was caused by the resulting explosion when the petrol was ignited. Several phone masts have been deliberately damaged around the UK, their attackers inspired by a conspiracy theory positing that 5G technology is linked to the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

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Phantom vibrations. Trouble breathing. An unexplainable itch. These are often types of things that we all experience at some point, even if there is no obvious physiological cause. But just because you can't pinpoint what is causing it, doesn't make it any less real.

The idea of an unexplainable symptom is at the heart of something known as “Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance,” also often called multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) or environmental illness. It refers to a group of recurrent symptoms experienced by some people that cannot be attributed to a diagnosed medical issue. “There seems to be a base rate in the population of symptom reporting that cannot be attributed to physical dysfunction,” said Professor Omer van den Bergh, a tenured professor of Health Psychology at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

“There is a group of people that tends to attribute these symptoms then to environmental causes, and these are typically people who have what we call modern health worries,” he said. Instead of the historically more-common sensitivities to things like perfumes and household cleaners, this group of people with “modern health worries” are increasingly attributing symptoms to electromagnetic radiation in the environment. This is where a natural alignment with 5G conspiracy theorists starts to arise.

“Our whole society... seems to assume that if there is a physical symptom in our experience, there must be a physiological cause,” Prof. Van den Bergh said. In the search for a cause, people can latch on to any possible answer in the hopes of finding relief. “If you have, for example, activist groups or other groups that are also sharing a belief that it might be caused by, let’s say, electro-magnetic radiation, then you become selectively sensitive to that,” he said. “You start to perceive correlations between your symptoms and the sources of electromagnetic radiation.”

The effects of 5G radiation has been described as “damaging” by some less reputable outlets, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Some conspiracies even go as far as to claim that the networking tech caused the coronavirus pandemic, which is definitively untrue. But that didn’t stop angry protesters from burning down cell towers and spraying anti-5G graffiti all over the world. The media coverage of these acts hit the global audience just as coronavirus concerns began to take over the world, and soon the idea that 5G causes disease went viral.

It’s easy to dismiss believers of a 5G sickness as kooky or to invalidate their concerns, especially when there is no evidence to show that the level of radiation is more harmful than before. New technology that’s part of 5G, like millimeter waves, had already been in use for years before the standard was even passed, although on a less concentrated scale. Satellite communications systems, for example, operate on the high-frequency spectrum.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MAY 28: Fire and explosion damage can be seen on an EE network 5G mast that was attacked by an arsonist earlier this week in Brodie Avenue on May 28, 2020 in Liverpool, England. A lot of the damage was caused by the resulting explosion when the petrol was ignited. Several phone masts have been deliberately damaged around the UK, their attackers inspired by a conspiracy theory positing that 5G technology is linked to the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

But it’s not helpful to people experiencing symptoms to simply be shouted down. Prof. Van den Bergh describes the modern world as a sort of “electro smog” to someone who believes EM radiation causes them discomfort. They believe they’re surrounded by sources everywhere — not just the obvious cellphones and remote controls that we can see out in the open, but things that might be less easy to spot like WiFi routers or other equipment. Trying to find relief might feel like an impossible task.

It’s also unhelpful to say things like “It’s all in your head” to someone experiencing such discomfort. “It should be noted that the symptoms are really there,” Prof. Van den Bergh said. He pointed to several investigations using brain imaging that have shown that people who report these symptoms “actually recruit similar or the same brain areas that are activated also when you have symptoms from, let’s say, the flu or another dysfunction.” He added that all symptoms that are experienced are also in your head — your brain processes the signals that then leads your skin to tingle or your head to hurt, for example.

What might help is if sufferers from such symptoms can find relief — or if not, then some understanding of their situation. “There is at this moment no solid body of evidence that these people can be easily treated,” Prof. Van den Berg said. Based on his clinical experience, though, an adapted form of exposure therapy that convinces sufferers to expose themselves to potential sources of radiation rather than hide away from them can help. There might be hope in sight for these patients — “We are currently developing treatment protocols,” he added.

A placard ''Stop 5G freedom'' is seen during the rally against coronavirus policy in Cologne, Germany, on May 16, 2020. (Photo by Ying Tang/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NurPhoto via Getty Images

These ailments aren’t unique to 5G, or even electromagnetic radiation. “There is a base rate of medically unexplained symptoms in the population and the attribution for those symptoms changes with every new introduction of technical facilities that stimulate modern health worries,” Prof. Van den Bergh said. He pointed to 3G, WiFi and remote controls as some examples. “In the middle ages, there were symptoms attributed to the presence of glass, because that was really novel and was not considered safe by all people,” he added. “People tended to believe that they would become transparent themselves.”

The attribution for these symptoms evolves with the introduction of each new generation of technology. “Windmill infrasound hypersensitivity is what I would call the new kid on the block,” Prof. Van den Bergh said, noting that a rise in “catastrophic media coverage of some new technical facilities” could cause an increase in the prevalence of such attribution.

Ultimately, Prof. Van den Bergh wants those experiencing such symptoms to know that he takes them very seriously. “They are really suffering,” he said. They’ve not only gone through physical discomfort that they can’t explain, but in trying to avoid what they believe causes their symptoms, they’ve also lost jobs, friends and social lives. “I have seen people whose lives have been destroyed by the disease.”

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