IT specialist Steve Weller describes the pain of EMS as like "a tight-fitting hat being pulled down on your head". Photo: Glenn Hunt
After an hour of measuring radio-frequency levels around Benalla, the north-eastern Victorian city of 9300 deep in Ned Kelly country, Bruce Evans puts down his smartphone-sized digital meter. He says he wants to demonstrate how badly cordless phones leak radiation, and there's one in the Benalla bookshop he can test. He strides off with intent on a sunny Sunday morning, a burly man with a shaved head, like a friendly bouncer you nonetheless wouldn't want to mess with.
Evans, a 50-year-old web designer and former Australian Army commando, is showing me where he can go without falling ill. He says he has a controversial condition known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), triggered by electromagnetic fields (EMF) emitted by power lines, devices such as smartphones and laptops, by wireless routers and towers pumping out telco and NBN signals – the building blocks of the modern economy; indeed, of modern living as we know it. Symptoms range from a mild headache through to tingles, tinnitus and heart palpitations to incapacitating migraines, fatigue and nausea. Being EHS puts a huge mental strain on sufferers, both from their symptoms and from not being believed.
I just wrote them off as nuts, bloody sensitive little namby-pambies. Then it started happening to me.
EHS is contentious because the radio-frequency levels at which sufferers say they're affected fall well below those considered dangerous by regulators. And its existence is denied by mainstream medicine. While allergies can be tested with a needle-prick blood sample, there is no accepted diagnostic test for EHS, so most sufferers are self-diagnosed. "The collection of symptoms," says a World Health Organisation (WHO) fact sheet, "is not part of any recognised syndrome."
EHS sufferer Bruce Evans. Photo: James Braund
We enter the bookshop. Evans doesn't recognise the young woman behind the counter. He reaches into his backpack and removes his meter. "I was wondering if I could just measure the telephone?" he asks.
"Hi," I add. "I'm from Good Weekend magazine, we're doing a story about - " I fumble briefly " - how some electrical items leak electricity ... "
The woman freezes. "I'm sorry," she finally says. "If I had some proof of who you are ... "
Theo R, who has moved to an isolated property with his partner Irma. Photo: Courtesy of Jaap Roskam
We leave without the measurement but with a glimpse into Evans' world. "She was probably looking for the big red button under the counter to call the Men in Black," he jokes.
SUFFERERS OF EHS SAY they are environmental refugees in their own country, moving to other cities or suburbs or retreating to remote rural hideaways to escape their symptoms. Good Weekend spoke to a dozen sufferers, some of whom coat their houses in paint that reflects electromagnetic radiation (EMR), fit wire mesh over their windows, or wear protective caps made of cotton-metal-blend fabric. Shielding items cost dearly: one online business lists a five-litre pot of paint for $499 and a protective iPhone 6 case for $55. "The number of people contacting us with EMR-related problems is absolutely growing," says EMR Australia director Lyn McLean.