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What is electro-hypersensitivity? We explore Chuck from Better Call Saul’s illness

If you’ve been watching Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul you’ll have noticed that things are a little strange at Chuck McGill’s house. 

Hotshot lawyer Chuck has taken a sabbatical to deal with a debilitating and unspecified condition. While it’s not explicitly named in the show, it appears that Chuck is lumbered with EHS (electro-hypersensitivity) or ES (electrosensitivity) as some sufferers call it. 

Electrosensitive people claim to suffer crippling headaches, nausea and fatigue if they’re exposed to the EMFs (not the defunct 90’s band) generated by things like phones, laptops and wireless routers. 

In Better Call Saul, Chuck’s case is so severe that anything with an electrical charge causes him agony. He uses gas lanterns to light his home and instead of using a fridge freezer, he keeps his perishables stored in an ice cooler. Any visitors to Chuck’s house have to ground themselves before entering, which requires them to store things like phones outside in a mail box. 

When Saul gets wasted and crashes on Chuck’s couch, he unwittingly brings his phone into the house, which Chuck gingerly disposes of with a pair of tongs. His condition is so bad that he can’t even bear to touch the phone with his hands.

But while EHS is a great plot device for TV shows, it’s not so great in real life. 

What is electro-hypersensitivity? We explore Chuck from Better Call Saul’s illness
Navigating the grimy and electricity-free world of Chuck McGill

What is EHS really?

The short answer is, no-one really seems to know. Denis Henshaw, professor of human radiation effects at the University of Bristol told us that every organism is electrosensitive to a degree, but wasn’t able to tell us exactly why some people suffer from EHS. 

“Electrosensitivity is not new,” said Henshaw, “Indeed all forms of life have evolved to sense magnetic fields and they display sensitivity in one way or another.” 

When we’re not being battered by solar geomagentic storms – one took out Quebec’s power grid in 1989 – us humans have, as a species, been bathing ourselves in increasing levels of electro-magnetic radiation over the last fifty years. 

Henshaw pointed us to studies that demonstrate the effects of mobile phone radiation on various organisms. While it looks like there’s a case for EMFs ruining the sex lives of fruit flies and causing ants to evacuate their homes, there’s so far been no study that conclusively proves that BT Home Hubs, iPhone 6s and mobile masts are scrambling our brains. 

“I’m afraid there is little I can offer by way of treatment for electro-hypersensitivity,” Henshaw concedes. “There are advances in understanding what causes electrosensitivity in that there are many examples where exposure to very low level RF EMFs produce biological endpoints. Unfortunately, they do not point to treatment, only the case for prudent avoidance.”

‘Prudent avoidance’ now could mean turning your phone off to ensure a good night’s sleep, using wired Internet connections instead of WiFi in the home (where possible) or, in extreme cases, shelling out for an EMF-shielded sleeping bag, not unlike Chuck’s ‘space blanket’ seen in Better Call Saul‘s second episode. 

Is ‘Electrosmog’ simply a load of old guff?

Such measures are recommended by groups like Powerwatch and Wireless Protection, who are calling for a ban on WiFi in schools and connected gas meters in the home

It’s easy to note the poor design and alarmist language used by some of these sites and have your inner sceptic’s radar shooting through the roof. ‘Electrosmog’ doesn’t sound like a valid scientific term. 

The thing is, enclosing your bed in a silver-plated copper mesh will shield you from most electromagnetic signals. Think of products like this one from Wireless Protection as a four poster Faraday cage. These products do what they say on the tin. The question remains, do people need to be doing this? 

Bad Science author Ben Goldacre has been a thorn in the side of what he calls the ‘electrosensitive lobby’. Goldacre refers to Powerwatch as ‘Pow£rwatch’ on his blog, where he has repeatedly pointed to the 30+ trials proving that EHS is not caused by phones. 

Alasdair Philips, director of Powerwatch, is critical of EHS trials to date and has called for better testing conditions. 

A prominent 2007 study by the University of Essex (the so-called ‘Essex Study’), saw participants handling 2G and 3G phones and a third ‘sham’ phone – a dummy model – to see if people were faking it. 

During the trial, participants were exposed to signals for periods of time ranging from 5 to 20 minutes. 

What is electro-hypersensitivity? We explore Chuck from Better Call Saul’s illness
Chuck’s new tux was actually made of Bacofoil

“Calling people who believe they experience symptoms because of electromagnetic fields hypochondriacs is offensive.” – Ben GoldacreThe Essex study profiled 56 self-reported electro-hypersensitive and 120 control participants and found that short term exposure to EMFs did not affect well-being or physiological functions in sensitive or control individuals. Philips says this isn’t good enough. 

“Studies need to take place in rural locations with very low background RF fields, below 0.02 volts per metre peak signal strength,” Philips said. 

“The participants need to stay there at least 24 hours to relax before testing starts as EHS effects can linger afterwards for at least 24 hours.”

As participants travelling to this hypothetical test site would be exposed to radiation and fields from cell towers on motorways and near train stations – which are set to increase over the next few years – Philips argues for a longer cool-down period for EHS sufferers before testing can begin. 

“It will be necessary to test over several days and monitor health for 24 hours following any exposures. Double-blinded exposure systems can be hidden from view behind a screen,” Philips added. 

“The exposure should contain a mix of modern modulated communication signals from cellular networks, DECT and WiFi. For adequate resolving power, a minimum of 100 selected EHS people, aged 18-65, should be tested during the research, along with the controls.”

Despite his opposition to Powerwatch and others, Goldacre said in 2006 that he’s equally sceptical of people who’d simply write off EHS as a psychosomatic disorder. 

“The symptoms that people are currently attributing to electromagnetic hypersensitivity are unpleasant and often disabling, even if the electromagnetic fields are not the cause of them. Calling people who believe they experience symptoms because of electromagnetic fields “hypochondriacs”, weak-minded, or oversensitive: is offensive, unhelpful, and most damnably of all, untrue.”

While no-one can confidently say what causes EHS – and if it’s not electro-magnetic radiation, shouldn’t we start calling it something else? – everyone seems to be in agreement that more work needs to be done. 

We’re only two episodes deep into Better Call Saul right now so it’ll remain to be seen if Chuck really does have EHS or if he’s just feigning a poorly-understood illness in order to deceive his former colleagues. Former colleagues who are sitting on $1.7 million of Chuck’s money. 

While that mystery will be probably solved in a matter of months – Netflix is currently dropping new episodes of the ten part series every Tuesday – getting to the bottom of what’s making people coat their homes in WiFi-repelling paint might take a bit longer. 

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