A little-reported workers' compensation case is inviting fresh scrutiny over claimed allergies to wireless signals and other technology, which are thought to affect at least 3 percent of the Australian population.
Former CSIRO scientist Dr Alexander McDonald lodged a claim for workers' compensation for the nausea, disorientation and headaches he suffered at work when exposed to equipment that emitted electromagnetic fields (EMF).
Today, iTnews delves into the underlying issues.
For alleged sufferers, the case isn't exactly a carte blanche legitimisation of the highly contentious condition known as idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF).
Though the ruling considers the evidence of a GP, several physicians, an occupational medicine specialist, a neurologist, a psychiatrist and a biophysicist, it leaves open the questions besetting the scientific and medical communities: are radio frequency emissions really making people sick, and if not, then what is?
Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute professor Rodney Croft is spearheading research to try and answer these types of questions.
"We're at a kind of difficult point because a lot of people are suffering," Croft told iTnews.
"When you look at the distribution across most first world countries, you find it's around about 3-to-8 percent of people [that] report quite significant health impairment due to this [condition].
"It clearly is a big problem that needs to be dealt with, but the issue is what's actually causing it?"
Like other researchers, Croft is trying to prove if there is any definitive link between the reported symptoms and exposure to radio frequencies.
"The bottom line is trying to understand the relationship between radiofrequency emissions and the body, and whether any of these [emissions] can result in harm," he said.
Finding a relationship between the exposure and symptoms could prove there's more to wireless and technology allergies than it simply being considered a product of the mind, according to Croft.
Much influential work on understanding the condition to date has been via provocation studies — a type of clinical trial that alternately exposes alleged sufferers to real and "sham" radio frequencies to test their response.
"The research so far has shown that when people believe that they're exposed, they will suffer a number of symptoms, but that's regardless of whether there's any radio frequency emissions on or not," Croft said.
An oft-referenced 2005 review of these provocation studies found "no robust evidence to support the existence of a biophysical hypersensitivity to EMF". (pdf)
Double blind trials — where neither participants nor researchers know who is being exposed to radiofrequencies and who isn't — have similarly shown no difference in symptoms between the groups.
"The standard view at the moment in science is that it looks like the health consequences are more related to the belief rather than the radiofrequency (RF) itself," Croft said.
"This makes it very difficult, because we certainly like to look at it from an RF perspective and try to understand how RF is affecting people, but we can't see any relationship.
"So then the issue is, how do we actually look at that? If RF isn't involved, what do we classify ... someone [that] reports symptoms that we can't find a known cause for? And that gets a little bit more tricky."
In the case of the CSIRO scientist, Administrative Appeals Tribunal deputy president James Constance said he was satisfied "that, by reason of the medical advice he has received over many years, [Dr McDonald] believes that he suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome."
"It is a condition which he believes was caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields," Constance said in his ruling.
"This condition is properly described as a derangement of physical or mental health or function and therefore is a physical or mental ... disorder or defect within the definition of ailment" under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988, he said.
Does diagnosis matter?
One thing that stands in the way of the CSIRO ruling setting any sort of legal or workers' compensation precedent is that it effectively sets aside the issue of diagnosis.
Diagnosis is a key challenge when it comes to IEI-EMF. "It's really self-diagnosed," Croft said. "The difficulty is that there's no evidence that anyone is actually sensitive [to low-range electromagnetic frequency exposure]."
Comcare, the agency responsible for workers compensation for government employees, challenged whether Dr McDonald's symptoms could be considered an ailment, owing to the lack of "diagnostic criteria" for IEI-EMF or electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal, however, ruled it was an ailment within legislative definitions, "albeit one which may not be the subject of a recognised diagnostic label". As such, it ruled Dr McDonald was entitled to workers' compensation.
A Comcare spokesperson declined to answer any questions specifically about the case, but confirmed the agency did not have official guidance on how to treat future compensation claims lodged on the basis of IEI-EMF.
"Comcare's claims policy and procedure manual does not provide guidance about IEI-EMF or electromagnetic hypersensitivity," the spokesperson said.
An employee wishing to make a claim must serve a notice of injury on their employer and complete a claim form.
The form must be "accompanied by a medical certificate from a legally qualified medical practitioner (LQMP) certifying that the employee has sustained an injury or suffers from a disease, its relationship to employment, and the fact that the claimed condition has resulted in medical treatment and/or incapacity for work," Comcare's spokesperson said.
The medical practitioner is "not required to label an injury or disease. But in order to accept liability and pay compensation, Comcare requires a precise diagnosis".
"It is Comcare's practice to apply and encourage [practitioners] to diagnose in accordance with the [World Health Organisation's] International Classification of Diseases (ICD)," the spokesperson said, adding that Comcare's own staff could also consult "online medical tools" to assess claims against "evidence-based information relating to various medical conditions."
Though Comcare appears to suggest the onus of proof for a case of IEI-EMF — or indeed, any condition — rests with the employee, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision casts doubt on that position.
Specifically, it found that "practitioners of the view that Dr McDonald suffers from migraine and not EMF sensitivity have not advanced a convincing argument to exclude EMF sensitivity." At least two such practitioners were called upon by Comcare and CSIRO.
In other words, Comcare may be called upon again in future should it dispute further alleged incidences of IEI-EMF that are said to have been exacerbated or brought on by workplace conditions.
An Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) spokesperson said the agency had not changed its view on the condition since the Tribunal decision.
"ARPANSA's view on electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) has not changed significantly since 2010 and, along with the World Health Organisation and other international health authorities, ARPANSA is not aware of any EHS symptoms being confirmed as due to exposure to electromagnetic fields in well-conducted scientific investigations," the agency's spokesperson said.
ARPANSA said it did not keep track of reported incidences of IEI-EMF in Australia.
Read on for words of warning on the Tribunal case, and the search for evidence.