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.
Some words of warning
Dr McDonald's case before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal is perhaps not as straightforward as to be framed solely as a test of whether IEI-EMF is grounds for workers compensation under Australian law.
A large part of the case concerns McDonald's treatment at CSIRO. McDonald told the Tribunal he was first diagnosed with electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome in 1993, at which point he "followed the medical advice he was given and took steps to reduce his exposure to EMF, including ... limiting his exposure to television and other electronic devices".
He began working for CSIRO a year later in 1994, informing them upfront about his condition. He was given "additional administrative support so that he was no required to do computer work". This was later withdrawn in a restructure, and then only partially reinstated.
Between April and July 2006 and again in March 2007, the CSIRO put Dr McDonald through "trials" of various pieces of IT equipment, including a "desktop computer enclosed within a Faraday cage".
A Faraday cage is an enclosure that "prevents the entry or escape of an electromagnetic field".
It is this treatment at the hands of CSIRO that the Administrative Appeals Tribunal uses to prevent having to rule on the diagnostic status of IEI-EMF.
"Having found that the symptoms are in fact being experienced by Dr McDonald and that those symptoms have been made worse by his employment, it is immaterial as to whether those symptoms have a determinable pathological cause or whether the cause is purely psychogenic," the Tribunal found.
Professor Croft is cognisant of the difficulties in the detail of the case.
"I did have a close look at that judgment and I got the impression from what the Judge said that [he] was certainly very open to the idea that [McDonald] may have been suffering from sensitivity to EMF, but the actual judgment didn't say that," Croft said.
"There wasn't any clear statement and I don't think they could get any evidence to conclude that."
Last month, University of Wollongong and Monash University researchers won a $2.5 million research grant to investigate the long-term health effects of mobile phone use.
The two universities will set up a Centre of Research Excellence for Population Health Research on Electromagnetic Energy in which to undertake the research.
Professor Croft is a "large part" of the centre. Separately, he also directs the Australian Centre for Electromagnetic Bioeffects Research, which was also set up with a $2.5 million federal grant.
'The end game is really to try to answer the kind of questions that the World Health Organisation have said are important in this area," Croft said.
"They pretty much come down to understanding whether there's a link between radiofrequency emissions that come from things like mobile phones, and health in general."
One area of research the new centre will tackle is whether "innocuous" effects seen in adults are stronger in children. Other research focuses on debunking criticism by activists and others of previous studies, such as the provocation works.
"The way that we're looking at it is instead of standardising testing protocols across everybody, we'll be choosing frequencies of RF that people specifically have an issue with," he said.
"If one person has an issue with wi-fi we'd be choosing a wi-fi frequency. If somebody else has an issue with mobile phones we'd be choosing the mobile phone frequency."
Croft is not alone in his pursuit for answers. An enormous study of mobile phone use and health called COSMOS is being pursued in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands.
It aims to follow the health of 200,000 mobile phone users over a 20 or 30 year period. One of its aims is to track "changes in occurrence of specific symptoms over time, such as headache and sleep disorders" — common symptoms associated with IEI-EMF.
Comment from the largest contributor of users to the study — the United Kingdom —was sought but iTnews did not receive a response by the time of publication.
For Croft at least, his concern is with the 3-to-8 percent of the Australian population that report symptoms of IEI-EMF.
"The thing that I think is very important — and this is something that we're not dealing with — is if we assume [the condition is] not caused by RF then we still have an important medical issue that needs to be addressed," he said.
"At the end of the day we need to know if it's caused by RF but so far we'd have to say with the research done so far there's a clear lack of evidence that it is related to RF.
"We certainly have to go further — we have to make sure of it — but so far the suggestion is that there's nothing there."
With so much attention focused on proving or disproving a link between the reported symptoms and electromagnetic fields, there is a real danger that sufferers are "falling between the cracks", according to Croft.
"By tracing everything back to RF as a possible cause, I think that we're really missing out on the actual treatment dimension for these people," he said.
"That's what I would like to see more of."