INJURY IN THE OFFICE
Are chemicals in
computers the explanation for electric sensitivity?
An interview with
Swedish journalist and author Gunni Nordstrom whose work over two decades
is a unique contribution to the history of Occupational Injury.
August 3, 2001
journalists’ assignments are short term. Gunni Nordstrom's assignment has
lasted almost two decades.
was not at all popular among employers and manufacturers that their workers
became ill from the computer monitors placed on their desks. It started
in the 1970's but the real epidemic came in the 1980’s when office workers,
in those days mostly women, began to be placed in front of computer monitors.
Many of them became ill and developed skin and neurological problems.
was a direct threat especially to the electronics industry. While our well
paid health officials tried to ignore the electrically sensitive victims,
Gunni Nordstrom, like Agatha Christie's determined Miss Marple, kept her
ears wide open. She never stopped asking questions and she has been
busy ever since putting into place the many pieces of a complicated
her latest book she reveals that chemicals from computer monitors can explain
a great deal of the suffering. There are sufferers all over the world.
In the U.S.A. they tend to focus on the phenomenon called MCS (Multiple
Chemical Sensitivity) and in Sweden on ES (Electrical Sensitivity) Gunni
Nordstrom suggests that may be we are dealing with the same phenomenon
that has been given different names.
chemical sensitivity, chronic fatigue, and electric sensitivity may be
different names for basically the same problem.
interest in the often tragic fates of the many electrically sensitive people
she has come in contact with (they have very often been without any recourse
to justice) has been her driving force. She has been important to
the electrically sensitive in Sweden and abroad in that she has described
their difficult situation and the many attempts at covering up their problem.
At the same time she has relentlessly followed a series of leads that hopefully
will explain why so many people have become electrically sensitive in our
modern office environment.
Nordstrom has done us all a service in writing an important chapter in
the history of Occupational Injury.
did you first start writing about people who became ill after using computer
was the first to write about this affliction (in the TCO Newspaper
in Stockholm, Sweden) in October 1985. But the problem did not start
then. It had existed for at least 5 years, without anyone having investigated
it in depth.
reason that I started my investigation was that a bank employee had received
work injury compensation for skin changes after working in front of a computer
monitor. She (it was mostly women in those days who worked with computers)
had a doctor's certificate from the histopathologist Bjorn Lagerholm. He
described in great detail her skin changes, which were of a kind that he
had previously seen only in connection with ultraviolet light and X-ray
damage. It is to be noted that Bjorn Lagerholm had unusually large
experience in examining skin biopsies under a microscope. He was not only
head skin doctor at the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, and at the same
time, a histopathologist - an unusual combination - he also had a private
practice. He had examined at least 10,000 biopsies when he wrote this important
affidavit for this woman. He obviously knew what he was talking about when
he explained that this woman and a series of other individuals (also computer
users) he had examined, had the same skin changes.
followed, and Bjorn Lagerholm wrote an article in the Swedish Medical Journal
to explain his observations. The observations covered young individuals
(of both sexes) that had been working in front of computer monitors. He
had found remarkable changes in their skin considering their age;
elastosis solaris at a very young age, after only a few years of working
in front of a computer monitor, was not normal. Such changes he usually
would find in farm workers or sailors who had been exposed to sun all their
was your first article received?
article about the bank employee was like letting the cork out of a ketchup
bottle. The phone would not stop ringing. People called from all over the
country. They said that they felt like they had been lying in the sun too
long (and they had only been working with computers). Their skin was taut
and burning. Now they had to wear sunglasses and wide hats or caps for
protection against the sun. They had become light sensitive. This is an
important observation that must not be overlooked. Skin doctors and others
have overlooked this phenomenon. In my meaning, the light sensitivity is
the most important clue to explaining the cause of electric sensitivity.
sensitivity to light still ignored?
will give a very recent example: The Swedish Work Environment Fund had
been requested by the Swedish government to deliver a report on electromagnetic
sensitivity. Only one line in this report mentioned light sensitivity.
The experts had asked for input from the electrically sensitive. They received
400 letters that spoke clearly: Light sensitivity was one of the most prominent
symptoms. What did the experts do with the letters? They threw them into
a card box and delivered them to the government and claimed that nothing
could be learned from them. But the truth will out sooner or
later. The letters are presently being compiled into a book by private
unions and the TCO Newspaper were evidently quite influential in bringing
forth the symptoms their members got after using computer monitors. Any
union ombudsmen were at that time a great source of irritation to the many
"experts" of the establishment. Ms. Kajsa Vedin from Gothenburg wrote a
brilliant report "In the shadow of a Microchip" which predated my first
article and was an excellent and intelligent analysis of the risks involved
with computers. Before that, the unions had embraced this new technique
without any thoughts of possible health risks.
we wrote in the TCO Newspaper was carefully monitored and the "experts"
tried to attribute the phenomenon to unions who, they said, had "taught"
their members what symptoms to report in order to get work injury compensation
benefits. We journalists and the union ombudsmen were considered troublemakers.
did you deal with the suggestions that the press caused the problem?
did not accept that explanation. Early on I realised that something
important was buried and this had to be dug up and brought out into the
open. That is why I have stubbornly continued to write about this question.
I simply was not convinced that the reason for the computer monitor illness
was imagined or press-influenced. One does not become light sensitive for
psychological reasons. And how could people all over the world, independently
from one another, get the same symptoms from computer monitors?
recently heard from an Irish woman who, when seeking help for her electric
sensitivity, had to submit to treatment at a mental hospital. Has this
happened in Sweden?
it certainly has. And it happens in Finland all the time. In my second
book, (Faltslaget om de eloverkansliga) I describe a man who got ill in
1979. There was no debate about computer monitors in Sweden at that time,
but he was convinced that it was his work as a computer teacher that had
made him ill. Every time he turned the computer on, he got his symptoms
- very typical symptoms. He was taken to a psychiatric ward for an
evaluation. He was locked up until the examination was over. He really
should demand compensation. He got so fed up with Sweden that he moved
at that time declared that one could not get sick from computer monitors.
They could not even entertain the thought that a computer monitor contained
something that could give people negative symptoms. I often think of these
so called experts now, when the many pieces are falling into place.
about things falling into place. A computer monitor emits electromagnetic
fields. This is well known to most people. But what is less well known
is the fact that it also contains harmful chemicals (used as flame-retardants)
that are released, to the greatest extent, when the monitor is new, and
later, during usage, in small doses. Many people work in crammed
offices with poor ventilation, surrounded by electronic equipment giving
off chemicals. What is the significance of these chemicals that we breathe
in from the computer and other electronic equipment?
are talking of chemicals that are hormone affecting and are being accumulated
in the body. This is the work environment problem of today and tomorrow.
There are so many people affected that our authorities are trying to obfuscate
the truth. That is why I called my latest book "Cover Up".
most important effect is perhaps the fact that certain chemicals can cause
chronic light sensitivity. I put forward this hypothesis in "Cover Up".
The hypothesis was originally presented by Mr. Per Hedemalm, an environmental
consultant in Gothenburg who probably could have resolved the question
in 1990 had he been given proper funding.
you mention the name some of the chemicals that are to be found in computers?
brominated flame-retardants have been discussed a lot the last few years.
We know that until a few years ago it was very common with PBDE (polybrominated
diphenolethers) in the plastic casings of computer monitors and computers.
The debate contributed to the removal of PBDE in the plastic casings.
this does not solve the problem with flame-retardants in computers. In
almost all computer chips we still have TBBPA (tetrabromobisphenol A).
This is often ”forgotten”. Not even TCO has demanded the removal of TBBPA.
They have been cowardly in this instance. There is simply no economical
computer chips are built on plates or cards that contain epoxy. In my book
I describe the epoxy components, where bisphenol A, in particular, in combination
with light, is suspected of creating chronic light sensitivity.
there are many more chemicals in electronics. IBM revealed in 1990 that
hundreds of chemicals were released from their computer monitors. There
is often the talk of ”safe” levels, but as regards chemicals stored in
the human body; one cannot talk about safe levels. We know nothing of how
chemicals and electromagnetic radiation work in unison.
mention that these chemicals besides being toxic affect our hormones.
the fact that breast cancer still is on the increase and there appears
to be no explanation for this, could the explanation be found in these
hormone-affecting chemicals we are exposed to in front of our computers?
will have to speak to the cancer researcher Lennart Hardell at the university
of Orebro, Sweden. He has studied the effect of cancer and chemicals, particularly
Kohls wife recently committed suicide due to a severe and lengthy light
sensitivity condition. She had to remain in total darkness and could never
go out. Many electrically sensitive have experienced precisely the same
light sensitivity after their work with computers. You have interviewed
a great number of electrically sensitive individuals, how common is this
severe light sensitivity?
sensitivity as such is very common among the electrically sensitive, one
of the very earliest symptoms actually. The severe case of light sensitivity
that Hannelore Kohl suffered is rare, but such cases do exist. I read about
a German dermatology professor who said that such severe light sensitivity
”does not exist” except in cases with inherited light sensitivity (xeroderma
pigmentosum). Yet I have come across or heard of many similar cases in
Sweden and Finland. In my book I write about Swedish professor Olle Johansson’s
description in a scientific publication of a woman who became so sensitive
after working with a computer that she had to live in total darkness. He
took skin biopsies and could show that while her light sensitivity lasted,
the cells in her skin that normally protect the skin against radiation
were completely gone! The German dermatology professor appears not to be
very well updated.
in my book about a woman, who after computerwork, was forced to live in
total darkness in her parents home in Finland. The doctors ridiculed her
and said she suffered from the ”Swedish disease”. If Mrs. Kohl was treated
with the same lack of understanding, I can understand her desperation.
lead us through complicated, but luckily easily understood chemical discussions.
Do you have any background in chemistry?
am unfortunately not a chemist. In the Swedish school in Finland
that I went to, I never gave chemistry much attention unaware that I one
day bitterly would regret this. The ideal constellation of experts to solve
this problem would be a chemist, a toxicologist, an expert in electromagnetic
radiation, a neurobiologist and a journalist. I do not have their expert
knowledge but they, on the other hand, do not have as detailed
knowledge of the patients as I do.
lead you to studying chemicals?
believe that chemicals are the missing link.
had come to believe that there must be some enhancing factor (to the electromagnetic
fields from the computer monitor) that could explain why people became
hypersensitive from using computers. The missing link is chemicals that
react with light and can cause light sensitivity. I believe the chemicals
are toxic and photo toxic.
my latest book I write about Per Hedemalm's hypothesis that certain chemicals
in a computer monitor can cause photo-allergy or photo-toxic reactions.
In other words, light dermatosis. Light is a kind of electromagnetic radiation
so this observation is most relevant. As Per Hedemalm, points out,
from sensitivity to light to sensitivity to other electromagnetic radiation,
the line is very thin.
some of the users of computers have got ill from using them, what about
the people, who manufacture them, have they also got ill?
LaDou, a work environment expert from California visited Stockholm in the
1980’s and told how people in the computer manufacturing industry in Silicon
valley suffered from a mysterious illness which appeared to be a total
exhaustion of the immune system. My coworker Carl von Scheele interviewed
him and when I read the article, I understood that this was something important
but I could not quite put my finger on it just then.
saved the article and later I learned of the Silicon Valley syndrome, which
was exported to southeast Asia, when the manufacturing was moved there.
People got ill in perfectly sterile rooms where computer chips were made.
Joseph LaDou did not hesitate in pointing at the specific chemicals used
in computer chips manufacturing.
know that in the manufacturing of semiconductors in Silicone Valley, people
have in some cases got chronic conditions such as total allergy, and we
also know that those who sort and scrap electronic products have high levels
in their blood of flame-retardants. Yet when the users of these products
in the middle phase get symptoms similar to those in Silicone Valley, then
there is an absolute tabu to speak of what chemicals our electronic products
contain. That is what my book is about. I point to clear relationships
that may exist.
do you think IBM in Sweden made a study of the chemicals (they found 50
different chemicals) in their computer monitors when so many people got
sick from working with their monitors?
had had problems with their employees in their manufacturing. They knew
there was something wrong and they were decent enough to find out, but
it was probably not their intention that the report would leak to the press.
does a journalist explain all this to us? Why do we not get this from our
is precisely why I write. I think things should be described in a correct
and accurate time-frame. I also write to expose the money-making fraud
in this business. These so called experts have enriched themselves on taxpayers
money and have even written doctoral theses based on sheer nonsense.
you give us an example of "expert" mismanagement and other attempts at
very recent example: Sweden has three prominent experts at the university
of Lund who have shown that microwaves open the blood brain barrier on
rats. Their findings have been world news, but the experts (The Swedish
Work Environment Fund had been requested by the Swedish government to deliver
a report on present research in electromagnetic fields) chose to virtually
leave out these most alarming findings, they were only mentioned perfunctorily.
one from the government has contacted the scientists either.
government has similarly been mislead regarding the findings of professor
Olle Johansson of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. His findings regarding
skin changes concerning mast cells and electromagnetic fields are extremely
government seems to listen to those who have the right message, the message
they wish to hear. Sometimes one wonders if the authorities have these
reports custom-made or if someone in the background is masterminding all
important positions and is handing out investigations to those with
the correct beliefs or to the untalented. The independent thinkers get
their heads chopped off as soon as possible at any rate.
of the experts you mentioned is Dr. Lena Hillert. You devote an entire
chapter to her in your latest book. She is generally known for trivialising
electric sensitivity and her language, when discussing mobile phones, very
much resembles that of industry representatives. You have both listened
to many electrically sensitive individuals, yet you have come to vastly
different conclusions. Why?
appears that Lena Hillert does not have an inquisitive mind. She does not
combine the patients descriptions in a logical manner. I can agree that
the patients sometimes can draw the wrong conclusions as regards certain
details, but essentially, they do not make things up. They are ill and
they are correct that their problem has something to do with their work
the other hand, not many of the electrically sensitive seem to understand
the link to the chemicals in their computer monitors. Lena Hillert, who
is an expert should have understood this, and should have initiated research
in this area. But then she would not have received funding for her psychological
studies; also she would not have been quite so popular with mobile phone
operator Telia Mobile, who probably pays her and others handsomely for
being on their "scientific expert panel".
worked for a union newspaper. Yet you have often criticized the unions
for not taking their responsibility. Have you made yourself unpopular in
your own back yard?
I do not care. If they are so ignorant that they do not understand this
issue, or so lazy that they do not have the energy to get engaged, then
it is their problem. But unfortunately the real sufferers are their members.
But I must say that the Swedish unions have been fantastic in comparison
to the Finnish unions who are afraid to appear foolish in front of the
researchers and experts who try to put a psychological label on those suffering
from the effects of computers and other electronic devices. They have left
their members in the lurch in a truly scandalous way.
this due to the NOKIA presence in Finland?
lead that you refuse to let us forget is what happened at the factory SVENSKA
FLAKT in Sweden. The factory has since long closed and the injured workers
live peacefully with government pensions. Why should we not forget this
Svenska Flakt incident occurred shortly before the epidemic of injured
office workers who had been working with computers. And both groups had
been exposed to decomposed components from epoxy and they showed similar
symptoms. The Svenska Flakt case concerned men and they quickly were awarded
work injury compensation.
the same thing happened to office workers (mostly women) who also were
exposed to decomposed components of epoxy (which in their case came from
the computer monitors), then the realisation soon emerged that all these
people could not possibly be awarded work injury compensation. There were
simply too many. I have been told by a skin doctor to stay away from
the Svenska Flakt case for fear of jeopardising the work injury compensation
Swedish scientists Salford, Braun and Persson, have discovered that very
low levels of microwaves can cause the brain blood barrier to let in toxins
that definitely do not belong there. How does this finding fit in with
your theory about electric sensitivity?
are frequencies up to the microwave range in computers also. We know that
very low level microwaves open the blood-brain barrier. The combined action
between chemicals and electromagnetic fields is a highly interesting area.
However there are no studies performed on those who got ill in front of
computers with this aspect in mind.
we have a modern office environment with a lot of electronic products giving
off toxic chemicals, and simultaneously, wireless equipment, giving off
microwaves, it is evident that this combination is not healthy. How dangerous
this situation is, remains to be seen. We must not forget that there are
far too many people who have got ill for us to ignore this problem.
memory and ability to see important things in matters that pass most people
by, is impressive. So are the many case studies you present. There is one
particular case, a 33 year old man, Anders Lindstrom, who worked
for Ericsson Radio System in Gavle, Sweden. His work with mobile
phone base stations exposed him to microwaves and chemicals. Today he is
almost totally blind and severely handicapped. Yet he has not received
any compensation from anyone. It appears that the establishment,
doctors included, unanimously declared that the injuries he had suffered
"could not possibly have come from his work place". This despite the fact
that he was exposed to microwaves close to his eyes.
subtitle to your third book COVER UP is "The victims of electronics - without
recourse to justice". Would this man not have had a better chance of obtaining
justice with the American judicial system? Has any other country
undermined their work injury compensation insurance to the extent as they
have in Sweden where you, these days, must have a very obvious physical
accident to get a chance of being compensated?
private lawyer with the good sense of procuring the best experts could
have done wonders for this man in the U.S.A. The unions in Sweden
have been timorous in dealing with Ericsson.
Swedish Work Injury law was a good idea at one time. Now it has been diluted.
The unions should consider this. Soon they will have a flood of people
injured at the workplace and they will revolt against the unions when they
discover that they are not able to get any work injury compensation.
we end, please tell us what happened to the bank employee whose fate got
you interested in this matter in October 1985. Did she get to keep her
work injury compensation for the injury she had suffered in
front a computer monitor, or was there an appeal? Since she
was the first to be awarded work injury compensation, and there were
many similar cases, her case would be a precedent if it was upheld. What
sort of help did she get from her union?
got help from her union, but this help was lacking. Without her own efforts,
the case would not have been as interesting. She was much better updated
than her counsel. The insurance courts had to get the best experts in the
land to counter the doctor certificates and all the material she had collected
remarkable thing in this case is that Doctor Bjorn Lagerholms certificate
was not questioned in any way. No one dared to question such a skilled
histopathologist. On the other hand, it was stated that computer monitors
could not have caused the injuries he had seen. The experts did not deny
that there was a direct relationship in time between the injuries to the
woman’s skin and her work with the computer. But the sacred computer could
not be the culprit.
battle took ten years. During this time, there was an accumulation of other
cases in the lower courts. When this verdict came in the highest insurance
court, it was a political decision. What would society do with a lot of
people claiming to be ill from their work with computers? The chemical
industry had nothing to fear. The cover-up had worked.
are your plans for the future?
am presently reworking my book for the English translation. I am very interested
in the reactions from those suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity
and chronic fatigue in various countries. But foremost I hope that there
will be readers with a better knowledge of chemistry who can continue my
work. I am an investigating journalist, not an expert in chemistry. It
is time for toxicologists and others to take over.
who wish to write to me with their observations or comments are welcome
to do so to the address below:
2C No 9
Books by Gunni
from Computer Monitors).
Carl Von Scheele
Tiden /TCO-tidningen 1989
OM DE ELOVERKANSLIGA
battlefield of the electrically sensitive)
Carl Von Scheele
Tiden. Stockholm Sweden 1995
Elektronikens rattslosa offer.
Up. The victims of electronics - without recourse to justice)
Hjalmarsson & Hogberg, Stockholm Sweden 2000
FEB August 2001