|MYSTERY IN THE
the effect of computer work on human skin.
An interview with
associate professor Olle Johansson at the Experimental Dermatology Unit,
Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden.
Helge Tiainen, former head of the Nokia Consumer Electronics in Sweden
once said that "The results of Olle Johansson's research could very well
deeply shake the world's electronics industry, but mankind still has to
interests might feel threatened by the results of his research, but professor
Johansson has been outspoken and committed to this scientific field. He
started in the 1980's and he has since been continuously very productive
and an advocate for the electrosensitive persons in Sweden as well as around
the world. This interview will go into what professor Johansson has discovered
in the skin of those injured by computer monitors, and also what remains
to be done.
has written a number of important scientific original articles as well
as a great number of commentaries and debate articles in the daily newspapers.
He has been awarded a series of prestigious awards, such as the Nokia Monitor
Award, the Environmental/Medicin Award from the Swedish Cancer and Allergy
Foundation and the SIF-Award (The Swedish Clerical and Technical Employees
his publication list within the field of neuroscience contains more than
450 original papers, review articles and conference summaries, and he has
been a co-author of papers in high-impact journals, such as Nature and
Science. His skill as a lecturer is very well documented and his overall
knowledge in the areas of the neurosciences, health effects of electromagnetic
fields, and in experimental dermatology is esteemed at the highest level.
made you first interested in studying people who had suffered injuries
from working in front of computer monitors?
all started in the 1980's after having listened to a radio programme in
which Ms Kajsa Vedin from Gothenburg, herself very active from a union
point of view and the author of an excellent analysis entitled "In the
shadow of a microchip" (about the occupational risks involved in computer-based
work), asked for expertise in neurology. As a neuroscientist I thought
I was close enough, and I strongly believed that the issues she wanted
to highlight, using the conventional repertoire of scientific "tools",
ought to be easily investigated. I did not realise at all that there were
other forces not wanting to see such studies initiated, but very soon I
understood that these very clear-cut and simple and obvious investigations
proposed by Kajsa Vedin would be very, very hard to start.
same type of propositions soon were brought forward by many other persons
including the two journalists Gunni Nordstrom and Carl von Schéele,
who later published their first book, "Sjuk av bildskarm" ("Ill from VDT
work"; Tidens Forlag, 1989, ISBN 91-550-3484-5). Unfortunately, most of
these proposed studies are still not brought into life, 15 years later.
people abroad think that because electrosensitivity is so well known in
Sweden, that we have conducted many important studies also. But this is
not the case. Why is this?
reason is simple, I am afraid. It is not because of lack of ideas and projects,
on the contrary, the only reason is lack of funding. This fact has been
very important, thus, more or less putting a dead end to the pursuit of
knowledge here in Sweden. It is sad, very sad, since I strongly believe
a lot would have been understood today if scientists could have been in
a situation to properly investigate this enigmatic disease. And, a great
deal of unnecessary suffering among the patients could, thus, have been
you ever doubt the people who claimed to have been injured using computer
me it was immediately clear that persons claiming skin reactions after
having been exposed to computer screens very well could be reacting in
a highly specific way and with a completely correct avoidance reaction,
especially if the provocative agent was radiation and/or chemical emissions
-- just as you would do if you had been exposed to e.g. sun rays, X-rays,
radioactivity or chemical odours. The working hypothesis thus became that
they reacted in a cellularly correct way to the electromagnetic radiation,
maybe in concert with chemical emissions such as plastic components, flame
retardants, etc., something later focussed upon by professor Denis L. Henshaw
and his collaborators at Bristol University (this is covered in Gunni Nordstrom's
book " Morklaggning - Elektronikens rattslosa offer" (Hjalmarson &
Hogberg Forlag, 2000, ISBN 91-89080-41-6)).
soon, however, from different clinical colleagues a large number of other
'explanations' became fashionable, e.g. that the persons claiming screen
dermatitis only were imagining this, or they were suffering from post-menopausal
psychological abberations, or they were old, or having a short school education,
or were the victims of classical Pavlovian conditioning. Strangely enough,
most of the, often self-made, 'experts' who proposed these explanations
had themselves never met anyone claiming screen dermatitis and these 'experts'
had never done any investigations of the proposed explanatory models. The
explanations were soon revealed to be excuses of a scientifically fraudulent
nature! It is interesting to see that science at that time was mere witchcraft.
It remains for skilful journalists to inquire how this came about.
created the name "screen dermatitis", a clinical term to explain the cutaneous
damage developed in the late 1970's when office workers, first mostly women,
began to be placed in front of computer monitors. Many of them became ill
and developed cutaneous and neurological problems. Several clinical dermatologists,
headed by the late professor Sture Lidén, instead talked about union-driven
fears, mass media-based psychoses, imagination phenomena, Pavlovian conditioning
and so forth. But you came to a totally different conclusion. Why?
refused to reduce people to an ill-defined psychologic home-made diagnosis,
without any support even among experts in psychology and psychiatry. Instead,
I called for action along lines of occupational medicine, biophysics and
biochemistry, as well as neuroscience and experimental dermatology.
the democratic principle that citizens are allowed to be ill even in a
disease, i.e. a new diagnosis, that is not yet acknowledged by the medical
establishment. All diseases were once a "new diagnosis", and the medical
profession strongly has doubted asbestosis, cold urticaria, AIDS, the mad
cow disease, skin lice, etc. I usually end my lectures with a quotation
from Albert Einstein "The important thing is not to stop questioning".
have never stopped asking questions and I am using the answers to put into
place the ever-growing number of pieces of a very, very complicated and
Helge Tiainen, former head of the Nokia Consumer Electronics in Sweden,
in February 23, 1994, said that "The results of Olle Johansson's research
could very well deeply shake the world's electronics industry, but mankind
still has to know!" You have received death threats, and been generally
harassed. Do you think this has anything to do with your attempts to let
"mankind know" ?
Ph.D. thesis was about neuropeptides in the central and peripheral nervous
system. Are they also involved in the reactions in the skin of the electrically
is a very important question you bring up! This is something we have wanted
to study for many years, but so far we have not been able to pursue these
lines of interest due to lack of funding. Since the persons claiming electrosensitivity/screen
dermatitis report cutaneous sensations, such as itch, pricking pain, redness,
etc., of course the peripheral as well as the central nervous system must
be involved. And, by understanding alterations in the chemical neurotransmitter
or neuromodulator levels, synthesis, break-down, release and re-uptake,
much could be learnt and understood about the basis for these avoidance
reactions based upon signals transmitted via the classical sensory and
reaction pattern definitely points to a true biophysical effect, and not
to anything else. And, finally, if you take into consideration the large
number of publications showing severe changes or damages from low- or high-frequency
irradiation of cells, tissues and non-human experimental animals, such
alterations cannot ever be understood as "post-menopausal stress reactions",
"imagination" or "techno-stress alterations"!
have in 1995 shown that histamine can exist in nerves in the skin. What
does this mean?
in 1953, the Swedish Nobel Laurate, professor Ulf von Euler had shown that
peripheral nerves biochemically could contain histamine. It was argued
at that time that it only was due to a contamination of histamine from
mast cells present around the peripheral nerves. However, further physiological
experiments indicated that maybe there could be both central neurons containing
histamine (recently proved) as well as peripheral nerves in various target
a histamine-based immunohistochemistry we could then, in 1995, show images
revealing the presence of histamine-immunoreactive nerves in the skin (1).
Naturally, such a finding is of paramount importance, since all studies
on histamine effects in the skin have been based on the assumption that
the histamine only is released from local mast cells. So, for instance
regarding itch, now we have had to reconsider the function of nerve
terminal-derived histamine, something also of the greatest impact for areas
such as electrosensitivity.
Johansson O, Virtanen M, Hilliges M, "Histaminergic nerves demonstrated
in the skin. A new direct mode of neurogenic inflammation?", Exp Dermatol
1995; 4: 93-96
you look at a biopsy from an electrically sensitive person, what do you
are right now in the process of examining a larger number of facial skin
samples, and from them the most common finding is a profound increase of
mast cells. Nowadays we do not only use histamine, but also other mast
cell markers such as chymase and tryptase, but the pattern is still the
same as reported previously for other electrosensitive persons (2). Furthermore,
increases of similar nature have now been demonstrated in an experimental
situation employing normal healthy volunteers in front of visual display
units, including ordinary house-hold television sets (3).
earlier studies, one paper (4) ought to be mentioned. In it, facial skin
from so-called screen dermatitis patients were compared with corresponding
material from normal healthy volunteers.
aim of the study was to evaluate possible markers to be used for future
double-blind or blind provocation investigations.
were found for the biological markers calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP),
somatostatin (SOM), vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP), peptide histidine
isoleucine amide (PHI), neuropeptide tyrosine (NPY), protein S-100 (S-100),
neuron-specific enolase (NSE), protein gene product (PGP) 9.5 and phenylethanolamine
overall impression in the blind-coded material was such that it turned
out easy to blindly separate the two groups from each other. However, no
single marker was 100% able to pin-point the difference, although some
were quite powerful in doing so (CGRP, SOM, S-100). However, it has to
be pointed out that we cannot, based upon those results, draw any definitive
conclusions about the cause of the changes observed. Whether this is due
to electric or magnetic fields, a surrounding airborne chemical, humidity,
heating, stress factors, or something else, still remains an open question.
or double-blind provocations in a controlled environment (3) are necessary
to elucidate the underlying causes for the changes reported in this particular
Johansson O, Liu P-Y, ""Electrosensitivity", "electrosupersensitivity"
and "screen dermatitis": preliminary observations from on-going studies
in the human skin". In: Proceedings of the COST 244: Biomedical Effects
of Electromagnetic Fields - Workshop on Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity
(ed. D Simunic), EU/EC (DG XIII), Brussels/Graz, 1995; 52-57
Johansson O, Gangi S, Liang Y, Yoshimura K, Jing C, Liu P-Y, "Cutaneous
mast cells are altered in normal healthy volunteers sitting in front of
ordinary TVs/PCs - results from open-field provocation experiments", J
Cutan Pathol, 2001, in press
Johansson O, Hilliges M, Han SW, "A screening of skin changes, with special
emphasis on neurochemical marker antibody evaluation, in patients claiming
to suffer from screen dermatitis as compared to normal healthy controls",
Exp Dermatol 1996; 5: 279-285
made a sensational finding when you exposed two electrically sensitive
individuals to a TV monitor. When you looked at their skin under a microscope,
you found something that surprised you. What?
guess that you are aiming at one of the early papers (5). In this article,
we used an open-field provocation, in front of an ordinary TV set, of 2
patients regarding themselves as suffering from skin problems due to work
at video display terminals. Employing immunohistochemistry, in combination
with a wide range of antisera directed towards cellular and neurochemical
markers, we were able to show a high-to-very high number of somatostatin-immunoreactive
dendritic cells as well as histamine-positive mast cells in skin biopsies
from the anterior neck taken before the start of the provocation. At the
end of the provocation the number of mast cells was unchanged, however,
the somatostatin-positive cells had seemingly disappeared. The reason for
this latter finding is discussed in terms of loss of immunoreactivity,
increase of breakdown, etc. The high number of mast cells present may explain
the clinical symptoms of itch, pain, edema and erythema. Naturally, in
view of the present public debate, the observed results are highly provocative
and, I believe, have to be taken much more seriously.
Johansson O, Hilliges M, Bjornhagen V, Hall K, "Skin changes in patients
claiming to suffer from "screen dermatitis": a two-case open-field provocation
study", Exp Dermatol, 1994; 3: 234-238
mention mast cells in the skin. A doctor, John Holt, in Australia has written
to us saying that when working with microwaves (to irradiate cancer cells)
he has observed that the microwaves from cell phones cause a doubling of
histamine (which are released from mast cells) and that such electrosmog
from mobile phones could be the cause of the ever increasing asthma and
his reasoning make any sense?
certainly does! I have put forward this hypothesis many years ago, in public
here in Sweden, and I am now happy to finally see more and more data gathering
to support this idea. I and my collaborator, dr. Shabnam Gangi, have also
addressed this in two recent publications (see below).
and your partner Shabnam Gangi have presented a theoretical model for how
mast cells and substances secreted from them (e.g. histamine, heparin and
serotonin) could explain sensitivity to electromagnetic fields. Could you,
please, explain this? And also, please, explain the function of the Langerhans
cells and how long it takes for them to return.
we have published two papers of theoretical nature (6,7). They bounce off
from known facts in the fields of UV- and ionizing irradiation-related
damages, and use all the new papers dealing with alterations seen after
e.g. power-frequency or microwave electromagnetic fields to propose a simple
summarizing model for how we can understand the phenomenon of electrosensitivity.
I strongly recommend the readers of this interview to familiarize themselves
with these publications, since I fully believe they have a lot to offer
as food for further thoughts.
the first paper, in the journal Experimental Dermatology (6), we describe
the fact that an increasing number of persons say that they get cutaneous
problems as well as symptoms from certain internal organs, such as the
central nervous system and the heart, when being close to electric equipment.
A major group of these patients are the users of video display terminals,
who claim to have subjective and objective skin- and mucosa-related symptoms,
such as pain, itch, heat sensation, erythema, papules, and pustules. The
central nervous system-derived symptoms are, e.g. dizziness, tiredness,
and headache. Erythema, itch, heat sensation, edema and pain are also common
symptoms of sunburn (UV dermatitis).
have been observed in cell populations of the skin of patients suffering
from so-called screen dermatitis similar to those observed in the skin
damaged due to ultraviolet light or ionizing radiation. In screen dermatitis
patients a much higher number of mast cells have been observed.
is known that UVB irradiation induces mast cell degranulation and release
of TNF-alpha. The high number of mast cells present in the screen dermatitis
patients and the possible release of specific substances, such as histamine,
may explain their clinical symptoms of itch, pain, edema and erythema.
The most remarkable change among cutaneous cells, after exposure with the
above-mentioned irradiation sources, is the disappearance of the Langerhans'
cells. This change has also been observed in screen dermatitis patients,
again pointing to a common cellular and molecular basis. The results of
this literature study demonstrate that highly similar changes exist in
the skin of screen dermatitis patients, as regards the clinical manifestations
as well as alterations in the cell populations, and in skin damaged by
ultraviolet light or ionizing radiation.
the second publication (7), from the journal Medical Hypotheses, the relationship
between exposure to electromagnetic fields and human health is even more
in focus. This is mainly because of the rapidly increasing use of such
electromagnetic fields within our modern society. Exposure to electromagnetic
fields has been linked to different cancer forms, e.g. leukemia, brain
tumors, neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, asthma and
allergy, and recently to the phenomenon of electrosensitivity and screen
dermatitis. There is an increasing number of reports about cutaneous problems
as well as symptoms from internal organs, such as the heart, in people
exposed to video display terminals. These people suffer from subjective
and objective skin and mucosa-related symptoms, such as itch, heat sensation,
pain, erythema, papules and pustules (cf. above). In severe cases, people
can not, for instance, use video display terminals or artificial light
at all, or be close to mobile telephones. Mast cells, when activated, release
a spectrum of mediators, among them histamine, which is involved in a variety
of biological effects with clinical relevance, e.g. allergic hypersensitivity,
itch, edema, local erythema and many types of dermatoses.
the results of recent studies, it is clear that electromagnetic fields
affect the mast cell, and also the dendritic cell, population and may degranulate
these cells. The release of inflammatory substances, such as histamine,
from mast cells in the skin results in a local erythema, edema and sensation
of itch and pain, and the release of somatostatin from the dendritic cells
may give rise to subjective sensations of on-going inflammation and sensitivity
to ordinary light.
are, as mentioned, the common symptoms reported from patients suffering
from electrosensitivity/screen dermatitis. Mast cells are also present
in the heart tissue and their localization is of particular relevance to
their function. Data from studies made on interactions of electromagnetic
fields with the cardiac function have demonstrated that highly interesting
changes are present in the heart after exposure to electromagnetic fields.
Gangi S, Johansson O, "Skin changes in "screen dermatitis" versus classical
UV- and ionizing irradiation-related damage--similarities and differences.
neuroscientists' speculative review", Exp Dermatol 1997; 6: 283-291
Gangi S, Johansson O, "A theoretical model based upon mast cells and histamine
to explain the recently proclaimed sensitivity to electric and/or magnetic
fields in humans", Med Hypotheses 2000; 54: 663-671
electrically sensitive have symptoms similar to heart attacks after exposure
to electromagnetic fields. Any comment on that?
could speculate that the cardiac mast cells are responsible for these changes
due to degranulation after exposure to electromagnetic fields. However,
it is still not known how, and through which mechanisms, all these different
cells are affected by electromagnetic fields. In this article (7), we present
a theoretical model, based upon the above observations of electromagnetic
fields and their cellular effects, to explain the proclaimed sensitivity
to electric and/or magnetic fields in humans.
have been called a scientist who has climbed down from his ivory tower
to get in contact with the real world people live in. Has this been a hindrance
yes, to a very, very large degree. For readers interested in this, I warmly
recommend the books by Gunni Nordstrom and Carl von Scheele (8-10). They
are of great value for persons wanting to acquaintance themselves with
the political implications and impact of the phenomenon of new diagnoses
in our society.
"Sjuk av bildskarm" by Gunni Nordstrom and Carl von Schéele (Tidens
Forlag, 1989, ISBN 91-550-3484-5)
"Faltslaget om de eloverkansliga" by Gunni Nordstrom and Carl von Schéele
(Tidens Forlag, 1995, ISBN 91-550-4083-7)
"Morklaggning - Elektronikens rattslosa offer" by Gunni Nordstrom (Hjalmarson
& Hogberg Forlag, 2000, ISBN 91-89080-41-6)
would you depict the world the electrically sensitive live in?
a healthy individual it is always very hard to try to describe patients'
own situation, so I would rather have someone else to answer this. But,
in essence, it must be a very tough daily life, having to always (very
much as an allergic or asthmatic person) look out for situations of provocative
nature. And, where today would you find an electric environment equal to
e.g. the 1950's? Or, even more mind-buggling, where would you find a high-frequency
milieu the same as last year? Nowhere, I guess, since the growth of all
such systems is so rapid and quickly covers us all.
to enable the basic freedom of choosing where to live, where to work, etc.,
is impossible in relation to the electrosensitive persons' requirements.
And, thus, the question of electrosensitivity becomes a question about
do you think some people become electrically sensitive and others do not?
is also a most important and interesting question. As you know, in any
kind of disease, not everyone is ill, and not at the same time. Everyone
will not get cancer, everyone will not break a leg, everyone will not have
malaria. This is governed by the biological statistical rules of the natural
variation. But, maybe you should turn the issue around somewhat.
all healthy persons, i.e. in the sense not being electrosensitive, ought
to be extra happy for the electrosensitive ones, since they have acted
as a warning for all of us? It could be, that we will owe them a lot since
they reacted in time to something which the main bulk of mankind did not.
Furthermore, the possibility is also that the electrosensitive persons
will turn out to be tomorrow's great winners, given the fact that this
Summer, twentyone world-leading scientists during a gathering in the French
city Lyon, within IARC's (IARC = International Agency for Research on Cancer)
expert panel, have concluded low-frequency magnetic fields as a possible
cancer risk (=group 2B, containing in addition i.a. diesel and petrol fumes,
chloroform, welding fume, lead and DDT). For children exposed to such low-frequency
magnetic fields above 0.4 microTesla the cancer risk is doubled. (Therefore,
I ask myself: How will people feel after having spent their everyday working
hours at or around Vasagatan in Stockholm where the low-frequency magnetic
field 1.2 meters above ground is between 0.3 and 2.2 microTesla, or in
the commuter trains having levels between 1 and 100 microTesla in the traveller's
it worry you that children use mobile telephones?
definitely. And, as you know, also the British government has, in December
last year, taken firm action in respect to this question.
will we look on mobile telephones in ten years?
without any remaining questions, scepticism or fear. I look forward to
see the question-marks around this technology resolved, and a well-documented
and 100% responsible, human-friendly technology being presented. And, hopefully,
tomorrow's human-friendly technology will be made by Swedish companies,
in that way creating a 'healthy wealth' for our country.
do you tell people who suggest that electric sensitivity is purely imagined
I always ask them to then, in parallel, explain all the peer-review-published
results around effects of, often very weak, electromagnetic fields on molecules,
cells, tissues, organs and various non-human experimental animals, i.e.
situations which cannot at all be understood in terms of imagination or
psychology. In failing this task, I then ask them to return to the first
statement regarding humans, and to scrutinize and re-evaluate it. As you
understand, people at that moment suddenly lack scientifically sound arguments,
and most of them also confess this. As you know, in the same way it is
also very easy to say that all Finns carry knives, but when you look upon
this statement in a scientific way it is even easier to show that it is
are many self-appointed 'experts' who have made life difficult for the
electrically sensitive. Are they always scientists?
am, and have always been, very surprised to see how sloppy some of my colleagues
address important issues such as the above. Very often one has to realize
that all 'experts' are not true scientists and scholars.
it is also very annoying to see that 'experts' claiming, for instance,
"that the best way to treat electrosensitive persons is to completely ignore
them through silence", did not have to face any personal consequence...!?
Nothing happened to them, their position was not questioned, their competence
as physicians was not questioned, their suitability as representatives
for the medical profession was not questioned. Nothing! What kind of society
also very disturbed by the fact that even if the electrosensitive persons
were victims of an illusion, where in the Swedish health and law system
does it say that you can treat them so badly as several have done?
I attended the medical school I was taught the very opposite: You should
always address patients with kindness, a will to learn and help, support
them, meet them and their concerns in a most respectful way, and so on.
Where did that disappear? It seems as our world-famous Swedish health insurance
policy contains very big gaps through which electrosensitive people, as
well as other new diagnoses, fell, and still fall, head down!
you know of anyone else in the world who has taken biopsies of electrically
the assistant professor and histopathologist Bjorn Lagerholm at the Karolinska
Hospital in Stockholm did that already in the middle of the 1980's. He
also found an increase in the mast cell number, but, unfortunately, he
could never publish it.
a matter of fact, his interest very much started with a female bank employee
that had received a work injury compensation for skin changes after sitting
in front of a visual display monitor. Bjorn Lagerholm described in great
detail her skin changes, which turned out to be very similar to the kind
of cutaneous alterations you may encounter in connection with ultraviolet
light or X-ray damage. It is to be noted that Bjorn Lagerholm's reputation
as a histopathologist was, and is, undisputed. He had examined at least
10,000 biopsies from other skin diseases before this particular case. In
addition to her, he also examined nearly 100 further screen dermatitis
cases, all having the same skin changes.
Lagerholm wrote an article in the Swedish Medical Journal ("Lakartidningen")
to describe his observations. Apart from this he was never able to pursue
his ground-breaking and very elegant studies. They would be burried for
several years, until I and my collaborators re-initiated them in the early
doctors say that the radiation from a computer monitor could not possibly
affect the human skin. The nerves are not that superficial, but what do
is completely wrong! The idea of the deeply burried nerve fibers were put
forward by the late professors David Ingvar and Bernard Frankenheuser.
we shortly after published the first true demonstration of the epidermal
nerves in human skin (11), followed by an ultrastructural identification
(12) as well as a detailed description and quantification of these very
superficial nerves (13).
Wang L, Hilliges M, Jernberg T, Wiegleb-Edstrom D, Johansson O, "Protein
gene product 9.5-immunoreactive nerve fibres and cells in human skin",
Cell Tissue Res 1990; 261: 25-33
Hilliges M, Wang L, Johansson O, "Ultrastructural evidence for nerve fibers
within all vital layers of the human epidermis", J Invest Dermatol 1995;
Johansson O, Wang L, Hilliges M, Liang Y "Intraepidermal nerves in human
skin: PGP 9.5 immunohistochemistry with special reference to the nerve
density in skin from different body regions", J Peripher Nerv Syst 1999;
how superficial are these nerves in the skin? When a person places his
or her hands on a computer keyboard which gives off electromagnetic fields,
can these fields affect the person enough to cause RSI (Repetitive Strain
Injury). In Sweden this phenomenon is called "mouse arm" and is quite common.
nerves come as close as 10-40 micrometers from the stratum corneum, which
could be, in e.g. the face, in itself very thin, thus, these nerves are
very superficially located. Whether this is the cause for RSI, I honestly
do not know, but, naturally, it is definitely a possibility to take into
skin is the largest organ of the body. It is also our foremost protector
against the outside world. How does this protection-process work?
is a very large question, and it would take too much space and time to
answer it in full detail. But, in brief, one could understand the skin
as a very sensitive 'antenna system' containing, in addition, special sensory
organs, such as the eyes, the nose and the ears. The function of the skin
is, among many, to always guide us in an ever-changing environment, thus,
enabling us to avoid tissue-damaging threats, such as heat, cold, UV-light,
X-rays, radioactivity, etc. In the center of this avoidance system is,
of course, our nervous system which will help us to go in the right direction,
away from some situations, maybe including e.g. electromagnetic fields
from computer screens and cellular telephones? The future will tell us
if I was right or wrong.
it seem alarming to you that so many people have reactions in their skin
that point to the skin having defensive reactions from say computer work.
What of the risk of developing cancer if the skin is always in a defensive
the whole concept of skin reactions is frightening, especially since the
skin cancer forms, such as malignant melanoma and basalioma, are so quickly
increasing their incidence. I have asked, over and over again, many colleagues
if they really can rule out the surrounding electromagnetic fields as an
important background factor for such cancers, and mostly they just do not
even answer me.
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 written about
a woman who became so light sensitive after working with a computer that
she had to live in total darkness. Could you tell us more about what goes
on in the skin to cause such sensitivity to light.
to begin with, light sensitivity is increasing as a general problem in
the population, and reports have been published in several countries about
this. The reason behind it is not known, but from our work one could just
speculate around the heat-, light- and UV-adsorbing cellular layer in the
epidermis, the so-called melanocytes and their production of the pigment
melanin. In the above-mentioned case-report (14), it was evident that this
layer, for some unknown reason, was, more or less, completely gone. We
used protein S-100 and HLA-DR (human histocompatibility complex class II
(subregion DR)) as markers, and it was found that the immunoreactive dendritic
cells were dramatically decreased in number, especially in the epidermis.
could imagine that e.g. increased levels of light or UV-light, or increased
levels of other frequencies of electromagnetic fields, such as microwaves,
have led to a wear-down of the protective cellular shield in the skin after
a long-term continuous irradiation period. If such a damage takes place,
maybe the first sign would be light sensitivity in parallel to a modest
electrosensitivity. However, if the damage proceeds naturally the situation
could be very difficult for the patient, finally leading to a life in basically
complete darkness. Several such cases have been reported, but too few studies
have been done, again due to lack of funding. In our own case report (14),
we could also demonstrate that vitamin A was effective as a treatment for
the patient. During the vitamin A treatment, the patient was to a large
extent rehabilitated regarding her general light sensitivity, however,
she was still sensitive to the presence of electric equipment, although
not as much as before. The metabolism of vitamin A should be considered,
since, in the human visual system, vitamin A is converted to alpha-cis-retinol,
which is an essential chromophore component of rhodopsin, the photoreceptor
protein of the retinal rods and is therefore essential for human vision.
Maybe vitamin A influences cutaneous (as well as other) cellular systems
similar to the retina. One explanation is that the patient for a time lost
her melanocytes (or melanocytic content) as seen with the S-100 immunofluorescence,
in response to an external or internal provocation. As a reaction to this,
also her HLA-DR positive dendritic cells were affected. The vitamin A may
have been capable of restoring this balance, as least partially.
Johansson O, Liu P-Y, Enhamre A, Wetterberg L, "A case of extreme and general
cutaneous light sensitivity in combination with so-called 'screen dermatitis'
and 'electrosensitivity' - a successful rehabilitation after vitamin
A treatment - a case report", J Aust Coll Nutr & Env Med 1999; 18:
conducted a blind test to see if electrically sensitive persons reacted
to microwaves from mobile phones, What was the outcome?
and my collaborators, have done a series of such tests, some done here
in Stockholm, some in Goteborg and also some in Linkoping. The experiments
in Stockholm and Goteborg failed, maybe due to the fact that the surrounding
environment could not be controlled from the point of low- and high-frequency
signals, which may have interacted with the tests subjects.
the study in Linkoping (15) was done in the country-side, more than 1 kilometer
from the nearest live electric power source. One person was actually able
to respond correctly to a mobile phone-based double-blind provocation experiment,
9 times out of 9 tests (p<2/1000), both in the 'acute' phase as well
as in the 'chronic' phase (p<1/1000). This would mean that there may
very well be negative health effects from such mobile telephones, most
likely depending on their high-frequency fields.
Johansson O, "Eloverkanslighet samt overkanslighet mot mobiltelefoner:
fran en dubbel-blind provokationsstudie av metodstudiekaraktar", Enheten
for Experimentell Dermatologi, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Rapport
nr. 2, 1995; ISSN 1400-6111
author and journalist Gunni Nordstrom has in an interview expressed herself
in the following way:
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."
you find this to be true?
is, naturally, impossible to precisely know at this stage, but from a speculative
point of view one must say that it is odd, very odd to say the least, that
the appointed experts nearly always seems to be persons that, for instance,
you in the FEB would not propose. And, also when it comes to representatives
in international organizations only 'yes-sayers' are invited, and never
any 'whistle-blowers'. From a philosophical point of view this can prove
to be sad and badly wrong, since, without the latter, companies, authorities
as well as governments can be fooled and tricked into the completely wrong
corner. And, to fool your own government is, as far as I know, high treason,
right? Personally, if I were the prime minister, I would be very afraid
never to listen to the 'whistle-blowers' since it could be a big, big mistake,
from a public health point of view, not to!
mentioned "whistleblowers". There have been many attempts to wear you down.
Most recently you were asked to move your laboratories to a corridor containing
all the rooms for household garbage, radioactive vaste, dead animal carcasses,
etc.! Does it come a time when it is no longer worth being a "whistleblower"?
the future, I would like to propose to governments and likewise to ensure
that scientists dealing with new, provocative research, even with a great
impact on the general economy, that they should be given a 'safety net',
i.e. their personal situation, their career possibilities, etc., must be
protected and not in any way hampered by the fact that they deal with the
'wrong' kind of scientific field. How, otherwise, would you have future
young scientists wanting to throw away all their personal possibilities?
I am deeply afraid that there will come a time when it is no longer worth
being a "whistleblower".
you received sufficient funding?
never. And if not the Swedish Cancer and Allergy Foundation would have
been around, I do not think I would have had the strength to carry on.
But they have always argued for the importance of new, courageous and daring
science, and along the lines of cancer, allergy and their connection to
the environment. This has also become a leading star for me.
if you suddenly got unlimited funds. What would you like to pursue?
guess, to begin with, that I would try to accurately characterize the electrosensitive
patients from a clinical as well as cellular point of view. Depending on
the results, I would then continue with more detailed studies based on
theories emanating from the above data. It is, more or less, impossible
to say at this point what such studies would be. One thing I would, for
sure though, is to employ some additional personnel since I have been very
much left alone through-out the years.
about the EU work for a safer electromagnetic environment?
this context, one very interesting, and on-going, movement is the EC-based
"The European framework for protection from exposure to electromagnetic
fields". About it, to begin with, there are some general comments to be
made. The EC does not seem to be interested in yet another 'BSE scandal',
therefore they are carefully keeping an eye on the issues around health
effects and health risks (N.B. Note the difference between health effects,
identified and calculated health risks and unknown health risks) from electromagnetic
fields, especially from high-frequency telecommunication, such as mobile
telephony. Furthermore, the EC does not regard the above-mentioned irradiation
systems to be proven safe. On the contrary, I believe they strongly understand
it could be a major mistake to whole-body irradiate the whole European
(as well as the world's) population, 24 hours around.
often hear about "safe levels" of exposure and that there is "no proof
of health effects". What is your response to these seemingly reassuring
is very important to realize, from a consumer's point of view, that "no
accepted proof for health effects" is not the same as "no risk". Too many
times, 'experts' have claimed to be experts in fields where actually the
only expert comment should have been: "I/we just do not know". Such fields
were e.g. the DDT, X-ray, radioactivity, smoking, asbestos, BSE, heavy
metal exposure, depleted uranium, etc., etc., etc., where the "no risk"-flag
was raised before true knowledge came around. Later on, the same flag had
to be quickly lowered, many times after enormous economic costs and suffering
of many human beings. Along those lines, it is now (regarding "the protection
from exposure to electromagnetic fields" issue) very important to clearly
identify the background and employment (especially if they sit, at the
same time, on the industry's chairs) of every 'expert' in different scientific
committees, and likewise. It is, of course, very important (maybe even
more important?) to also let 'whistleblowers' speak at conferences, to
support them with equal amounts (or even more?) of economical funding as
those scientists and other 'experts' who, already from the very beginning,
have declared a certain source or type of irradiation, or a specified product,
to be 100% safe.
the precautionary principle always be our guide?
the case of "protection from exposure to electromagnetic fields", it is
of paramount importance to act from a prudence avoidance/precautionary
principle point of view. Anything else would be highly hazardous! Total
transparency of information is the key sentence here, I believe consumers
are very tired of always having the complete truth years after a certain
catastrophy already has taken place. It shall be noted, that today's recommendation
values for mobile telephony, the SAR-value, are just recommendations, and
not safety levels. Since scientists observe biological effects at as low
as 20 microWatts/kg, is it then really safe to irradiate humans with 2
W/kg (i.e., with 100.000 times stronger radiation!), which is the recommendation
level for us? And, furthermore, it is very strange to see, over and over
again, that highly relevant scientific information is suppressed or even
left out in various official documents, as high up as at the governmental
level of society. This is not something that the consumers will gain anything
good from, and, still, the official declaration or explanation (from experts
and politicians) very often is: "If we (=the experts) would let everything
out in the open, people would be very scared and they would panic." Personally,
I have never seen this happen, but instead I have frequently seen great
disappointment from citizens who afterwards have realized they have been
fooled by their own experts and their own politicians...
misunderstanding is the use of scientific publications (as the tobacco
industry did for many years) as 'weights' to balance each other.
you can NEVER balance a report showing a negative health effect with one
showing nothing! This is a misunderstanding which, unfortunately, is
very often used both by the industrial representatives as well as official
authorities. The general audience, naturally, easily is fooled by such
an argumentation, but if you are bitten by a deadly poisonous snake, what
good does it make for you that there are 100 miljon harmless snakes around?
her book " Morklaggning - Elektronikens rattslosa offer " (10), the author
and journalist Gunni Nordstrom has identified a group of Swedish obfuscators,
mainly Lidén, Berg, Hillert, Arnetz and Bergkvist, who have attempted
to put a psychological stamp on what you would term "screen dermatitis".
These people have, Gunni Nordstrom claims, written a series of articles
in international journals, always quouting one another, always making sure
not to mention your findings. This has, as FEB has evidence of, hindered
doctors and others to understand the electrically sensitive in other countries,
causing them much suffering. How can one prevent a similar scenario for
future health risks, or does one always have to go through an obfuscating
or denying phase before admitting to the true facts?
I certainly hope not! According to the work of professor Klas Amark at
the Stockholm University this has, unfortunately, always been the case
previously, but, of course, this tendency must be completely altered in
the future. No democratic and humanitarian society can hold up such principles
as you indicate in your question. We have to meet the future health problems
in a much more 'grown-up' fashion!
do you see in the future?
future is not dark, not at all, but bright for all kind of "human-friendly
technologies", including low-irradiation and low-emitting products. For,
after all, who could sell a computer screen today with the slogan: "THIS
IS A HIGH-LEVEL IRRADIATION SCREEN"!?
Johansson will gladly answer your questions, but due to a heavy workload,
he might not be able to answer all questions. Therefore, try to be as brief
Johansson, assoc. prof.
The Experimental Dermatology Unit
Department of Neuroscience
SE-171 77 Stockholm
FEB October 2001