Her headaches were constant and vice-like. So extreme was the pain that it ruined any chance of a decent night’s sleep, and left Julia Taylor reduced to little more than “a walking zombie”.
A sensible, rational woman, the 53-year-old nutritionist went to her GP for an explanation - only to be told her repeated headaches were simply the countdown to the menopause. Yet every conceivable brand of painkiller, alternative remedy, and even hormone replacement therapy failed to help.
“I felt like I was going crazy. Doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with me, I was fit and healthy in every other way - a battery of tests proved that. And yet my head felt like it was about to explode. I couldn’t work properly because I was so exhausted all the time. Once, I didn’t sleep for four nights in a row. I felt like I was living in a nightmare.”
So why did nothing help? Julia is convinced it’s because she suffers electro-hypersensitivity (EHS). She believes she is allergic to atmospheric man-made radiation caused by wi-fi, phone signals, cellphones, TV screens and fluorescent lights. In short, she is allergic to modern life.
The symptoms reported by sufferers of EHS range from headaches to nausea, sickness, severe abdominal pain, heavy bleeding and even blackouts. Yet EHS is a controversial condition. While some countries, such as Sweden, recognise it as a “functional impairment”, here the Health Protection Agency says there is no scientific evidence linking ill health with electrical equipment.
So can you really be allergic to all the technology that comes hand-in-hand with modern living? Are Julia and other sufferers sadly misguided - or are they on to something? Certainly, some distinguished experts have linked disrupted sleep to a proximity to power lines.
Denis Henshaw, emeritus professor of Human Radiation Effe cts at the University of Bristol, points out that many people who live close to high-voltage power lines suffer sleep disorders and depressive symptoms, as seen in a number of studies.
“This could be explained by the fact that magnetic fields, such as those found near power lines, disrupt the nocturnal production of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin,” he says.
“Whether other symptoms of EHS occur in this way is not known, but researchers are looking at a number of ways in which electric and magnetic fields may adversely affect health.”
Two years ago, the European Assembly passed Resolution 1815, which, among other things, calls for restrictions on wi-fi in schools and the use of cellphones by children. And the World Health Organisation has classified electromagnetic fields of the kind used in mobile telephones as potentially cancerous.
She is not alone. Many thousands of people - some reports estimate up to five percent of the population - attribute a raft of debilitating symptoms or poor physical health to EHS.
Indeed, according to Dr Erica Mallery-Blythe, a former A&E doctor who works as a consultant to various organisations researching EHS, many of us may be electro-hypersensitive and not realise it.
“Everybody has the potential to become electro-hypersensitive. Every cell in our body, in our brain, or nervous system is dependent on electrical signals,” she says. “But some people have that extra sensitivity, and though they may not know it, it is causing their asthma, flu-like symptoms or insomnia.” But the symptoms of EHS can be sporadic, making them difficult to track.
Hannah Metcalf, however, is in no doubt about the cause of her ailments. The 35-year-old says she is so severely sensitive to electromagnetic waves that she cannot go near a phone or pick up a tablet device, such as an iPad.