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Better Call Science: Can People Be Allergic to Electricity?

Better Call Science: Can People Be Allergic to Electricity?

Before Jimmy McGill can enter his brother Chuck’s house, he has to leave his phone, his car keys, and any other electronic devices in Chuck’s mailbox. The dark, lifeless property has been stripped of anything that can produce electromagnetic (EM) radiation – light bulbs, appliances, and whatever Jimmy could plug a dying phone into. The once robust lawyer of HHM needs this blackout because of his “condition.” But like any lawyer would respect, a look at the evidence changes his case.

In Better Call Saul, we get an intimate look at Chuck McGill’s electromagnetic sensitivity. In the presence of objects with an electric pulse, he feels nausea, generalized pain, and vertigo, among other symptoms. However, we also see that Chuck’s condition varies depending on Jimmy’s actions. This suggests that at least part of the condition is aggravated by stress. It might even be a manifestation of Chuck’s entirely.

In one scene in the middle of Saul’s first season, Chuck is brought into a hospital after having a “misunderstanding” with the police. He goes almost catatonic in the presence of the hospital’s radioactive output until Jimmy arrives and creates a blackout in his room. But as a “demonstration,” the doctor treating Chuck turns the electronically controlled bed he lays in back on while asking him about his condition. He doesn’t feel a thing.


The Science of Electromagnetic Sensitivity

There is a small but vocal minority of people around the world who claim extreme sensitivity to non-ionizing radiation – the kind of low-energy radiation that cell phones, radio towers, and microwaves put out, which don’t have the energy to rip electrons from atoms and molecules (ionizing radiation like gamma rays do). In response to this minority, councils have advocated for removing wi-fi and mobile phones from schools, watchdog organizations now offer detailed websites for people claiming to have Chuck’s condition, and EM-sensitives are flocking to the town without wi-fi, not to mention other anti-EM bans, protests, and caps-lock filled forums.

The outcry from people like Chuck hasn’t gone unnoticed, but it has been downplayed as the science has rolled in – there is no good evidence to suggest that the screen you read this on could suddenly hijack your nervous system.

Reviewing over 25,000 relevant scientific studies, the World Health Organization concluded:

Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields [emphasis mine].

Though it seems like a conclusion that sweeps over the personal experiences of a lot of people, it does at least make intuitive sense. Like widely used chemicals that are claimed to cause cancer or vaccines that are claimed to cause autism, if low-level EM radiation was really producing debilitating symptoms in people we would expect to see more of it…but we don’t. After all, try to think of a time where you weren’t exposed to any kind of radiation.

The scientific literature has also looked at the exact same situation that the doctor demonstrated with Chuck. Could people who claimed to be allergic to electricity tell when low-level EM radiation was present in a blinded experiment? In short, study participants couldn’t tell when there was radiation beaming right at them. A 2005 review of these blinded EM studies concluded:

The symptoms described by “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” sufferers can be severe and are sometimes disabling. However, it has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF can trigger these symptoms. This suggests that “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” is unrelated to the presence of EMF [emphasis mine], although more research into this phenomenon is required.

When the doctor treating Chuck demonstrates that his condition is a product of Chuck’s mind, it creates a brilliant tension in the show, but it also shows the bizarre nature of so-called “nocebo effects” and the power of suggestion.


The Power of (Negative) Belief

When someone tells you something is “all in your head,” it’s a dismissal, it’s a “you’re crazy” or “you’re making everything up.” But everything is in your head, more specifically the brain. Scientists have known for years that the connection between our bodies and our minds goes beyond critiquing body shape or fixating on an itchy elbow. Placebo effects – psychological and/or biological consequences of taking a placebo treatment (like a sugar pill or a sham asthma inhaler) – and their power in medicine are just starting to see a surge in research. These effects are usually thought of as positive (the “placebo response”), but still fall within the power of the mind to link random improvements to inert treatments.

“Nocebo effects” are the opposite. They are negative effects (expected or experienced) from some inert treatment or influence. When those effects are manifested under a common trigger, a patient may have a somatization disorder, where chronic, physical symptoms originate from an unknown source. The symptoms of somatization disorder range from pain to dizziness to nausea to headaches to heart palpitations. Sound familiar?

From what we can gather on EM-sensitivity, Chuck is experiencing a host of nocebo effects from the expectation of harm sources of radiation might cause him. And what is the source of his disorder? In a word, Jimmy.

Better Call Saul alludes to this throughout its first season, but when Jimmy is backsliding, Chuck’s condition deteriorates. When Jimmy is on the up-and-up, so is Chuck. It’s not just a plot device – somatization disorder is worsened by stress.

So maybe telling Chuck that Jimmy is “s’all good, man” wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Kyle Hill is the Science Editor at Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

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