Did "electromagnetic hypersensitivity" lead to the suicide of a teenage girl?

Blog topics seem to come in waves, where I’ll be stuck on more deeply examining a topic for days, only to have that topic dry up. Sometimes, you, my readers, make me aware of a topic. This is an example of the latter case. It’s something I had been debating about whether to blog about because I just wasn’t sure what to make of it, and it’s also a very, very depressing—even tragic—story. But the drip, drip, drip of people pointing me to the story reminded me that with great power comes great responsibility. (OK, with middling blog power comes a modicum of responsibility.) So I thought I’d try to address it. It’s a story that started popping up in the UK press last week and continued into this week about a 15 year old girl in Chadlington, Oxon named Jenny Fry, whose body was found hanging from a tree in June.

Any time a teen kills herself—or apparently kills herself, as the coroner testified and her mother believed that she might not have intended to kill herself—it is an enormous tragedy. Few know the pain that Jenny’s parents must have gone through—must still be going through. What makes this particular death unusual, be it suicide or the accidental death of a girl going too far in trying to send out a cry for help, is the reason being reported in the press for her despair. That reason? Take a look at some stories published over the last week or so about her death:

You get the idea. There is also a Facebook page RIP Jenny Fry that has been posting updates on the story.

All of these news stories more or less take at face value the claims of Jenny’s parents, Debra Fry and Charles Newman, that their daughter suffered from electrohypersensitivity (EHS) that manifested itself with various health problems that began three years before the girl’s tragic end. What brought her story to the fore again was an inquest held last week:

A schoolgirl was found dead in woodland after suffering an allergic reaction to her school’s WiFi that made her life a misery, an inquest heard.

The parents of 15-year-old Jenny Fry claim that she suffered from electro-hypersensitivity (EHS), which caused her to suffer tiredness, headaches and bladder problems.

Her mother Debra told the hearing that Jenny was badly affected by the wireless internet connections at Chipping Norton School in Oxfordshire, where she was a pupil.

After becoming increasingly distressed by her symptoms – which were never investigated by a doctor – the schoolgirl was found hanged in Brooke Woods, near her home in Chadlington, in June 11 this year.

Earlier in the day she had texted a friend telling her she was not going to school that day, the inquest heard.

Mrs Fry and her husband Charles Newman told Oxfordshire Coroners’ Court two weeks ago that they believed their daughter became ill because of WiFi, and had removed the internet connection from their own home.

They told today how she would often hide herself in empty classrooms and would only sit in certain seats in lessons so that she would be as far away from the router as possible, they said.

Speaking after the inquest, Mrs Fry said: WiFi and children do not mix. I believe that WiFi killed my daughter.’

Found with the girl was a note:

Jenny was found with a note in her diary and there was another saved on her laptop.

It read: “I have no hope for humanity; we are destroying this beautiful earth as we speak. I am insignificant, an insignificant number on someone’s screen and so is my life, a tiny blip in the whole existence of the universe. And I find it hard to be hopeful when I can hardly enjoy anything any more.”

The inquest also heard Jenny previously spoke of suicidal thoughts in November 2014 following the death of close friend Tom Boomer in March last year.

Mental health professionals will no doubt immediately recognize that this note sounds like something written by a profoundly depressed girl, particularly in light of her having exhibited suicidal ideation a year before her hanging, which implies that her depression had been going on for a while. Moreover, teen depression very frequently goes unrecognized by family and even physicians. Given this information, it’s hard not to think that Jenny Fry might very well have benefitted from psychiatric care, which could potentially have prevented this horrible end. After all, teens suffering from depression frequently complain of all manner of physical complaints very similar to what Jenny complained of, particularly severe headaches, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. It’s also strange that there’s no real medical record to determine whether Jenny suffered from depression versus something else, as her symptoms appear never to have been evaluated by a physician.

Be that as it may, this is a skeptic and medical blog, which means that I have to ask: Is there anything to the parents’ claims? I’ve discussed the claims of “electro-hypersensitivity” (frequently abbreviated as EHS) before as being at the very least highly implausible, particularly the focus on wifi. In the modern world, we are bathed in electromagnetic waves from many sources, not just wifi. There are radio waves, mobile phone radiation, electromagnetic waves from electrical appliances and computers themselves, and many, many other sources.

Before I discuss evidence, though, in cases like this, where several months have passed between death and inquest, I find it helpful to try to find original reports of when the death happened. Using the local newspaper, Cotswold Journal, it wasn’t too hard for me to find accounts of her funeral:

Curiously, neither article mentions the cause of death. One just reported that she “was found on Thursday June 11” and was “found deceased at the scene” with the death “being treated as unexplained but not suspicious,” while the other reported that she “had been found by her mother, Debbie, in woods in Mill End.” The only hint of suicide was in a report that the Reverend conducting her funeral “told the congregation of the shock and disbelief everyone had felt at the news and manner of Jenny’s death.” We forget the stigma that suicide still produces even today, and, here, in this small town newspaper, we see evidence of that stigma in the fact that the reports of her funeral do not even mention the manner of her death and instead only hint at it obliquely. There is no mention of EHS or suicide or anything else about the circumstances of Jenny’s death.

Reading the stories about Jenny Fry, I learned that in 2012 she started complaining of a variety of symptoms, including cripplingly severe headaches and fatigue, resulting in difficulty concentrating, as well as unspecified “bladder problems.” So how did Jenny and her parents come to the conclusion that it was wifi that was causing her symptoms? There’s no way of knowing for sure, but I can make a fairly educated guess. Humans, as we know, are pattern-seeking animals. Whenever a person starts suffering from unexplained symptoms, it is natural to try to figure out what’s causing those symptoms. Because our “pattern detectors” in our brains tend to be oversensitive and because we also suffer from confirmation bias, the phenomenon of remembering things that conform to what we’ve come to believe and to forget things that do not, it’s not hard to speculate that at some point Jenny or her parents heard about EHS and started looking for correlations with wifi exposure, perhaps consciously, perhaps even unconsciously. Then confirmation bias did the rest, with Jenny and her parents over time coming to see a correlation between the severity of Jenny’s symptoms and exposure to wifi.

There’s another issue before that I’ve discussed, and that has to do with the school. Note how the reports indicate that Jenny would get sick at school. If Jenny’s symptoms were related to stress at school, which they very well could have been, that would make sense. It would also make sense that her symptoms would be better at home. Wifi could just be the thing that the parents and this poor girl latched on to as the explanation for her illness at school. One notes that Jenny’s parents state that they removed the wifi from their home, but I couldn’t find any report of whether Jenny’s symptoms at home improved after that, although it wouldn’t surprise me if she did solely on the power of confirmation bias and suggestion. Moreover, removing wifi from the home doesn’t necessarily eliminate wifi signals. Whenever I need to log onto the wifi network, my computer detects wifi signals from several of the surrounding houses, some of them nearly as strong as my own wifi network signal. That’s not even counting all the other electromagnetic signals coming from TV, radio, computer equipment, appliances, and the electrical wiring of the whole house.

Claims otherwise and disappointingly credulous articles notwithstanding, EHS is not a real syndrome. It’s not as though there hasn’t been research on the issue, either. There have been enough studies that meta-analyses can be done, and the findings are consistent. Researchers have been unable to relate exposure to electromagnetic radiation to patients symptoms, and, most importantly, in double-blind studies “electro-sensitive” patients are unable to detect whether the offending radiation source has been turned on or not. Even the World Health Organization concludes:

In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. 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. However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research.

That “needs more research” bit is the same sort of hedge that Cochrane Reviews always include, even for highly improbable treatments. The bottom line is that, despite lots of research, no one has ever been able to convincingly show that (1) low energy electromagnetic radiation (as from wifi routers or cell phones) has any deleterious effects on health or (2) people claiming to be “electrosensitive” or “allergic to wifi” are able to tell when they are being exposed to wifi or cell phone signals that they believe to be the cause of their symptoms. The overwhelming evidence supports the conclusion that electromagnetic radiation of the sort produced by wifi routers does not cause health issues and that EHS is a psychosomatic disorder.

Let me be clear about one thing, though. Just like the case with Morgellon’s disease, just because EHS is psychosomatic does not mean that those suffering from EHS are not actually suffering. They are. I have no doubt that Jenny’s headaches, fatigue, and inability to concentrate were very real and very distressing. I have no doubt that she was suffering. What I question, based on existing evidence, is the parents’ conclusion that her symptoms were caused by radiation from wifi routers, because that evidence does not support the existence of EHS or and “allergy” to wifi. I realize that her parents can’t accept this now, but I hope that someday they will, because their campaign to remove wifi from public schools is not going to help anyone’s health but, if successful, will cause a great deal of inconvenience to teachers and students.

The story of Jenny Fry is unbelievably sad. No one with the least bit of humanity can help but feel great empathy and sympathy for Jenny’s parents and Jenny herself. However, no matter how badly I might feel over their loss and the very premature death of their 15 year old girl, I nonetheless feel obligated to point out that they are blaming the wrong thing. Wifi almost certainly did not kill Jenny Fry. It’s far more likely that depression did. Unfortunately, it’s easier to accept an external cause of her death than it is to accept an internal one.