Symptoms not 'all in the head'

Can the judiciary grasp the biophysychosocial model?

In this address, presented to the 6th NZ Health Psychology Conference in February 1999, Dr Ivan Beale argues that courts have an obligation to consider the adverse psychosocial impacts of potential environmental risks - such as electromagnetic radiation.

To date courts, governments and industry have considered only physical and medical impacts of EMR on individuals concerned about exposure to fields from phone towers or powerlines. “People’s beliefs that their health could be adversely affected by electromagnetic fields have been judged to be irrationally based and not admissible as evidence of an adverse effect.” Moreover, such “psychological fear” has not been considered in decisions about the siting of transmitters or powerlines.

However, according to Beale, psychological fears do impact on people’s health. An analysis of several studies - the Schwarzenburg studies and Beale’s Auckland powerline study - showed that some people experience genuine symptoms of illhealth as a result of their “fears and expectations”. The psychological factors that contribute to adverse symptoms are (i) “belief about whether the activity can affect health; and (ii) knowledge about whether or not one is exposed to the agent.”

“There is abundant research showing psychological stress in people chronically exposed to uncertain environmental risk” whether or not that risk is real. And stress is known to produce symptoms such as “changes in blood and urine chemistry, changes in cardiovascular reactivity, muscle potential, skin conductance and sleep pattern.” Moreover, stress can lead to reduced immunity, depression and anxiety.

“What all this illustrates is that mental and physical health problems do not require the actual occurrence of exposure, only the existence of an unacceptable threat. When exposure is invisible, as is the case with electromagnetic fields, the mere possibility of exposure is threat enough to produce fear.”

“The psychological evidence is that the presence of fear indicates the likely occurrence of adverse health effects, both physical and mental. These effects may be influenced by psychological factors, but they are real and physical and not ‘all in the head’.”

EMRAA News Sept 2001, Vol 6 No 3