Insomnia and Asthma

The Harvard Medical School conducts the America Insomnia Survey. The Survey’s purpose is to identify the prevalence and causes of sleep disruption. According to Survey researchers, one quarter of the people in the study experience some form of sleep disruption that is serious enough to affect their work life. The researchers estimate that the economic effect of these disruptions amounts to $63 billion.

That estimate leaves aside the direct and indirect health costs. Direct costs include treatments—pharmaceutical and otherwise—to restore normal sleep patterns. Indirect costs include the treatment of stress-related illnesses caused or made worse by sleep problems. And, ignoring dollars and cents, there are the effects on quality of life.

Sleep disruption is principally the result of environmental causes such as noise pollution, light pollution, psychosocial stressors, chemical stressors, and shift work. It’s a growing problem, not least because most of the people who suffer (four out of five) accept their impairment as normal or, even though they recognize the problem, never seek a solution—which for these researchers means that they never go to see a doctor about it.

It will not surprise you to learn that funding for the America Insomnia Survey comes from two pharmaceutical companies. Harvard Medical School assures us that they had nothing to do with the design of the studies. I believe them. The drug companies don’t have to cook that particular set of books: the Survey is only the last in a long line of research about the declining quality of sleep. That it’s housed at a medical school really tells us all we need to know about where solutions will be sought. I don’t necessarily mean drugs, although it’s happy news for the drug companies and certainly a good reason for them to cough up the funding. More broadly, the solutions are therapeutic ones: they’re about treatment, not prevention. The message from the Survey is clear: this is a huge, unacknowledged problem that calls for people to get treatment, which means, “Go to a doctor.”

And it’s going to get worse. In a recent study, people exposed to a newly constructed cell tower experienced significant increases in the level of stress hormones and decreases in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which plays a significant role in a wide variety of neurological functions affecting thinking, mood, and motivation. The microwave exposure was well within legal standards—so this was a normal level of exposure, a level that most of us experience most of the time. During the study, there was a significant increase in the number of people who experienced sleep disruption, headaches, diminished ability to concentrate, and allergies.

The significance reinforces much of what is already known, namely that exposure to wireless technologies affect the nervous system and immune system. In addition to linking sleep disruption to wireless exposures, asthma has also been linked to it. Asthma, I’m sure you know, is, like sleep disruption, very much on the rise.

If one of the people from the Survey had gone to his or her doctor and reported their symptoms, would one of the treatments have been to turn off their wireless router or cell phone or otherwise reduce their exposure to radiofrequency radiation? No, because medical advise to make environmental changes is rare. In addition, reducing exposures to wireless technology aren’t even on the list environmental causes.

There are two structural reasons for this.

The first is that health care practitioners are not able to do anything effective about the environmental causes of illness and injury. By temperament, training, and institutional structure, health care is about medical care, which focuses on diagnosis and treatment, not environmental change.

The second is that there is a deeply established bias in scientific institutions (and thus in the scientific literature and the mainstream media) against associating wireless technologies with illness and injury. This bias is a species of another bias that is mistakenly characterized as a religious devotion to technology.

The mistake is that the thing—wireless technology—is thought to have animated powers of its own. The actual power is not in the thing but in the social control that puts it to use. Currently, wireless technologies solve certain engineering and financial problems. Investing wireless technology with the power to benefit or harm its users and those exposed to it diverts our attention away from who decides that only engineering and financial problems are relevant or that only certain scientific results count.

Technology fetishes like this are everywhere. This is not a weakness in our psychology. It is a strength possessed by our rulers. As the Wizard of Oz told Dorothy, “Pay no attention to that man behind the current.” In our case, our wizards have been wildly successful at keeping the curtain closed.

Wireless technologies are not spreading like locusts. People, actual human beings have made and continue to make decisions that spread wireless technologies like sowers casting seed on a field from which a diverse crop will grow. The sowers will harvest money and social control. The harvest will include many, many sick people.

As the number of sick people grows, they will turn to their health care providers where they will be treated with substances and technologies made into fetishes with the power to heal sickness that ought not to have occurred in the first place. And those technologies will be seeds to another harvest of money and social control.

All of which turns our attention away from stopping the sowers.