Nonsense about the Health Effects of Electromagnetic Radiation

Helke Ferrie has written an article for The CCPA Monitor, a monthly journal published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, entitled “Dirty electricity, EMF radiation can be removed or reduced.” It is in the June 2012 issue, and is not available online. She calls herself a science writer, but this is not the writing of a person who understands science. There is hardly a word of truth in it. It’s a classic example of pseudoscientific propaganda, an appalling farrago of false statements and fallacious arguments. The nonsense starts with the very first sentence:

The symptoms of electropollution-induced sickness involve all organs with many debilitating symptoms, from skin rashes to cancer; they are part of the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) spectrum.

The diagnoses of “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and “multiple chemical sensitivity” are not recognized by the medical and scientific communities. Up to 5% of the population has come to attribute a large variety of nonspecific symptoms to non-ionizing electromagnetic fields from cell phones and other common electrical devices or to the chemicals in their environment. Their complaints have been thoroughly evaluated. Numerous studies and systematic reviews have been done; they are summarized in a Wikipedia article.  Just to give one example, a systematic review published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2006 analyzed 31 double blind studies comparing real radiation to sham radiation. Patients couldn’t tell the difference. 24 of the studies found no effect, 7 reported “some” supporting evidence (2 of which could not be replicated on subsequent trials by the same researchers), 3 were false positives attributed to statistical artefacts, and the final 2 had mutually incompatible results. They 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.

More recent reviews have confirmed these findings, and based on 25,000 articles published over the past 30 years, the World Health Organization concluded:

current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.

On his website, Brian Dunning recounted an anecdote where various people claimed a new cell tower was affecting their health — before it had even been turned on!

Patients who think they are suffering from EMF exposure are suffering, but not from EMF. The suffering is real, but the cause is not what they think, and treatments based on illusory causes are not likely to help except through placebo effects.

The second sentence of Ferrie’s article says:

In fact, Dr. William Rea, co-founder of the American Academy for Environmental Medicine (AAEM) became EMF-sensitive himself from the operating room lights when he was still a surgeon.

Dr. Rea’s belief that the lights were the cause of his symptoms is not supported by any credible evidence. His AAEM is a questionable organization targeted by Quackwatch and not recognized by the American Board of Specialties. His own practice involves unvalidated tests and treatment with “the electromagnetic imprint” of chemicals in the form of homeopathic remedies. The Texas medical board charged him with several counts including pseudoscientific test methods, failure to make accurate diagnoses, and nonsensical treatments.  He claims to have done research but his few published studies range from the seriously flawed to the uncontrolled and outright laughable.

I could go on to deconstruct every paragraph of Ferrie’s article, but I haven’t the patience to write it and you wouldn’t have the patience to read it. A few examples of her silliness will have to suffice:

  • “All the cells in your body are aligned North-South, but they can’t work properly if you sleep on a metal coil bed.”
  • “That microwave oven will radiate you within 9 feet, and wrecks the nutrients in your food.”
  • “The telephone’s sound-amplifying magnet kills off brain cells.”
  • “Energy efficient light bulbs radiate at carcinogenic levels.”
  • “Even if all appliances and lights are off, dirty electricity radiates through the house from the wiring in the walls, which also may be too close to water pipes, increasing conductivity.”
  • “Smart meters are as harmful as all the inappropriately wired gadgets in your entire house combined, because they also attack building materials.”
  • “EMF damage caused by technology separates us from the life-sustaining and healing electromagnetic field activity of Earth.”
  • “This invisible poison wrecks human brains, causes sperm to deteriorate, ovaries to malfunction, and fetuses to die. So there goes the human race…”

She is quick to criticize conventional medicine with the some of the same tired old complaints that have been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked.

  • It treats symptoms, not causes
  • Drugs only make the sick get sicker quicker
  • Doctors are not knowledgeable about EMF

Her solutions?

  • Don’t use cellphones
  • Don’t watch TV
  • Graham/Stetzer filters (plugged into outlets).
  • Shielding materials like metal plates, radiation-repellant paint and curtains.
  • Use low-radiation Apple computers, on batteries, and sit 4 feet away.
  • Monitor yourself with body voltage and gauss meters.
  • “Detoxify” with coffee enemas and supplements.
  • Eat organic food and consume freshly squeezed juices.
  • Use pulsed electromagnetic field therapy to promote healing by resonance with the Earth. You can buy “intelligent Magnetic-Resonance-Stimulation systems” for home use.
  • She calls for legislation to protect the public

Elsewhere she has demonstrated the most egregious cherry-picking, citing outdated and discredited studies and blithely ignoring all the evidence to the contrary. She says:

Living creatures are electrical beings able to function only within specific frequencies. [And those frequencies are…?]

She quotes unreliable sources like Devra Davis.  Lorne Trottier has written a blistering two-part rebuttal to Davis’ book Disconnect.

Ferrie says electromagnetic technology:

has the  power to obliterate life, phase out our biological future, and kill the brain.

She reports that the very day Graham/Stetzer filters were received by a school, a dairy farmer a quarter of a mile away noticed that his cows started producing ten pounds more milk a day because the dirty electricity was being removed from the ground currents.

Why is Ferrie spewing this arrant nonsense? She gives us some clues. She is a true believer whose vendetta began after a cell phone tower was erected one mile from her home. Over the next 2 months she developed headaches, eye pain, bleeding from one ear, and a cataract in one eye. In a classic application of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, she attributed her symptoms to the tower.  Anyone with a basic knowledge of physics should realize that the only way to get any significant EMF exposure from one of those towers is to climb it and spend a lot of time at the top.

She calls herself a science writer, but this is not science writing — it is a polemic designed to convert readers to a belief system. She clumsily tries to co-opt science to validate her preconceived opinions. A scientist knows that if you search hard enough you can find studies to support almost any belief. Scientists strive for an unbiased evaluation of all the scientific evidence to determine “if” something is true. Instead, Ferrie tries to “use” science to “prove” the truth of what she believes based on her misinterpreted personal experience. She searches for studies in a blatant exercise of confirmation bias and presents poorly digested, misunderstood, and even demonstrably false information to her readers.

This article is a travesty. It’s surprising to see it published in a respectable publication.


Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media

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