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Power Lines and Cancer, Distant Healing and Health Care: Magnetism Misrepresented and Misunderstood

Article

Eugenie V. Mielczarek and Derek C. Araujo1

Volume 35.3, May/June 2011

The 1990s fear that background magnetic fields—hundreds of times weaker than Earth’s magnetic field—could cause cancer has been replaced. Twenty years later, advertisements by licensed hospitals claim that humans can be trained to emit and manipulate these same energies to initiate healing.

In the early 1990s, the New Yorker magazine published three articles by Paul Brodeur describing claims that background radiation from nearby power lines caused an outbreak of leukemia in children living in Denver, Colorado (Brodeur 1990a, 1990b, 1992).

In 2008, the Journal of Orthopaedic Research published a claim that therapeutic touch2 (TT) practitioners at the University of Connecticut Health Center were able to diminish the growth of human osteosarcoma (cancer) cells by using their hands to manipulate energy fields surrounding the cells (Jhaveri et al. 2008). The cell cultures over which the practitioners’ hands were placed were located in L-shaped rooms, implying that some undefined radiation pattern would not turn corners. That paper’s corresponding author is Gloria Gronowicz, professor of surgery at the University of Connecticut Health Care Center.

Ironically, the reasoning behind both of these claims was based on the presence of a magnetic field of about two milligauss. The source of the “harmful” two-milligauss field that allegedly caused the leukemia outbreak in Colorado was background radiation from power lines (Hafemeister 1996; Brodeur 1993). The “healing” field emitted from the hands of humans at the University of Connecticut was also alleged to be about two milligauss. But there was no indication that the building in which the experiments were conducted was shielded from background electromagnetic radiation.

Both claims concerning the effects of low-level magnetic fields were widely influential. Brodeur’s publications provoked a widespread fear of living near power lines, which became such a powerful urban legend that in 1991 Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to prepare a report on the issue. Possible Health Effects of Exposure to Residential Electric and Magnetic Fields was published by the NAS’s Committee on the Possible Effects of Electromagnetic Fields on Biologic Systems et al. in 1997.

Eleven years later, Jhaveri and coworkers’ Journal of Orthopaedic Research article concluded with the statement that “therapeutic touch … increased the growth of normal bone cells in culture dishes, but decreased the growth of bone cancer cells” (2008). References to the paper and quotes from it appeared on the websites of wellness clinics offering services in distant healing (also called TT, Reiki, or qigong). References to this and other publications by Gronowicz also appeared on the website of chiropractor Lynn Karew, who practices in Santa Monica, California: “We see that human touch has the capacity to affect even cell growth and thereby has a real healing potential. . . . The findings also give hope to many patients who suffer from abnormal cell growth—in particular cancer patients. By and large, energy medicine treatments, in particular therapeutic touch (TT), promise significant benefits for our bodies” (Karew, n.d.).

In a July 2008 interview, Hartford Courant reporter Hilary Waldman asked Gronowicz, “Should somebody with osteoporosis or a broken leg go to their Reiki practitioner?” Gronowicz replied, “We don’t know” (Waldman 2008).

“Harmful” Magnetic Fields

By the early 1990s, the international community’s panicked reaction to alleged harmful fields emanating from power lines reached such frenzied proportions that some communities sued to have power companies shield the lines and bury them (Thomley 1998; Hafemeister 1996; Committee et al. 1997). Opportunistic vendors peddled monitors of outdoor radiation exposure to worried citizens, and “some city regulations sought to constrain B fields [i.e., magnetic fields] to less than 2 milligauss” (Hafemeister 1996).

Yet scientific studies repeatedly demonstrated that concerns about the effect of extremely weak magnetic fields on human biology are unfounded. The final NAS report examining the potential health hazards of power lines presented a comprehensive study of the alleged dangers. Supporting documentation about background radiation from power lines included measurements by engineers, calculations by scientists, and a critique of epidemiological claims. After a detailed examination of the evidence, the NAS concluded that there is no credible basis for believing that two-milligauss fields are biologically harmful.

The report’s findings were grounded in multiple sources of corroborative evidence. In addition to a lack of confidence in the epidemiological studies, the notion that two-milligauss fields are harmful to cellular biology contradicts the most fundamental laws of physics, including the second law of thermodynamics—from which one calculates the thermal-noise level of a cell—and the laws that govern our understanding and use of electromagnetic radiation. Based on these laws, detailed calculations of the effect of extremely low-level magnetic fields on human cells were published in a series of articles by Robert Adair (Adair 1991, 1992, 1998) and William Bennett (Bennett 1994). The calculations demonstrated that any impact of such low-level fields would be trivial in comparison to the effects of background fields that naturally occur within human cells. For example: imagine yourself, reduced to the size of a molecule, sitting inside a cell. Here you will view electric charges colliding with molecules, creating fluctuations in the electric field. These fluctuations will produce thermal noise with the energy of about eight orders of magnitude, 108, greater than the energy associated with the external background electric field.

The NAS report concluded that there are no accepted theoretical mechanisms for affecting biological processes operating at magnetic fields of such a low level. “Thus even the most subtle of any field driven biological processes must arise from fields that are many orders of magnitude larger than even the fields used in MRI imaging.” Table 1 compares the energies of the magnetic fields produced by a variety of sources, including Earth’s magnetic field, fields occurring in the background environment, and fields produced by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment. The allegedly harmful fields produced by power lines are multiple orders of magnitude weaker than each of these fields.

Table 1. Comparison of Energies Associated with the Living State
*1kT = Boltzmann's constant × nominal body temperature = 0.025 electron volt (eV)
Thermal noise levelA human cell1 kT*
LightA photon of green light120 kT
BiochemistryOxidation of a glucose molecule1,159 kT
Alleged “healing” magnetic field2 milligauss at molecular scale10-15 kT

Thus, the NAS report ruled out carcinogenic effects of living under power lines because thermal-noise fields are far larger than the background fields from power lines. No adverse health effects could be attributed to these low-level fields. Any biological mechanisms that would initiate cancer must start at the cellular level, and these mechanisms can operate only within the laws of physics. The politically driven fears of carcinogenic mechanisms arising from low-level magnetic fields lost all scientific credibility.

“Healing” Magnetic Fields

In contrast to the New Yorker articles that instigated fears about harmful magnetic fields, corresponding author Gronowicz’s (Jhaveri et al. 2008) research on the alleged healing fields produced by TT practitioners appeared to build upon previous scientific studies. Gronowicz’s research citations for healing fields rest on a paper by John Zimmerman (1999), “Laying-on-of-Hands and Therapeutic Touch: A Testable Theory,” in the Journal of the Bio-Electro-Magnetics Institute (BEMI). Repeated attempts to locate this paper and the journal in which it appeared, however, have proved futile.3

Although citations of the Zimmerman paper appear in a number of articles on distant healing, the paper itself appears to have vanished. Gronowicz’s (Jhaveri et al. 2008) research had been funded by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). It was therefore unsurprising that the Zimmerman paper was also cited on the NCCAM informational website in their overview on energy medicine. Librarians at neither George Mason University nor the NIH, however, were able to locate the journal. A web search for its author, John Zimmerman, a sleep psychologist, led to the reference “Earthing and Earth Fx Products: A Summary of Research and Development 2/10/06” and a citation of an article published in the Brain/Mind Bulletin on September 30, 1985 (volume 10, issue 2). The Earth Fx Products websites (Earthing 2006a, 2006b) advertise a “research company focused on the development of the health sciences and products for biological grounding.”

The librarians’ quest was fruitless in finding the BEMI journal, but it turned up a footnote in the January 1997 Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies that directed readers to contact Zimmerman directly for his article on TT. It appears Zimmerman’s paper was privately published but somehow found its way into citations within complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) journals. In an effort to locate Zimmermann, one of this article’s authors (Eugenie Mielczarek) contacted Zimmermann’s colleagues at his last professional address, but they were not able to confirm his whereabouts.

The legend of the salubrious effects of biomagnetic fields finds its source in Dolores Krieger, a nurse who was inspired by a nun who claimed that her healing properties depended on manipulating the energy field surrounding the body with a set of specialized hand movements (Kreiger 1975). This energy field arises from natural processes such as blood flow and electrical activity of the heart, and it measures about 0.004 milligauss (Hobbie and Roth 2007). A field of this strength is incredibly weak: three orders of magnitude less than background radiation, four orders of magnitude less than environmental background radiation, and an incredible eight orders of magnitude less than Earth’s magnetic field (see table 2).

Table 2. Common Magnetic-Field Values
*One milligauss equals one thousandth of a gauss.
MRI, magnetic resonance imaging; TT, therapeutic touch.
Field generated by human body0.004 (range) milligauss*
Alleged harmful fields produced by power lines2–4 milligauss
Alleged healing field produced by TT practitioners2–4 milligauss
Environmental background20–1,000 milligauss
Human walking in Earth's magnetic field40 milligauss
Earth's magnetic field500 milligauss
Commercial alleged "healing" magnets300,000 milligauss
MRI medical image200,000,000 milligauss

Krieger’s sensational claim was amplified by the nursing community after she described touch as the “imprimatur of nursing” in her original article on TT (Krieger 1975). In the American nursing community, distant-healing protocols such as TT, Reiki, and qigong are based on a set of hand motions performed above the patient’s body that supposedly release positive healing energy. A video showing these motions being used in the emergency room of the University of Maryland Baltimore Shock Trauma Center can be seen on the web (Donnell 2010).

Curiously, “negative energy” is never defined, leaving unanswered the question, “What happens if the proscribed liturgy for healing is not followed or errors are made?” Jack Hitt, a journalist writing in the New York Times Magazine (2009), partly answered this question. Hitt describes the distant-healing culture in Serbia. Serbian protocol for distant healing can include props, such as antennas that can allegedly be tuned to help or harm at social distances. At least within the Serbian distant-healing culture, then, it is thought that the allegedly healing magnetic field may also be used to cause harm.

The scientific community has paid scant attention to Krieger’s claims. She was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize (the quasi-parody award) in 1998 (Improbable Research, n.d.). Until publication in the Journal of Orthopaedic Research, a peer-reviewed medical journal, claims for the success of this protocol were limited to CAM journals. Thus, claims for distant healing initiated by fields emitted from the hands of TT practitioners largely flew under the radar of the physics community.

“Healing” Magnets Meet the NIH

As the debate over the harmful effects of the magnetic fields surrounding power lines was winding down, science reporters at major newspapers (Brody 2000) were popularizing claims—of physicians writing in the medical literature—of magnetic relief of joint pain and neurologic symptoms (Vallbonna and Richards 1999). Small 300-gauss magnets began to appear on the shelves of drug stores. Mattress pads equipped with magnets were being marketed. A grant awarded by NCCAM resulted in a publication in a CAM journal touting the benefits of healing magnets (Alfano et al. 2001). The study of the power lines was forgotten; magically, the low-field magnets were marketed as curative. Purveyors of the products advertise on the web to this day.

Some purveyors’ rationales for the magnetic-therapy claims were ludicrous. Eugenie Mielczarek, one of the authors of this article, attended one sales pitch in which the sellers claimed their mattress magnets were superior because they incorporated only north poles. Sadly, during this time, friends who were recovering from breast cancer consulted her—hoping for confirmation that their magnetic bracelets would relieve the buildup of postoperative fluid in their breasts and underarms. Mielczarek’s podiatrist seriously asked her if wearing magnetic shoe inserts would improve his golf game, and a friend with diabetes attended a hospital clinic in Pennsylvania at which a purveyor of healing magnets was a speaker. In 2007, a lawsuit against advertisers of these products, brought by the National Council Against Health Fraud, was successfully settled. Mielczarek was one of the persons who agreed to appear as an expert witness if needed. The Federal Trade Commission also threatened to prosecute purveyors who claimed healthful benefits of these products.

The NIH’s NCCAM lends a false air of respectability to CAM protocols. NCCAM’s influence has penetrated the medical education system, lending false respectability to “integrative medicine” courses in medical curricula and programs at hospitals and clinics at esteemed medical institutions.4 Donald Marcus and Laurence McCullough (2009), professors of bioethics and medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, evaluated the CAM education grants awarded by the NIH to schools of medicine. They concluded that “these . . . curricula . . . fail to meet the generally accepted standards of evidence-based medicine. By tolerating this situation, health professions schools are not meeting their educational and ethical obligations to learners, patients, or society” (Marcus and McCullough 2009).

In addition, NCCAM’s promotion of questionable CAM extends beyond the medical community to the public at large. NCCAM maintains a website meant to inform the public about the validity of CAM treatments. The website leaves the mistaken impression that biochemistry and biological physics are undeveloped fields of inquiry. Misleading qualifiers are used to maintain a false level of uncertainty regarding the legitimacy of disproven treatments and techniques. For example, the NCCAM website tutorial “Magnets for Pain” (NCCAM, n.d.) states that “mechanisms by which magnets might affect the human body are not yet known”; “scientific researchers and magnet manufacturers propose that magnets might work by . . . changing nerve cell functions, balanc[ing] cell death and growth, increas[ing] blood flow and delivery of oxygen, and increas[ing] the temperature of the body.” Nowhere in NCCAM’s (n.d.) “Backgrounder: Reiki; An Introduction” tutorial is there any mention of the scientific calculations that settled the controversy over “damaging” magnetic fields emitted from power lines. Nor is there any mention that the chemical reactions responsible for these changes in nerve-cell functions, balances in cell populations, and increases in blood flow cannot be initiated by magnetic fields of 300 to 5,000 gauss. Sadly and frustratingly, the publications and well-established conclusions of scientists are ignored.

Is this true ignorance or mere pretense? Does the glaring omission of a large body of highly relevant scientific information reflect true ignorance on the part of the NIH, or does it reflect the political influence of alternative-medicine purveyors and their allies, who seek to maintain government funding for mythological, non-science-based protocols through NCCAM?

The Future of U.S. Medicine

If it is true ignorance that drives NCCAM’s disregard for relevant scientific research, then our medical structure is in serious disarray. If the director of the NIH and the secretary of Health and Human Services cannot recognize this ignorance, the foundations of the nation’s health care system and its fiscal integrity are under threat. Over the past decade, the U.S. government has wasted billions of dollars examining non-evidence-based treatments that have no grounding in the scientific method or in our understanding of basic scientific facts. The rise in government spending on junk medical science was largely brought about through the efforts of Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. As the Senate’s most devoted champion of CAM, Harkin helped dramatically increase NCCAM’s annual budget (Atwood 2003), which now stands at a staggering $128.8 million. Most recently, Senator Harkin secured still more government funding perpetuating CAM by introducing language in health care reform legislation requiring insurers to cover any state-licensed health care providers—including CAM practitioners. A version of Senator Harkin’s provision prohibiting “discrimination” against any state-licensed practitioners survived in the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act (2010) that President Obama signed into law on March 23, 2010.

If the scientific and fiscal integrity of our health care system is to be salvaged, this ill-advised course must be reversed. Federal funding of NCCAM and of CAM practitioners under the health care reform act should be redirected toward proven and effective medical treatments and techniques. State governments face an urgent challenge in attempting to make quality health care available to those who need it, while simultaneously reining in the ballooning cost of medical care. To squander our scarce resources on alleged treatments that have no basis in scientific knowledge or experience is an act of gross irresponsibility. Our political leaders owe it to the scientific community, to health care consumers, and to taxpayers to ensure that all government-funded health care is grounded in science-based medical treatment.

Acknowledgements

The authors wish to acknowledge the excellent help from librarians, students, and faculty at George Mason University. However, the views expressed here are solely those of the authors.

Notes

1. Recent publications relating to this subject by the authors include:

Eugenie Mielczarek. 2010. Magnetic fields, health care, alternative medicine and physics. Forum on Physics and Society Newsletter (April). Available online at www.aps.org/units/fps/newsletters/201004/index.cfm.

Eugenie Mielczarek and Derek Araujo. 2009. A fracture in our health care: Paying for non-evidence based medicine (September 28). Available online at www.centerforinquiry.net/uploads/attachments/A_Fracture_in_our_Health_Care_­Paying_for_Non-Evidence_Based_Medicine.pdf.

Eugenie Mielczarek. Fields, alternative medicine and physics. Available online at www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?cat=11.

2. Previous articles examining TT include:

Robert Glickman and Ed J. Gracely. 1998. Therapeutic touch: Investigation of a practitioner. The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine 2(1): 43–47.

Bela Scheiber. 1997. Therapeutic touch: Evaluating the ‘growing body of evidence’ claim. The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine 1(1): 13–15.

George Ulett. 1997. Therapeutic touch: Tracing back to Mesmer. The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine 1(1): 16–18.

3. In private communication with Harriet Hall, MD, (Hall 2009), the authors discovered that Hall’s similar efforts to locate the BEMI paper by Zimmermann also failed.

4. Examples of institutions that give false respectability to integrative medicine courses:

Brigham and Women’s Hospital (affiliated with Harvard University). www.brighamandwomens.org/Departments_and_Services/medicine/Services/oshercenter

Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/departments/integrativemedicine/default.aspx

Scripps Institute. www.scripps.org/services/integrative-medicine

University of Michigan. http://www.med.umich.edu/umim

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Eugenie V. Mielczarek and Derek C. Araujo1

Eugenie V. Mielczarek is emeritus professor of physics at George Mason University. Her publications include Iron, Nature’s Universal Element (Rutgers University Press, 2000). In 2009, she was recognized by the Washington Academy of Sciences for distinguished research in biological physics.

Derek C. Araujo was the vice president and general counsel of the Center for Inquiry and director of CFI’s legal programs. He holds an AB in physics from Harvard College and a JD from Harvard Law School.