REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

We have a wide range of acronyms to cover this month, from EMF to FMS to OAM. So let's get to it!

Are EMFs Dangerous?

Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from power lines and household appliances have been the subject of a great deal of debate and speculation ever since researchers reported a study showing that children living close to high-voltage power lines in Denver had a higher rate of leukemia than could be accounted for by other factors (1979). While there were numerous other studies, EMFs didn't make it to the "big time" until the late 1980s or early ‘90s, when various news shows picked up on the debate.

Science (11/8) reports that a National Research Council (NRC) panel, which conducted an extensive 3-year study, concluded that there is "no conclusive and consistent evidence" that the EMFs cause cancer, neurobehavioral problems, or reproductive and developmental disorders at normal exposure levels. This report was commissioned by the Department of Energy at Congress's request.

The panel did agree that very high doses of EMFs can have biological effects, such as disruption of chemical signaling between cells (in cultures), inhibition of melatonin production (in animals), and the promotion of bone healing (also in animals). But none of these effects were found at levels equivalent to those found in a home.

The committee found that epidemiological studies which supposedly linked EMFs to adult cancer and other health problems were not persuasive.

They did investigate the leukemia studies and did, indeed, find that there was a 1.5-fold increase in cancer rates in homes with a high "wire code" (estimate of household EMFs based on the distance to the power lines). However, they also found that the wire code predictions were not good indicators of the actual fields in the homes, and that there was actually no correlation between the true EMF measurements from the home and childhood leukemia. This suggests that some other factor may be at work, such as air pollution (high wire code homes apparently tend to be on streets with high traffic). For now, the actual cause of the increased risk remains unknown, but the report concluded that "The current body of evidence does not show that exposure to these fields presents a human-health hazard."

Some researchers have found the report too dismissive, and, indeed, three of the 16 members of the panel released a separate statement saying that, although they signed off on the panel's report, they wanted to point out that effects from environmental EMFs "cannot be totally discounted" and they called for more research.

So, do EMFs cause health problems or not? Right now, this report certainly seems to suggest they do not, at least at a detectable level. But as the chair of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health was quoted as saying, "It's one thing to say, ‘Not guilty,' and another to say, ‘Innocent.'" He added that the issue of residential EMFs "will never go away."

Indeed, it may never go away, but I do want to hold out hope that any media covering it from now on will stick to the facts rather than the sensationalism that has tended to characterize what should be a solid scientific debate.

False Memory Suit Settled

The State Journal-Register (11/16) reported the settlement of a Springfield, Missouri, false memory lawsuit. Yes, these cases are still out there; they just haven't been reported as frequently as before (although the show Turning Point featured an FMS case, which I'll discuss next month).

This one stands out as a classic example of evidence finally triumphing over false accusations. Briefly, Beth Rutherford had some problems sleeping and went to see Donna Strand, a church counselor. Over the time of her sessions, as has so often happened, a simple problem took on new supposed meaning with guidance from Strand. Rutherford "remembered" her father raping her repeatedly, giving her a clothes-hanger abortion, etc. Strand informed the church (where Rutherford's father was a minister) and they forced him to resign. His world collapsed around him.

But what the elder Rutherford hadn't told the church was that he had had a vasectomy when his daughter was 4, and there was no way he could have impregnated her (I would have told them right then and there, but he said he was so outraged that he wanted to preserve some dignity). After they got Beth away from the counselor, and she underwent a gynecological exam showing that she was still a virgin, she realized that she had been the victim of false memories. She recanted fully.

The Rutherfords settled a defamation and malpractice lawsuit for $1 million against Strand, which they plan to use to travel the country and warn others about the dangers of recovered memory therapy. Unfortunately, the terms of the settlement didn't require Strand to admit any wrongdoing.

The facts here showed that the supposed memories could not have been true. Unfortunately, not all cases of false accusations and false memories are solved so easily (though I doubt it seemed "easy" to the Rutherfords).

OAM, Oh My!

The Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), under the National Institutes of Health, has a new director (well, he's actually been there for over a year). As I reported in an earlier "REALLity Check," the former head of the OAM resigned almost two years ago because he was being annoyed by congressmen pushing their pet projects and also because of an OAM advisory council that included people advocating unproven "cures" for cancer.

From a profile in Scientific American (October 1996), it doesn't look like the latter will be a problem for the new director, as he pushes unproven "cures" himself. In fact, when he was in medical school, he was asked to repeat a rotation after he suggested a homeopathic remedy for a patient with severe antibiotic-resistant pneumonia!

Wayne B. Jonas is the new head of the OAM, with a budget that was just increased by Congress to $11.1 million. While he is a doctor and spent a year at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, he also co-authored a book, Healing with Homeopathy: The Complete Guide, which the profile's author notes "exudes an emotional depth and passion for alternative medicine."

He is supposed to get the agency on track to run a scientific research program, but the profile noted that it is unclear "whether Jonas can reconcile his commitment to running a serious research program with his personal beliefs in the merits of alternative medicine." Indeed, when he didn't like some of the questions being asked by the author, the OAM's press officer called Scientific American to ask that another writer be assigned to the story.

In his book, he did say that homeopathic effects might be due to the placebo effect. But then he also says that it might work because a patient's "unhealthy" electric field transfers to the remedy through the coupling of "biophotons." Huh? Robert Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland, describes the OAM by saying "ancient religious practices are being dressed up with New Age technobabble." That sounds about right to me, too.

What about Jonas's stint at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research? Didn't that teach him the proper way to do a scientific study? Well, the former supervisor where he worked said, "One year in a laboratory does not a researcher make." In addition, that supervisor and another manager at Walter Reed refused to put their names on a study that he tried to have published about a homeopathic preparation that supposedly gave immunelike protective effects in mice. The paper was rejected by three immunology journals.

The profile does note that nobody doubts Jonas's motivation. He does want to heal people, but seems to be blinded by "nostalgia for a more compassionate interaction between physician and patient," according to the profile. Indeed, this is frequently seen in alternative medicine proponents. Maybe medicine does need to be "humanized" a bit more these days. But, as the profile notes as its parting words, "whether Jonas and the OAM with be able to humanize medicine by conducting studies on vanishingly dilute solutions of elemental sulfur, poison ivy and bushmaster snake is far less certain."

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