Chapter 7. EMFs
I continued to think about whether electromagnetic fields (EMFs) could affect bone cells. “How could such a thing happen?” one antagonist asked me rhetorically, as if my having no answer vindicated his skepticism concerning whether it could happen. He was making the same mistake I had made when I talked with Dr. Becker about TV signals and cancer.
I attended a lecture by Richard Feynman, who had earned worldwide fame as a great teacher of physics. I was entranced from the moment he started talking. He was funny and self-effacing, and full of amazing insights that he revealed in little conversations with himself. “Why doesn’t the earth fly off into space? Because the gravity of the sun holds it. Are there little ropes between the earth and the sun tying them together? Where is the machinery of this force? Nobody knows. It’s a mystery.” What an amazing thing for him to say! He had won a Nobel Prize, yet he admitted that he couldn’t give a better answer than my mother.
He told a story about a child who throws a pebble into a pond and watches the water waves ripple outward. “When he tosses two pebbles in at the same time the waves begin at different points and then spread and begin interacting with one another. A little man who happens to be exactly at the place where the waves come together would bob up and down, but he wouldn’t know how much of the bobbing was caused by one wave or the other. He wouldn’t bob up and down twice, only once in response to the sum of the two disturbances at the instant they came together. It would be the same story regardless of how many stones the child threw. The little man would still bob only once in any particular instant, in response to the resultant of the interacting waves. He couldn’t pick out just one wave and respond to it alone. Our eye is in the same kind of a position as the little man, only it’s much smarter. Every second there are millions and millions of EMFs that are going through it from every direction. And from all of these EMFs it picks out just a few, and we say ‘I can see.’ Isn’t that a remarkable and mysterious thing?”
I realized, for the first time, that even though the stories for some phenomena were better than the stories for other phenomena, the truth was that we really didn’t know the “how” of anything.
I began searching for published reports about the effects of EMFs on animals or people, and I came across the work of a biology professor at Northwestern University named Frank Brown. He had put worms on an inclined board and observed whether they went to the left or the right after they crawled off. When he had placed a magnet on one side, more worms would turn in that direction.
“Why did you do those experiments?” I asked.
“I just wanted to see what would happen,” he said. “In the wild they can’t see or hear their food, and yet they find it. I thought they might use the earth’s magnetic field as an aid.”
“How has your research been received?” I asked.
“Not too well,” he said. “I use a wooden board, two bricks at the back corners to elevate it, a magnet I bought at the dime store, a stopwatch, and my eyes to count. I don’t have grand equipment, so I guess the work doesn’t look scientific.”
Even so, he was doing what interested him, and he seemed happy.
Brown had been the editor for the English edition of a book called Electromagnetic Fields and Life, written by a Russian physicist named Aleksander Presman. Brown told me that the topic had been studied intensely in Russia for a long time.
“Why do you think there have been so few reports of EMF effects published in the United States?” I asked.
“Probably because it just wasn’t a fashionable subject here,” he said.
Presman’s book was marvelous; his references were mostly to articles in Russian so I couldn’t read them, but the book still made sense to me. He said there were three kinds of electromagnetic phenomena. EMFs in the environment affected the metabolism and behavior of all living organisms. The environmental EMFs could be natural in origin, like the earth’s magnetic field or electrical changes caused by the weather, and they could come from man-made sources like radio, radar, and powerlines. Second, there were natural EMFs within organisms that conferred life and mediated the processes of life such as growth and healing. Third, EMFs could function as a vehicle of communication between living organisms. Presman’s book was almost poetry. I had never imagined that a physicist could achieve such a biological synthesis.
He must have recognized that there was resistance to the idea that EMFs were biologically active, because he wrote: “Physicists have concluded that weak EMFs are incapable of producing biological effects.” But I guessed he too couldn’t get a handle on exactly why they believed that, because he did not try to analyze their viewpoint. Instead he described the results of experiments that showed effects of different kinds of EMFs on animals and people. That was the sensible thing to do, I thought. If EMFs could affect cells in animals and people, then there had to be an equation that was the governing law, and there had to be a plausible story about how the EMF brought about the effect. Those things could be considered later, after everyone agreed there was something real to be studied.
In my original EMF experiment the yoked rats had struggled incessantly, so in my next experiment I decided to apply the EMF from outside the cages, to permit the rats free movement. I knew they had no conscious sensation of the field because they never visibly reacted when I turned it off or on.
To determine whether the field would make bones heal faster, I fractured one femur in each rat, casted each fractured limb, and put half the rats in cages that had an EMF and the others in cages that didn’t. I had planned to recover the bones after three weeks and measure how much force it took to break them, expecting that more force would indicate the presence of more bone which would indicate more healing. Dr. Becker didn’t like the experiment. He said that exposing the entire rat to an EMF might not be the same as treating only a limb. I didn’t see how that would make any difference, and said so, at which point I got a lecture about how a systemically applied EMF might affect the brain and lead to serious consequences, maybe even opposite to those that I hoped to produce in the bones. He suggested I talk to Howard Friedman, the Chief of Psychology in the hospital.
Friedman told me about an experiment in which he and Dr. Becker had studied the relationship between the earth’s magnetic field and admissions to psychiatric hospitals. They had compared changes in admissions rates with changes that occurred in the earth’s field and found that when the field got stronger, the number of admissions rose. To test whether the association was causal, Friedman had exposed rabbits to EMFs and then examined their brains.
At first he got very excited, he said, because he found pathological changes in the brains of rabbits that had been exposed to EMFs. But then he found the same kind of pathology in the brains of the control rabbits. He was about ready to conclude that the EMFs had no relationship to the brain pathology when he realized that the brain changes were more frequent and more severe in the field-exposed group.
“I remembered reading about stress research,” he said, “and that led to what I think is a good explanation of my results.” He said that a virus lived in the brains of rabbits of the strain he used. The virus was normally kept under control by the rabbit’s immune system, but when the rabbit was stressed the virus could multiply and cause damage. That was his explanation for why brain lesions occurred, and for why they were more common and more serious in the rabbits exposed to the EMFs. His story gave me a new perspective on the meaning of saying something “caused” disease.
Dr. Becker thought a similar thing might happen to my rats, and that I would wind up with sick animals from the stress caused by the EMF. I went ahead with the experiment anyway, and ran into terrific problems, although not the kind Dr. Becker had supposed. Sometimes the cast fell off because it was too loose; when that happened the broken limbs healed in grotesque positions. Other times the limb became necrotic because the cast was too tight. Sometimes urine and feces got under the cast, leading to infections. I didn’t learn anything about EMFs, except that studying their effects on animals wasn’t easy. “There ought to be a law against physicists doing experiments with animals,” one of the people who took care of the rats said to me.
Someone who understood my goal and my limitations suggested, “Why not just weigh the rats and see if there’s any difference after they live in the EMF for a while?” The basic idea, that if I put young rats in a field the skeleton might grow bigger so the rats would weigh more, sounded reasonable to me. I bought some rats, put half in cages that had an EMF, and the others in cages that didn’t. Ten days after the experiment began, a graduate student who worked for me said, “Something is happening to the rats. Their eyes look swollen.”
Dr. Becker thought the rats might have gotten an infection, but a veterinary ophthalmologist who examined them said the problem was not infection but rather “secondary glaucoma.” After a month of exposure to the EMF, 17% of the rats had developed secondary glaucoma, whereas none of the control rats did. The condition occurred only in the right eye, which struck me as even more bizarre than the fact that the condition had occurred. Unfortunately, the average weights of the two groups were identical, so I had no evidence that EMFs affected bone growth. But I did have evidence that the EMF affected the eyes of the rats. That certainly wasn’t what I had wanted, but that’s what I got.
In principle, the rats could have had bad eyes when I bought them, and the EMF might not have had anything to do with why they got big. But I had assigned the rats randomly to the EMF or control group, and the odds that all those with bad eyes would wind up in the EMF group by chance were astronomical. Another possibility was that something I didn’t know about was responsible. But what? The most likely scenario, I thought, was that the EMF made some atoms somewhere in some cell in the rat wiggle differently, and that set up a series of reactions governed by some unknown equation, and secondary glaucoma was the result.
“It’s too bad the experiment didn’t work out,” someone said, but I thought to myself, “Well, in a sense, it did work out. EMFs didn’t make the bones grow faster, but the EMFs did affect cells in the rat.” What I had hoped would happen was just a matter of my personal desire. Whatever the EMF was going to do, it would do irrespective of what I wanted. The fact that the EMF did something other than what I wanted didn’t make the result any less real. And if it was real, that was a new thing. The new thing was that EMFs could affect cells. Who knew where that could lead?
There were at least two different ways that I could look at my discovery. Maybe the EMF affected only atoms in cells that manifest glaucoma, or maybe it affected atoms in other cells leading to other effects that I didn’t know about because I didn’t study them, and the glaucoma developed as a consequence of the initial effects. I had no idea, then, which view was better.
I decided to do another experiment and measure something different. The anatomist who had helped me with the BHT experiment had an experimental model of cancer in which he could inject cancer cells into a mouse and they would multiply and kill the mouse in 2–3 weeks. Some of the cancer cells had defective chromosomes, and the number of such cells could increase or decrease depending on the kind of drug or other treatment the mouse received. We injected the cancer cells into mice, and when we analyzed the cells two weeks later 20% of those from mice that were treated with an EMF had defective chromosomes, compared with only 5% of the cells from mice that weren’t exposed to the field.
I got excited. I bought more rats, exposed half of them to an EMF for three days, killed them, recovered the blood, extracted the serum, and measured the percentage of each of the four major groups of immunoproteins. I found that the exposed rats had a lower percentage of gamma globulin, which meant that their immune system had been altered.
Now I got really excited. EMF effects occurred everywhere I looked. On the other hand, I lacked expertise in doing biological experiments. Maybe all my results had no meaning. I felt like a soldier in a coastline bunker who peers out over the waves, watching for enemy ships. One foggy morning he sees what he thinks is a line of ships against the horizon, but no one shows much interest because it has never happened before, and he is wracked by indecision about whether to give the alarm.
While I was trying to decide whether to publish my results I learned that there would be a meeting at the New York Academy of Sciences on the role of electricity in biology, the first meeting this century on that topic. The organizers invited Dr. Becker to make the keynote address, and asked him whether he would like anyone else in his laboratory to present a paper. He recommended four of us, and we were all invited.
I looked forward to the meeting because I thought the people there would have interests similar to mine. I expected I would receive some help and advice, and that the whole experience would probably make it easier for me to decide whether EMF research was something worthwhile.