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In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem, Ashlyn, Ian, and Laura discuss some terrible films (and one that’s pretty good), including “Resonance: Beings of Frequency”, a YouTube film that rivals “Thrive” in the contest for most misleading documentary.
I have of course written and presented on the subject of EMF and anti-WiFi scares before, so I was happy to provide a sound-bite or two. The coverage aired this evening, and while they cut an eight minute conversation down to a few seconds of talking head and some B-roll (hey, that’s how these things work), I was pleased that Jon Hendricks worked in a few of my talking points for me in his coverage.
In the brief time that I had, I tried to express just a couple of ideas: First, that the proposed guidelines seem to be based on rigorous scientific evidence (which is good). It’s always easy to cherry-pick a poorly-conducted study here or there that seems to show a previously unknown adverse health effect, but it’s important to take the quality of these studies into account, and view their findings in light of prior plausibility and the larger body of scientific literature. If you have small, poorly controlled studies, the results are far more likely to simply reflect the bias of the researchers. That’s something that we have to watch out for in science generally.
Second, the primary concerns here is for those who perceive that they suffer from some sort of electromagnetic hypersensitivity. These people may report headaches, nausea, dizziness, or difficulty concentrating when they perceive that they’ve been exposed to an electromagnetic field. But this has been well studied in double-blind, controlled provocation trials, and the results are very clear: those who report that they’re hypersensitive do experience a negative reaction when they believe that they are in the presence of an electromagnetic field, but that reaction occurs irrespective of whether they actually are. There is no correlation between actual exposure to EMF and the symptoms of electromagnetic hypersensitivity, and Health Canada and the World Health Organization both recognize this.
The article was published under a host of fear-mongering headlines, including “Are cellphones really dangerous?” and “Could smartphones be slowly killing us?”, bringing Betteridge’s Law of Headlines quickly to mind: if a headline is in the form of a question, the answer is probably “no”. Gifford-Jones makes his opinion known in his typical style: heavy on anecdotes, light on evidence, and simply recycling much of its material directly from past articles he’s written*.
He begins by relating the story of a young woman who had the habit of carrying her mobile phone in her bra. According to Gifford-Jones, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, “what shocked doctors was that the pattern of the cancer lined up precisely with the shape of the cellphone.” Gifford-Jones uses this story as a potent rhetorical device, and while he notes that it doesn’t constitute “proof”, the reader is left with the clear implication that radiation from the mobile phone is responsible for the cancer.
Usually I’d begin with an admonition about the plural of anecdote, but here we’re not even provided with more than one. We should also be wary of confirmation bias: it’s helpful to remember that one in nine women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and given the dearth of functional pockets in women’s clothing, it would be surprising if none of them had the habit of carrying their phone in their bra. Dr. David Gorski (a practicing oncologist who writes for Science-Based Medicine) also notes that in this particular case, it isn’t at all strange that the cancer was just where the woman had a habit of keeping her phone, because she happened to keep her phone right where breast cancers are most common (I recommend reading Dr. Gorski’s discussion of the case over at SBM). Finally, I’d suggest that perhaps people often see what they expect to see.
In May 2010, the World Health Association released a 10-year study into cellphone use and cancer rates. WHO recognized a significant correlation between brain cancer and those who used their cellphone, wireless home phone or Wi-Fi for more than 30 minutes daily.
He seems to be referring to the Interphone study, published on 17 May 2010, but Gifford-Jones’ discussion of the findings is so woefully incomplete that calling it a distortion of the facts would be charitable. First, and most obviously, the study did not recognize “a significant correlation” between cancer and those who use wireless home phones or WiFi, because the scope of the investigation was limited to mobile phones (and did not, so far as I can determine, measure exposure to WiFi or cordless home phones at all).
So what did the Interphone study find? Well, the World Health Organization (when Gifford-Jones references the “World Health Association”, I assume that he is referring to the same body) provides a useful summary of the results in their mobile phone fact sheet:
The international pooled analysis of data gathered from 13 participating countries found no increased risk of glioma or meningioma with mobile phone use of more than 10 years. There are some indications of an increased risk of glioma for those who reported the highest 10% of cumulative hours of cell phone use, although there was no consistent trend of increasing risk with greater duration of use. The researchers concluded that biases and errors limit the strength of these conclusions and prevent a causal interpretation. [Emphasis added.]
So the study that Gifford-Jones cites as evidence that mobile phones cause cancer found no increased risk of brain cancer in those who have used mobile phones for the longest, found no dose-response relationship between exposure and risk of cancer, and concluded that the data do not support a causal relationship between cell phone use and cancer.
If Gifford-Jones were publicly disagreeing with the methodologies or statistical interpretation used by the IARC researchers, I’d have no problem with that—but that’s not what he’s doing. He’s using the authority of the WHO to lend rhetorical weight to his argument while cherry-picking little snippets of their analysis out of its proper context. And, as usual, he fails to provide his readers with the name of the study he’s referencing (despite the fact that the results are available online), making fact-checking that much more difficult.
At this point, proponents of a cell phone-cancer link may well point out that the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields in Group 2B as a “possible carcinogen”. And this is true, as far as it goes; but what this means is that the evidence is equivocal. While this does put radio waves in the same category as DDT, it also puts them in the same category as pickles, coffee, and “being a carpenter”. I’ll also hasten to point out that beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages actually fall under Group 1 (that’s the “definitely known to be carcinogenic” group).
It’s important to remember that substances aren’t categorized based on how carcinogenic the IARC thinks they are; they’re divided up by how positive they are that a substance is at least a little carcinogenic. If they’re quite sure that something is a little bit carcinogenic (like alcohol), it goes into Group 1. If the evidence shows that something is probably carcinogenic, it goes in Group 2A. If the evidence is rather muddled (as is the case with radiofrequency EMF), regardless of how carcinogenic the IARC thinks it might be, it goes in Group 2B. So saying that cell phones are in the same category as DDT (or carpentry) can be misleading. It has nothing to do with how dangerous they think it might be: it has to do with how sure they are that it might be somewhat dangerous (in this case, not sure at all). Several large, randomized, controlled trials have found no link between cell phone use and cancer, while others have found a small correlation. Suffice it to say, I’m far from convinced.
Talking about the dangers of “radiation” requires nuance, a skill that Dr. Gifford-Jones seems loath to display in his writing. Every time you turn on a lightbulb or have your photograph taken with a flash, you are being bathed in radiation—but it’s a harmless form of radiation. Not all radiation is created equal, and talking about the dangers of radiation in such sweeping terms does us all a disservice.
* The article even includes his usual porcupine lovemaking analogy. I don’t know what it is about this comparison that he loves so much, but I find it strangely amusing that so many of his articles admonish people to “use cellphones like porcupines make love”. At least this time he got the phrasing right. In the past a slightly mangled version has made it past the editors, which on a literal reading is rather unsettling: “Teach your children to use cellphones like porcupines — make love very, very carefully.”
A news article from the Irish Independent has been making the rounds these last few days. With the cheery title of “Wave goodbye to global warming, GM and pesticides” this (almost) unbelievably credulous bit of reportage claims that a new technology developed in Ireland will solve pretty well every modern-day agricultural woe.
“But how?” you ask. “Easy,” the researchers reply: “Radio waves!”
This bit o’ tech, marketed under the name Vi-Aqua, involves “energising” water by exposing it to a radio signal. Attach this small device to your garden hose, and you can (apparently) expect bigger fruits and vegetables that are resistant to pests and disease! It’s a solution to every problem! Water treated with this simple technology repels insects! Crops resist blight! Yields are increased! It even sequesters carbon! Who knows? Maybe it will also reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles!
Most skeptics recognize that panaceas are (generally speaking) not to be trusted. As Irish blogger “Unshaved Mouse” pointed out, this article is found not in the newspaper’s Science section (it doesn’t seem to have one), but in its Business section, which for the Irish Independent apparently means the “we’ll provide credulous free advertising for you without asking any tough questions” section.
This article displays several of the typical warning signs that we may be dealing with pseudoscientific crankery. It’s important to note that none of these red flags serve to prove that this is a scam. In fact, if I’d just read a simple summary of the research, my response might have been, “Huh. That’s strange. I wonder if other researchers will be able to replicate this.” However, there are a few items of concern that should be addressed.
“Groundbreaking” Research and “Miraculous” Results
Cries that the research is “groundbreaking”, “paradigm-shifting”, “miraculous”, or any other hyperbolic nonsense tends to make me nervous. Not because groundbreaking research doesn’t happen, but because most scientists try very hard to communicate the limits of their research, while it’s hucksters who tend to make grandiose claims.
A GROUNDBREAKING new Irish technology which could be the greatest breakthrough in agriculture since the plough is set to change the face of modern farming forever.
It also produces the miracle of rejuvenating the soil by invigorating soil-based micro-organisms. … [T]he technology is being hailed as a modern day miracle.
Oh! It’s a miracle! Well, I suppose that explains it, then.
The Chopra Effect
I’m also worried by claims that mix scientific (or sciencey-sounding) language liberally with folksy details. Deepak Chopra is the go-to example for this sort of nonsense, but he hardly has a monopoly.
Vi-Aqua makes water wetter and introduces atmospheric nitrogen into the water in the form of nitrates – so it is free fertiliser.
I’ll admit that I did a bit of a double-take when I read that (perhaps it was more of a quadruple-take). It makes water wetter? What does that even mean? (The science behind wetting, incidentally, is quite interesting.)
While the article didn’t go into much detail here, the Vi-Aqua website claims that their product makes water “wetter” by “altering the configuration of hydrogen in water” (although their brochure claims that Vi-Aqua “alters the hydrogen content“, which doesn’t at all strike me as the same thing).
Claims that are vague are consequently difficult to verify, and we are provided with scant evidence for efficacy.
Not only are the plants much bigger but they are largely disease-resistant, meaning huge savings in expensive fertilisers and harmful pesticides. … Extensively tested in Ireland and several other countries, the inexpensive water treatment technology is now being rolled out across the world.
Although the number “30 per cent” is thrown around several times (this technology will at once increase yield by 30% and decrease water consumption by 30%), the article is very light on the details.
The Vi-Aqua website (and as a software developer, I have to say that the website is a travesty top to bottom) lists many of the benefits of this technology, but nowhere does it link to any published research (not even in its “Test Results” section). Instead, it mentions that a two month test was carried out in 2001 (that’s twelve years ago, but reportedly trials are “still ongoing”), and then offers a series of testimonials. There is no way to evaluate the scientific rigour of the trials, the statistical significance of the findings, or any potential abuse of multiple comparisons or other researcher degrees of freedom. In fact, the file drawer effect here seems to be absolute.
Or so it looked at first.
Ray Peterson of the Winnipeg Skeptics managed to find a PDF copy of a document titled “Scientific Information Dossier: ‘Vi-Aqua’ Vitalized Water” (although the file name reads “Full Scientific Doc Proof”). This document begins with some general background information, and then describes a series of trials undertaken in 1998 to “prove” the efficacy of the Vi-Aqua product.
Despite being described as “proof”, it doesn’t look good. The majority of tests performed showed no statistically significant difference between the control group and the treatment groups. Two tests showed improvements in one of the three treatment groups that barely met statistical significance, but there did not seem to be any attempt made to control for multiple comparisons. The results are preliminary at best, and seem indistinguishable from noise.
Perhaps its most endearing feature is that the dossier invokes “water memory”, stating that “electromagnetic modification is imprinted in the water for several hours, slowly decaying with time”. Note that this is after admitting that “[t]he magnetic water memory effect is a controversial and exciting issue that is not explained by any current theory,” and that water loses any complex structure within picoseconds. But I guess if “water memory” is good enough for homeopaths like Jacques Benveniste, it’s good enough for these guys.
So far as I can determine, despite the sciencey language, there’s no plausible mechanism of action here, which does not bode well for Vi-Aqua. The trials described also make it clear that no blinding was employed to control researcher bias: the test and control groups were clearly labeled. This is the same level of evidence we see from those selling homeopathy or Power Balance bands.
If it weren’t for the implausibility of it all, and the fact that they’re selling to consumers, I’d say, “Hey, this is some neat preliminary research! I hope this passes replication!” But, despite the claims of “miraculous” results, after seventeen years there doesn’t seem to be any peer reviewed literature evaluating the claims, and these claims don’t seem to have gained traction in the field. I’m not a scientist (not really, and this certainly isn’t my area of expertise)—but you know who are scientists, and who do specialise in this field? Those who perform peer review in the relevant academic journals.
Currently, I’m having trouble seeing the difference between this research and the “independent” studies commissioned by the charlatans at Power Balance.
Conflicts of Interest
While not a smoking gun, it’s always worrying to see the same people who conduct the research profiting directly by selling the product they’re studying to consumers (especially prior to publication of results).
The two researchers involved in this project, according to the article, are Professor Austin Darragh and Dr. J.J. Leahy, both of the University of Limerick. Although the Vi-Aqua website does not make it clear exactly who is profiting from the sale of the devices, a simple Whois lookup discloses that the site is registered to Anna Darragh. If she is not related to Professor Darragh, I will be very surprised indeed. I’m concerned that this may be an example of researchers who, instead of engaging with their peers in the scientific community via the literature, are largely ignoring the scientific process in favour of going directly to the consumer (and consumer’s wallet).
While the testimonials page features prominently a glowing endorsement for the product from Dr. Leahy, I was not able to determine whether he stands to benefit from Vi-Aqua sales.
According to their University of Limerick faculty pages (which, to be fair, may be out of date), neither Austin Darragh nor J.J. Leahy have published any research evaluating the benefits of “radio-energised” water in agriculture.
I reached out via email to both Professor Darragh and Dr. Leahy, asking if they could provide links or references to any peer reviewed scientific literature on the subject and to clarify their involvement in direct-to-consumer sales of the Vi-Aqua device.
In essence, the goal of the experiment is to determine whether a radiofrequency signal can serve to reduce buildup of scale on the interior surface of pipes used to transport water or aqueous solutions by preventing disolved particles (in this case, copper and zinc) from precipitating and adhering to the pipe wall. While the results of this investigation are interesting, they do not relate directly to the question of whether using water exposed to radiofrequency EMF results in increased agricultural yield, decreased pesticide use, or improved carbon sequestration—or even whether we should expect it to.
Dr. Leahy did not comment on the sales or marketing of the Vi-Aqua device. I did not receive a response from Professor Darragh, but I will provide an update if I do.
The Unabashedly Absurd
They truly save the best for last. This is the second-to-last paragraph of the article, in its entirety:
Intriguingly, chickens and sheep fed the energised water turned into giants. . . but that’s another story!
That’s another story? Maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste, but this device creates giant farm animals and you choose to report on pesticide use and carbon sequestration instead?
The Bottom Line
Hey, anything’s possible I guess, but these claims are extraordinary. If they’re legitimate: great! But why not actually link to reputable scientific literature to back up the claims, rather than presenting the claims exactly the way we would expect them to be presented if they were a scam?
Let’s review: The claims of the product are extraordinarily implausible. The researchers are associated with the company selling the product. I was unable to find independent corroboration of the claims, or any peer reviewed research at all that evaluates the efficacy of the Vi-Aqua device. The language used by the researchers to describe the technology is hyperbolic and contradictory. This stuff makes water wetter and turns chickens into giants.
This article was so bad that I briefly wondered if it were satire. Unfortunately, it wasn’t posted in April, the Irish Independent is an actual news organization, and there’s a website dedicated to selling the stuff. Although we might all hope that it’s simply a hoax meant to expose bad science journalism (sorry, business journalism), I think this is more likely an example of hucksters managing to get mainstream coverage. If it does all turn out to be a joke, however, I will be thoroughly relieved.
In the meantime, be careful: the radio waves employed by the Vi-Aqua device may trigger your electromagnetic hypersensitivity.* Or they could turn you into a giant.†
Hat tip to Ray Peterson who sent several relevant links my way, and to Brendan Curran-Johnson for reminding me about Norman Borlaug. I’ll give Ray the last word: “The joke could be on us and it’s all real. A simple textbook electronic circuit sitting under our noses all this time making water wetter.”
Bad Science Watch is an independent non-profit activist organization dedicated to improving the lives of Canadians by countering bad science. The group is driven by a vision of a safer, healthier, and more prosperous Canada where critical thinking and sound science are paramount in the making of important societal decisions.
December saw the completion a project investigating anti-WiFi activism in Canada. The project committee (which I chaired) presented its findings to BSW, and the full report is now available on Bad Science Watch’s project page.
I’ll quote here from the conclusion of the paper:
We have been unable to identify any high quality reproducible evidence that any symptom of idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF) is caused by exposure to nonionizing electromagnetic radiation. Systematic reviews of both provocation studies and purported treatments for IEI-EMF support the conclusion that EMF is not the cause of the syndrome.
Despite the claims made by the authors of one review paper and the aforementioned anti-WiFi groups, Bad Science Watch was unable to locate any compelling evidence of legitimate scientific debate about WiFi induced illness, or the safety of low-level EMF exposure in general. While fringe groups continue to present flawed arguments and promote poorly designed experiments, the preponderance of research on the matter robustly dispels the connection between WiFi and IEI-EMF. For those tasked with making decisions about the inclusion of WiFi technology in their organization, school, or home, we can find no reason to ignore the advice of health organizations worldwide. The benefits of WiFi are numerous and varied, and there is no compelling evidence that any health effects arise as a result of this technology.
Critical Investigation of Anti-WiFi Activism Launched by Independent Watchdog
Toronto, ON, August 13 2012 – Bad Science Watch has announced the launch of a critical investigation of the state of anti-WiFi activism in Canada. The independent non-profit plans to document the motivations, funding sources, agendas, and any conflicts of interest for those groups and individuals promoting misinformation about wireless networking technology (WiFi). These activists claim WiFi and related technologies can cause a variety of adverse health effects, and are attempting to convince city councils, libraries, and school districts across the country to remove or restrict the deployment of WiFi networks.
“While many of these activists are well-meaning yet misinformed, others are profiting from the uncertainty and doubt that has been manufactured.” said Jamie Williams, Executive Director of Bad Science Watch. “Some of the most prominent anti-WiFi scaremongers are tied to the sale and promotion of bogus products to ‘block’ WiFi, or promote sham medical diagnoses and treatments for false illnesses.”
Many activists blame WiFi’s low level radio signals for a broad variety of medical problems, from mild headaches and fatigue to chest pain and heart palpitations. When someone using or living near WiFi networks experiences these or other symptoms, they are told they have ‘Electromagnetic-Hypersensitivity’, or EHS. The existence of EHS is not supported by rigorous science, and has not been accepted by the medical and scientific community as a real condition. This distraction can lead to greater anxiety for parents who are worried about the well-being of their children, and may instead serve to delay the diagnosis of more serious and treatable medical problems like anxiety disorders or heart defects.
Bad Science Watch will use the findings of this investigation as a starting point to counter misinformation in the public sphere, and represent sound science to public officials who are confronted every day with requests to act on it.
Individuals who would like to support this and similar projects are invited to visit www.badsciencewatch.ca, subscribe to the mailing list, and make a donation to Bad Science Watch.
For media enquiries, or additional information, please contact:
Bad Science Watch
1-888-742-3299 x 102
Bad Science Watch
180 Danforth Avenue
Toronto, ON M3K 3P5
Bad Science Watch is an independent non-profit activist organization that provides analysis of dubious scientific claims to Canadians, our government, and the media, promotes objective critical thinking and advocates for the enforcement and strengthening of consumer protection regulation.
Bad Science Watch relies largely on individual donations from the public for its operational funding, and is committed to organizational transparency.