• 06 NOV 16
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    The sad state of affairs with Bioelectromagnetics Research in Australia

    In a recently published paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health ( 29 September 2016) ACEBR lays out its research activities in a paper titled, Bioelectromagnetics Research within an Australian Context: The Australian Centre for Electromagnetic Bioeffects Research (ACEBR)

    Its business as usual in this paper with a strict adherence to ICNIRP’s thermal effects only paradigm. For example, here is the section on electrosensitivity with my bolding of the pertinent parts:

    Determinants of RF Health Concern (IEI-EMF)

    There is a significant proportion of the population that suffers severe physical and psychological illness that they attribute to MC-EMF exposure, a condition known as idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF). It is characterised by a variety of nonspecific symptoms (e.g., headaches, nausea, tingling, difficulty sleeping) when in proximity to devices that emit MC-EMF. There is currently no substantiated evidence that the symptoms are related to the EMF exposure [10], suggesting that it may be caused by perceptions or beliefs about the exposure (either conscious or subconscious): the so-called nocebo effect. Whether EMF plays a causal role in IEI-EMF is crucial in terms of treatment options, and the Centre has thus focused on determining whether, as is often claimed by IEI-EMF sufferers, the lack of evidence for a causal role is due to methodological difficulties.

    The ACEBR is addressing this issue by testing self-reported IEI-EMF individuals using a double-blind provocation design, while accounting for purported methodological limitations….. Three IEI-EMF individuals have been assessed to date, with more planned if recruitment is possible. We have not found evidence that MC-EMF caused symptoms in any of the individuals, whereas belief was found to be a strong predictor of symptoms.

    So, based on only three individuals the ACEBR authors can conclude they have not found any evidence of EHS and so the reported symptoms in the three must be the result their belief! This conclusion in a published paper, based on only three individuals, is a bit premature, to say the least!

    And what about the scientific validity of ACEBR’s “double-blind provocation design”?

    In order to research the controversial condition of electromagnetic hyper-sensitivity (EHS) through ACEBR and its associated organisations, ACEBR staff has developed a provocation study test methodology largely based on the work of James Rubin from King’s College London, Institute of Psychiatry.

    Rubin was awarded his PhD in psychology as applied to medicine in 2003 for his work on psychological factors affecting recovery from surgery. His research interests have since expanded to encompass the causes and treatment of the various modern illnesses that affect Western societies, such electrosensitivity (EHS). His research focus has been consistently on researching psychological factors involved in this condition. In one of his papers he suggests that EHS is not caused by EMF exposure but is triggered by concern about EMF. He also wrote that evoking a precautionary principle (approach) to the use of telecommunications technology is counter-productive as it will tend to increase the publics anxiety and trigger EHS symptoms in psychologically vulnerable individuals – the Nocebo effect.

    Such a suggestion therefore assumes that there are no health issues at all and it is just a psychological disorder made manifest in some people by the mere mention that there may be health issues!

    Rubin has written that “studies have consistently shown that providing people with precautionary advice about mobile phones has increased anxiety levels and made mobiles appear more threatening”. With this line of reasoning it could be argued that the International Agency for research on Cancer (IARC) classification of telecommunications radiofrequency fields as a Class 2B, possible human carcinogen based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer as being counterproductive as it will only frighten people and make them ill.

    A provocation double-blind study basically consists of exposing subjects who have self-identified themselves as adversely being affected by telecommunications and/or power frequency electromagnetic fields(EMR/EMF) to see if they can feel when the field is turned on or off. These tests have generally found that the subjects failed to distinguish whether the field was present or not – leading to a conclusion by the researchers that the fields were not the cause of their reported symptoms and therefore the problem may be psychosomatic. For example, Rubin and colleagues reviewed over 40 provocation studies on EHS volunteers and concluded that; overall, people with EHS did not react to EMR exposure any differently from the way subjects react to a sham exposure. Thus, the authors suggested that EMR was not the cause of their condition.

    Central to EMR provocation studies is the questionable hypothesis that if a person is sensitive to EMR they should be able to quickly feel when the exposure is taking place. If not, it must then be a psychological problem. This assumes that without a conscious pre-existing worry there would be no symptoms at all – it’s all in the mind.

    A significant weakness of these provocation studies is that by their very design, they limit the definition of electrosensitive persons to those who claim that they can feel when they are being exposed. This definition excludes the possibility that there may be other people who are adversely being affected by EMR exposure but cannot feel when they are being exposed and are therefore totally unaware of the cause of their ailment.

    It is important to acknowledge that the nocebo effect can play a role in some or many cases of EHS, however to then assume that all cases of EHS are just a psychosomatic problem is not justifiable.

    Rubin’s work has come under criticism from Dr. Andrew A. Marino, PhD, Director of Research at the Division of Sleep Medicine, Department of Neurology, Department of Cellular Biology and Anatomy, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center at Shreveport, LA. To quote from Marino’s blog:

    James Rubin, King’s College London published a blindingly biased paper in which he argued that there was no such thing as electromagnetic hypersensitivity (no robust evidence). His numerous studies on electromagnetic hypersensitivity are all negative, but that negativity was manufactured by employing experimental designs and statistical analysis that were virtually guaranteed to produce negative results. By means of jaundiced analyses he comes to the conclusion that EHS sufferers have a purely psychosomatic disease, a viewpoint that has untold benefits for his clients and funders, particularly the cell-phone companies.

    His work is a scientific Ponzi scheme in which he gets money from the phone industry effectively by promising negative results, creates and publishes such results, and is then rewarded by the industry with even more funds, like petting a trained dog. The natural consequence of his work is to stigmatize EHS sufferers as neurotics who need the care of a psychiatrist, not an internist or allergist. Rubin is almost a perfect example of a scandalous scientist in a scandalous system that consists of cell-phone companies having enough money to buy any results they want, dependable trained dogs who produce the desired results, and scientific journals such as Bioelectromagnetics that publish the results without properly vetting them, and without insistence on simultaneous publication of conflict-of-interest statements.

    In addition, the provocation testing of the type proposed by ACEBR has been reviewed by a scientist (who has requested anonymity) with advanced qualifications and experience in statistical and experimental design. This scientist has criticised the aspects of studies based on Rubins work and has concluded, like Marino, that these types of studies are unlikely to achieve the stated aims.

    Also see: http://norad4u.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/why-dr-james-robin-ehs-study-is.html

    A CFS/EMF study

    In a study carried out in 1998 by Maisch, Podd and Rapley, the residential magnetic field exposures of a group of 49 subjects suffering from symptoms that were medically diagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) was conducted. All subjects were exposed to varying strength magnetic fields from sources within their home environment. The subjects were divided into two groups: those experiencing prolonged exposure of 2 mG or more (Group A) and those with exposure to less than 2 mG (Group B). It was specifically decided at the onset that no prospective subjects would be included in the study if they thought that EMF exposure may be a factor in their illness. This was done to minimize the chance of a nocebo effect.

    The exposure levels in Group A averaged 7.1mG. The sources of exposure were identified and reduced to below 2 mG, whereas Group B’s existing low exposure levels, averaging 0.67mG, were left unchanged. Both groups were monitored for six months for any changes in health status. At the end of six months, Group A had a significant improvement in health, including improved sleep, compared to Group B, thus indicating prolonged nighttime magnetic field exposures of around 7 mG may be a factor in CFS and compromised sleep. It was also observed that none of the subjects in Group A reported being able to sense the magnetic field when exposed at night from various sources. Subsequent follow-ups of these people for six months found that the improvement in health continued, at least for that duration.


    If a provocation study of the type discussed above had been carried out on these subjects, a very likely finding would have been that, when exposed to an EMF field in the laboratory, the subjects were unable to feel when they were exposed. It would then be concluded that EMF was not a factor in their condition.

    If the researchers at ACEBR wanted to take another approach to determining if EMF/EMR was able to affect people’s health a good starting point would be to conduct a similar study with ME/CFS Australia which would examine the EMF/EMR exposures of a group of their members. Any exposures from sources found (such as a smart meter by the bedroom) would be reduced as far as practicable and the subjects health status followed for six months.

    Would the experts at ACEBR even consider a departure from their favoured provocation study, considering its obvious shortcomings?

    Not so if you consider their track record of downplaying and denying inconvenient evidence….And so we will continue to be saddled with the sad state of affairs with Bioelectromagnetics Research in Australia.

    Don Maisch

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