Over Christmas break, I read The Invisible Rainbow: A History of Electricity and Life, by Arthur Firstenberg. What can I say about such a book? First, if the conclusions in my own book — Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill? How Electricity and Magnetism Affect Our Health — are true, then everything Firstenberg writes about in his book is false. We disagree about the health risks posed by electromagnetic fields.
Firstenberg covers a wide range of issues in The Invisible Rainbow and let me begin by admitting that I’m not an expert in all of these subjects. For instance, I don’t know much about infectious diseases, such as influenza, and I’m not particularly knowledgeable about viruses in general. However, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention gathers input from authorities on these topics and here is what it says about the causes of the flu.
Most experts believe that flu viruses spread mainly by tiny droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes.
Firstenberg, on the other hand, claims that the flu is an electrical disease not caused by a virus spread from person to person. He writes
In 1889, power line harmonic radiation began. From that year forward the earth’s magnetic field bore the imprint of power line frequencies and their harmonics. In that year, exactly, the natural magnetic activity of the earth began to be suppressed. This has affected all life on earth. The power line age was ushered in by the 1889 pandemic of influenza.
In 1918, the radio era began. It began with the building of hundreds of powerful radio stations at [low] and [very low] frequencies, the frequencies guaranteed to most alter the magnetosphere. The radio era was ushered in by the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918.
In 1957, the radar era began. It began with the building of hundreds of powerful early warning radar stations that littered the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere, hurling millions of watts of microwave energy skyward. Low-frequency components of these waves rode on magnetic field lines to the southern hemisphere, polluting it as well. The radar era was ushered in by the Asian flu pandemic of 1957.
In 1968, the satellite era began. It began with the launch of dozens of satellites whose broadcast power was relatively weak. But since they were already in the magnetosphere, they had as big an effect on it as the small amount of radiation that managed to enter it from sources on the ground. The satellite era was ushered in by the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968.
No mechanism is offered to explain how electromagnetic fields might cause a flu pandemic. No distinction is made between power line frequency (60 Hz) and radio frequency (MHz) radiation, although their physical effects are distinct. No estimation of “dose” (the distribution and magnitude of electric and magnetic field exposure) is provided. No randomized, controlled, double-blind studies are cited. He merely lists anecdotal evidence and coincidences.
Perhaps we could just ignore such dubious claims, except that The Invisible Rainbow is often quoted as evidence supporting the assertion that the Covid pandemic is somehow related to 5G cell phone radiation. Why would anyone get a Covid vaccine if they erroneously believe that the disease is caused by electromagnetic radiation? Such misinformation is dangerous to us all.
Firstenberg describes old studies without critical analysis. For instance, on page 73 he writes
In 1923, Vernon Blackman, an agricultural researcher at Imperial College in England, found in field experiments that electric currents averaging less than one milliampere (one thousandth of an ampere) per acre increased the yields of several types of crops by twenty percent. The current passing through each plant, he calculated, was only about 100 picoamperes.
One hundred picoamperes is 10^−10 amperes. We aren’t told what the crops were, but let’s assume they consist of a thin stalk that I’ll estimate has a cross-sectional area of one square centimeter (10^−4 m^2). That means the current density would be 10^−6 A/m^2. Furthermore, let’s assume an electrical conductivity on the order of saline, 1 S/m. The resulting electric field is 10^−6 V/m, or one microvolt per meter. This is far less than the electric field that always surrounds us and is caused by thermal fluctuations. The proposition that one milliamp per acre has such an effect defies credulity.
Previously in this blog I have written about Robert Becker — author of The Body Electric — where I dismiss his assertions that nerve axons are semiconductors and that the myelin surrounding some nerve axons carries steady currents. Firstenberg quotes Becker to support these ideas.
It was the Schwann cells, Becker concluded — the myelin-containing glial cells — and not the neurons they surrounded, that carried the currents that determined growth and healing. And in a much earlier study Becker had already shown that the DC currents that flow along salamander legs, and presumably along the limbs and bodies of all higher animals, are of semiconducting type.
Firstenberg believes cell phones cause many health hazards. On page 176, he writes
[Allan Frey] discovered the blood-brain barrier effect, an alarming damage to the protective shield that keeps bacteria, viruses, and toxic chemicals out of the brain-damage that occurs at levels of radiation that are much lower than what is emitted by cell phones today.
In Are Electromagnetic Fields Making Me Ill? I discuss a recent review by Anne Perrin and collaborators, which considered many articles about electromagnetic fields and the blood-brain barrier, and concluded that the literature provides “no convincing proof of deleterious effects of [radio frequency radiation] on the integrity of the [blood-brain barrier]” (Comptes Rendus Physique, Volume 11, Pages 602–612, 2010).
On Page 255, Firstenberg discusses an epidemiological study that found no relationship between cell phones and cancer.
[A] study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, was titled “Cellular Telephone Use and Cancer Risks: Update of a Nationwide Danish Cohort.” It claimed to come to its conclusions after an examination of the medical records of over 420,000 Danish cell phone users and non-users over a period of two decades. It was clear to me that something was wrong with the statistics.
Firstenberg claims he could not follow up on his suspicions because the authors would not share their data. Recently Martin Röösli and coworkers performed a meta-analysis of many epidemiological studies (including the Danish one), and concluded that they “do not suggest increased brain or salivary gland tumor risk with [ mobile phone] use” (Annual Review of Public Health, Volume 40, Pages 221–238, 2019).
I could go on. Firstenberg believes electromagnetic fields are responsible for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. His views on the mechanism of hearing are at odds with what most researchers believe. He thinks the “ qi” that supposedly underlies acupuncture is electric in nature (similar to Becker’s view).
Readers of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology will find little physics in The Invisible Rainbow. One skill that Russ Hobbie and I stress is the ability to make order-of-magnitude estimations of effects, and I don’t see Firstenberg doing that.
I do have some sympathy for Firstenberg. He’s been plagued by a variety of symptoms that he associates with electromagnetic hypersensitivity. I have no doubt his suffering is real. Yet, the evidence from controlled, double-blind experiments does not support his claim that electromagnetic radiation causes his illness. Rubin et al. reviewed many experiments and concluded that “at present, there is no reliable evidence to suggest that people with [idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields] experience unusual physiological reactions as a result of exposure to [electromagnetic fields]. This supports suggestions that [electromagnetic fields are] not the main cause of their ill health” (Bioelectromagnetics, Volume 32, Pages 593–609, 2011). The World Health Organization concludes
EHS [electromagnetic hypersensitivity] is characterized by a variety of non-specific symptoms that differ from individual to individual. The symptoms are certainly real and can vary widely in their severity. Whatever its cause, EHS can be a disabling problem for the affected individual. EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF [electromagnetic field] exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem.
I put Arthur Firstenberg in the same category as Martin Pall, Robert Becker, Paul Brodeur, and Devra Davis: well-meaning scientific mavericks whose hypotheses have not been confirmed. The Invisible Rainbow is an interesting read, but beware: as science it is flawed.