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14 September 2010

Dirty Electricity: Poor Journalism is Making Me Sick

I'll begin by quoting in full a letter to the editor that I recently submitted to the Winnipeg Free Press. (Links added for citation of sources.)

On Friday, the Free Press ran an article entitled "Dirty electricity is making us sick". In it W. Gifford-Jones argues that "dirty electricity" and "electrosensitivity" are responsible for a laundry-list of symptoms, which included "irritability", "aches and pains", and "foggy brain". Academic clinical neurologist Dr. Steven Novella calls these "common symptoms of life".

I was appalled and astounded by the poor scholarship evinced by this article. The author's obvious disdain for the rigours of science and evidence does a disservice to science journalists everywhere.

First of all, electrosensitivity almost certainly doesn't exist. Award-winning journalist and medical doctor Ben Goldacre sums it up nicely: "There have now been 37 such double blind 'provocation studies' published in the peer reviewed academic literature, and they are almost all negative, although you could argue that the evidence is unanimous. There are, to be clear, seven studies that did find some statistically significant effect for electromagnetic signals: but for two of those, even the original authors have been unable to replicate the results; for the next three, the results seem to be statistical artefacts... and for the final two, the positive results are mutually inconsistent..."

The scientific literature is rife with studies showing no adverse biological effect from low-level EMF radiation.

The author’s primary source (a Ph.D. who was instrumental in the Ontario WiFi scare a few weeks back) cherry-picks studies that confirm her biases rather than relying on systematic reviews. Her personal website directs visitors to EMF Solutions for information regarding Stetzer filters, which will "reduce the dirty electricity" in your home. The EMF Solutions site is a den of pseudoscientific nonsense, proposing that Stetzer filters are effective treatments for diabetes, asthma, multiple sclerosis, and autism. Any potential conflicts of interest between Havas and EMF Solutions remain undisclosed.

Health Canada has investigated Stetzer filters in the past. A 2006 report found that they "increas[ed] ambient magnetic field levels ", and concluded that Stetzer filters "add to the level of 'dirty electricity' in the house." Note the quotation marks: "dirty electricity" is not a scientifically meaningful term.

At the end of the Free Press article the author states that all information presented "correlates to the recent World Health Organization study on cellphones that identified a need for more research into teen phone use and deadly malignant brain tumours."

But what is not mentioned is that according to the WHO, "animal studies consistently show no increased cancer risk for long-term exposure to radiofrequency fields" and human epidemiological studies show "no consistent evidence of a causal relationship between radiofrequency exposure and any adverse health effect". Not only that, but the exact same INTERPHONE study that Gifford-Jones quotes found "no consistent trend of increasing risk with greater duration of use"—in other words, no dose-response relationship. To use the WHO to link teen phone use with "deadly malignant brain tumours" in this way, without providing the appropriate context for the study, is not only irresponsible scaremongering, it is dishonest.

All in all, the article was a credulous, scare-mongering fluff-piece, and its publication without even token skepticism tarnishes the reputation of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Gem Newman,
Organiser, The Winnipeg Skeptics

This was actually the second draft that I submitted, as the letters editor requested that I cut it by 250 words. I felt that this was fair, and had condensed several of my points. But this is print media we're talking about. I received a reply the next day, informing me that when she had said "by at most 250 words", she had meant "to at most 250 words".

In any event, this is what they are planning to print:

I was appalled by the poor scholarship in Friday’s "Dirty electricity is making us sick". The scientific literature is rife with studies showing no adverse biological effect from low-level electromagnetic fields (EMF). "Dirty electricity" is a scientifically meaningless term.

Electrosensitivity almost certainly doesn't exist. Thirty-seven double blind studies published in the peer reviewed literature have been nearly unanimously negative. Of the seven that did find some statistically significant effect for electromagnetic signals, two could not be replicated, even by the original authors; the results of three are regarded as statistical artefacts, and in the final two the positive results are mutually inconsistent. (Source: Journalist and Medical Doctor Ben Goldacre)

Magda Havas cherry-picks studies that confirm her biases rather than relying on systematic reviews. She endorses EMF Solutions, which sells Stetzer filters, asserting they can be used to treat diabetes, asthma, multiple sclerosis, and autism. (Source:, Health Canada found that Stetzer filters "increas[ed] ambient magnetic field levels " and that they "add to the level of 'dirty electricity' in the house." (Source: Health Canada CCRPB)

The article states that the WHO "identified a need for more research into teen phone use and deadly malignant brain tumours." This is irresponsible scaremongering. The article does not mention that the WHO states "no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use". (Source: WHO)

The article was a credulous fluff-piece, and its publication without even token skepticism tarnishes the reputation of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Gem Newman,
Organiser, The Winnipeg Skeptics

Terse, isn't it?

I managed to squeeze most of what I wanted to say into the first letter, but in case you're curious, here are some links to additional articles published on the subject:

Award-winning Podcaster and Science Enthusiast Brian Dunning:
Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: Real or Imagined?

Academic Clinical Neurologist Dr. Steven Novella:
Banning WiFi from Schools
Do Cell Phones Cause Brain Tumors?
Cell Phones and Brain Tumors

Surgical Oncologist Dr. David Gorski:
Cell phones and cancer again, or: Oh, no! My cell phone’s going to give me cancer!

Award-winning Journalist and Medical Doctor Ben Goldacre:
Cherry Picking and the Professional Association of Teachers
Why don’t journalists mention the data?
Factors that risk being left out of the equation

The author of the Free Press article, W. Gifford-Jones (apparently an M.D.), tells us that he "discovered it's easy to get fooled by dirty energy if you're not an electrical engineer." Irony notwithstanding, it occurred to me that I'm not an electrical engineer, so perhaps I'd been fooled. I turned to Magda Havas' website for clarification. Here's what she had to say:

The term "Dirty Electricity" is often used to describe the type of power that originates from our generation stations. Hydro electric and solar are considered to be "Green" sources of power where coal is considered to be "dirty" because of the air pollution that is created.

Okay, I'm with her so far—although hydroelectric dams aren't exactly environmentally neutral. But that doesn't really seem to correspond to the article's description. Let's see if there's any more...

"Dirty Electricity" can also be used to describe electric power that has become corrupted by our use of modern appliances.

Oh. Well that makes sense.

Items such as CFL bulbs, cellphone transmission antennas, power supplies for portable computers, cell phone chargers, dimmer switches, variable speed fans and many other electronic devises that require a transformer to convert the voltage will "dirty" the electricity that enters our home. This form of dirty electro-magnetic fields (EMF), is invisible to the eye, but has a biological effect on the human body and has been associated with a wide variety of illnesses.

And that's the end of her explanation. Variable-speed fans make the electricity dirty. It's all the transformers' fault. (Presumably it's the Decepticons that are the problem—the Autobots wouldn't do that to us.)

On a side note, I was curious as to the source of Gifford-Jones' contention that "during the height of the Cold War, they [Soviet scientists] secretly bombarded the U.S. embassy in Moscow with microwave radiation, causing radiation sickness in American staff." Although no source was cited, Google is your friend: I traced it to a news article hosted on, a fairly disreputable conspiracy-mongering site, and from there to a paper entitled PRACTICAL GUIDELINES To Protect Human Health Against Electromagnetic Radiation Emitted In Mobile Telephony on It seems that this bombardment did actually occur, however I find the contention that it caused radiation sickness puzzling, as radiation sickness is caused by ionizing radiation. Microwaves are non-ionizing, and are found on the opposite end of the electromagnetic spectrum. If anyone more familiar with the subject is interested in chiming in, please feel free.

A friend of mine remarked that the article reminded him of some of the crazy things Thomas Edison said during the War of Currents.

I'll conclude by quoting, in its entirety, the first (and currently only) comment found on the digital version of this news story.

It has now become political to whether or not Cell Phones, Power Lines etc are or are not responsible for Health related problems.

First off, every one who thinks they do, will all agree that these emit a HARMFUL energy. "WRONG"

Okay, I'm with you so far. Bring it home!

It is NOT the energy emitting that is the problem and "there is a problem".
It IS, IS, IS the ENERGY that these absorb, robbing cells of the body of this needed energy!

Hat tip to Robert McGregor, who directed me to this story (and who apparently reads the newspaper).

Edit: The Register (a UK technology news source) has recently published an excellent and tangentially-related article on the subject of Belly Armor. You can check it out here! Thanks to Grant Rogerson for the link!

Edit: Minor follow-up on "dirty electricity".

Edit: Dr. Steven Novella directly addresses Magda Havas' claims here.


  1. Thank you for this. You saved me a significant amount of time in gathering this information myself to refer to somone. Hats off to you for actually providing references from multiple sources for all to read and understand.

  2. I may be a chemist - not a physicist - but I have a strong enough scientific background that this just smells like pseudoscience to me. I'm fully interested in reducing/eliminating the health and environmental consequences of modern technology. I'm also open-minded enough to accept that there may yet be mechanisms of health effects from EMFs that we don't yet understand - just as we didn't understand the health effects of radioactive materials in the past. But nothing in these "electrosensitivity" reports has convinced me that we're actually dealing with statistically significant causation.

    What can EM fields do at microwave frequencies? They can excite the rotational energy levels of molecules. This is how a microwave oven works - it excites water's rotational levels, causing water to heat up. And the generally accepted safe levels for wi-fi and cell phone radiation are designed to be incapable of causing harmful heating effects. You're not going to cook your brain at these energy levels.

    Could there be some other negative effects of making our molecules spin around more than they usually do? Sure. But I haven't seen so much as even informed speculation on the mechanisms of such effects. Thank you for this thread - I'd like to continue to have an eye on this matter because if there is something to understand, I want to understand it.

  3. I too think Gifford-Jones is way off the deep end with this latest rant.In his saner moments,he has written some thought provoking articles.In a related vein,I seem to recall an observation that connected radar guns with increased testicular cancer rates.This supposedly was related to the common practice of traffic control officers of placing a running radar gun in their laps when not in use.Does anyone know if any studies were done on this?

  4. Have you any idea what Dr. Gifford-Jones is referring to when writing "Later, in 2007, a collaboration of scientists from the U.S., Sweden, Denmark, Austria and China released a 650-page report citing 2,000 studies that detailed the toxic effects of EMR"?

  5. No, unfortunately I wasn't able to track that one down with casual afternoon of Googling. If anyone happens to find it, feel free to post a link. Maybe it's smoking gun evidence that WiFi is killing us!

    As a side note, I'm always amused by vague claims about the dangers of "EMR" or "EMF", because we're constantly bathed in natural (and artificial) sources of electromagnetic fields and electromagnetic radiation that are quite harmless. There are spectra that have proven to be quite dangerous (e.g., gamma radiation), but others that are obviously benign (the wavelength of light responsible for the colour green comes to mind).

  6. Guess what. Work is boring so I'm creeping to comment on old posts.

    So, I spent 2years in the ECE program, and I must comment that there is the smallest smidgen of truth in "Dirty Electricity"; however, the only side effect is a loss of electrical efficiency (and corresponding increase in waste heat). Also, the power company, having a vested interest in preventing this, does a pretty good job of accounting for it.

    The way it works is thus. There are two different 'types' of electricity: DC and AC. DC is a constant-voltage, constant-current power. AC, on the other hand, has its voltage and current fluctuate on a sine wave. Mathematically, the voltage can be represented by a complex value. In simple terms, "dirty power" is electricity that has a large imaginary component. Loads that create a large imaginary component in the voltage can cause instability on an electrical grid, if the imaginary component is too much larger than the real component. However, this is easily accounted for by an strongly inductive load (Basically a large inductor, an electrical device) that is dynamically modified by the power utility to keep things even.

    It can occur that sometimes, if you attach too many strongly inductive or capacitive loads (a good example of an inductive load is DC adapters; computers, fluorescents, etc), it can cause instability that can't be fully accounted for. This can then cause undesirable effects elsewhere. For instance, if you've got powered speakers, the high inductive load can cause the sine wave of power to more closely resemble a square wave, which can degrade the quality of sound.

    This is not to lend credence, however, to the article's thesis. The thing to keep in mind is the following:
    tl;dr: "Dirty electricity" causing health effects is bull crap

  7. Interesting. I'd never heard that issue called "dirty electricity" before—it's always been simply labelled degradation of power quality or some such thing. It's problematic that trite monikers like "dirty electricity", which are so popular with the media, can lead to all sorts of equivocation. Thanks for the input!