Dirty electricity….really ?!?

Posted on July 18, 2013

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gridBy coincidence, or more specifically by reading Microwave News, I became aware of a recent publication in the journal Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine entitled “Evidence that dirty electricity is causing the worldwide epidemics of obesity and diabetes!” (link)  This is a publication by Samual Milham, who conducted a study in 1982 that is considered the first of the contemporary era of studies looking at adverse health effects of occupational exposure to extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields (ELF-EMF). Since then, Dr Milham has taken a keen interest in something called ‘dirty electricity’, which is the specific exposure metric he considers to be responsible for…well everything really. He has written a book about it as well, entitled “Dirty Electricity: Electrification and the Diseases of Civilization” and which can be bought from Amazon here should you so which (I have a copy anyone is more than welcome to borrow; it is not being used, I doubt it ever will again, and I will save you £8.49).

Anyway, dirty electricity. Essentially it can be described as additional high-frequency deviations from the ideal sinusoid waveform of the electricity grid and is caused by arcing, sparking and any electrical device connected to the grid that interrupts or distorts the flow. The term itself is apparently coined by the electrical utility industry since it is a side effect that can damage equipment. Dr Milham causes these high frequency deviations ‘electrical pollution’, but I think deviations would be a better, not to mention more neutral, description.

clean_dirty_power

So the bottom line of the article is that there are a number of small islands in the Pacific Ocean (Naura, Cook Island, Tonga, Samoa, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati) and one in the Carribbean (St.Kitts and Nevis) which are in the top ten of high average bodymass index (BMI), and these are also electrified by diesel generator sets. Furthermore, and I am taking this from the paper: Seven of the 10 places with the highest fasting plasma glucose (FPG) are also small island in Oceania, while seven small islands in Oceania are also among the 10 places with the highest diabetes prevalence. The Cook Islands, Tonga, Marshall Islands, Palau and Kiribati and Samoa are among the top 10 places for BMI, FPG and diabetes prevalence in men in 2008. According to Dr Milham only 2.6 of these islands would be expected in the highest 10 countries when 7 or 8 were found indicates that this is therefore an anomaly (p<0.001).

…Where to start…

First of all, that statistical testing would only be correct if these are all independent samples with no underlying commonalities such as, lets say, geographical location, lifestyle, economical development, etcetera. I think we can agree that that really isnt the case. Further, BMI and FPG are strong risk factors for diabetes so it is no surprise there is a correlation between these three factors. This leaves the question of whether dirty electricity could be related to BMI and FPG, or maybe more generally to ‘obesity’. This is an ecological study and Dr Milham has tried a similar trick before when he used ecological data to establish a link between electrification and “diseases of civilization” (just all of them) (link). My friend and colleague from Drexel University Dr Burstyn and I found some spare time and wrote a letter to the editor of Medical Hypotheses pointing out the errors in Dr Milham’s argument. I won’t do this again here, but sufficient to say it is not a very good argument (you can find the letter here). Ecological data are notoriously tricky to interpret and inferring causality from it is really not a very good idea*.Indeed this study suffers from the same problems; importantly, would dirty electricity really be the causal factor or could something else have caused high average BMI? My gut feeling….diet. As a first hunch this seems to be a much more likely explanation, given that the ecological associations Dr Milham is referring to are in men only. Unless the effects of dirty electricity would be gender-specific, something I very much doubt, this would point to diet or other lifestyle factors. Moreover, and I apologize in advance a quick Wikipedia search (link) indicates that “Many of the island nations of the South Pacific have very high rates of obesity.….. Being big has traditionally been associated with health, beauty, and status and many of these beliefs remain prevalent today.” (a reference is added to the WHO report “Obesity in the Pacific: Too big to ignore” (link), which I confess I haven’t read).

And then of course, these are small isolated islands so genetic factors may play a role. sumo

Other countries with high obesity rates are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, which can be attributed to the spread of the western lifestyle “the intake of attractive energy dense food with undesirable composition, increased consumption of animal fats and sugars and reduced consumption of dietary fiber, along with a lack of sufficient physical activity” (link). And of course lets not forget to US. Again, my gut feeling would be too much food and not enough physical activity, but according to Dr Milham the reason for the US is that “…the United States uses the earth as the major conduit for neutral return currents, allowing dirty electricity to enter homes through conductive water and sewer pipes and through the grid. Diesel generate are also used extensively for back-up power in peak load periods.” If that explanation surprised you, you are not the only one.

 

In conclusion, it is beyond me how this paper got through peer-review.

 

If, by any chance, you remain interested in dirty electricity and wonder whether there is any evidence this may cause adverse health effects (or you are even a bit worried now), Dr Milham indicates in 2008 he and a colleague showed it was a potential universal carcinogen in a cohort of teachers, while there are also publications by Magda Havas about a link to diabetes, asthma (according to Sbraggia), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Milham). A couple of years ago I got interested in this metric and had some spare time, so looked into these studies and published a review on this in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology in 2010, entitled “Dirty Electricity: what, where and should we care?” (link). To summarize the review: it is an interesting exposure metric but methodological problems in published studies prohibit the valid assessment of its biological activity. Or, in non-scientific language (ghetto slang I presume): we don’t know whether it is related to any health effects because all those studies are garbage.

Interestingly in this context, I would say, is that both authors who have published most (well everything) on the “dangers” dirty electricity (Sam Milham and Magda Havas) have very close links to equipment one can buy to supposedly mitigate dirty electricity. Have a look at the links to the left of the STETERiZER filter website (link)**.

 

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*: as a sidenote, I was involved in a study using ecological national data on brain cancer incidence and various environmental risk factors collated by WHO and to our surprise we found an association with the national mobile phone penetration rates. This confirms existing hypotheses and the method could be used to identify new hypotheses that should be investigated using better study designs, but no way would we argue anything about causality based on these data in a way Dr Milham is trying to do. Anyway, the article can be found here.

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**: the company’s website also points out (by way of a quote from Albert Einstein) why you have been wasting your time reading this blog post, and I blame my mum and dad for giving me their genes, but as it seems “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds

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