Magnetic Fields, Health Care, Alternative Medicine and Physics

Eugenie Mielczarek

In 1996 the American Physical Society, responding to a request from the National Research Council, was asked to examine the potential health hazards of power lines. One of the concerns was that electromagnetic background fields of 2 milligauss might cause cancer. Monitors of outdoor exposure for children to wear were marketed to parents. “Some city regulations sought to constrain B fields to less than 2 milligauss”. The report, which was a comprehensive study of the alleged dangers, included both molecular and epidemiologic studies and found that no adverse health effects could be attributed to these low fields. One of the conclusions emphasized that biophysical calculations rule out carcinogenic effects because thermal noise fields are larger than the background fields from power lines [1, 2]. That political agenda, concerned with fear of carcinogenic mechanisms arising from low level magnetic fields, lost credibility. However, about 10 years later claims for health effects from mattress pads equipped with small magnets were marketed and a study of this was funded by National Institute for Complementary and Alternative medicine and claims for their benefits were published in alternative medicine journals. About the same time, small 300 gauss magnets, began to appear on the shelves of drug stores. In 2007 a lawsuit brought by the National Council Against Health Fraud against advertisers of these products was successfully settled. I was one of the persons who agreed to appear as an expert witness if needed. The Federal Trade Commission also threatened to prosecute purveyors who claimed healthful benefits for these products. Amazingly, in the last few years the health and medical and nursing communities in their integrated medicine outreach are now incorporating and marketing the unsubstantiated claims that healing fields of 2 milligauss are emitted from the hands of practitioners (3). This belief in distance healing, Therapeutic Touch, Reiki, and Qiqong cobble the language of physics with the language of physiology, misleading the patient. For example, in Therapeutic Touch the protocol requires that a therapist moves his or her hands over the patient’s “energy field,” allegedly “tuning” a purported “aura” of biomagnetic energy that extends above the patient's body. This is thought to somehow help heal the patient. Although this is less than one percent of the strength of Earth's magnetic field, corresponds to billions of times less energy than the energy your eye receives when viewing even the brightest star in the night sky, and is billionsof times smaller than that needed to affect biochemistry, the web sites of prominent clinics nevertheless market the claims [4.5]. This belief has been published in the peer reviewed medical literature [6]. Silence on this issue by physicists is a serious compromise of the scientific endeavors of physicists relating to medicine and biology.

1. David Hafemeister, “Resource Letter BELFEF-1: Biological effects of low-frequency electromagnetic fields,” American Journal of Physics 64(8), 974-981 (1996).

2. Robert K. Adair, “Constraints on biological effects of weak extremely-low-frequency electromagnetic fields,” Physical Review A43(2), 1039-1048 (1991).

3. A report detailing the current claims, authored by myself and Derek Araujo, was issued by the Center for Inquiry, on September 28, 2009.

4.“Healing Touch is performed by registered nurses who recognize, manipulate and balance the electromagnetic fields surrounding the human body, thereby promoting healing and the well-being of body, mind and spirit.” Scripps Institute website

5. Affiliated with Harvard Medical Center is Brigham and Women's Hospital Osher Center. Two upcoming course offerings feature Reiki: “During this class you will receive a reiki level one attunement. This attunement enables you to become a channel for this universal healing energy which will be with you for your lifetime. From this point on you will be a reiki practitioner. With level one reiki you will be able to do healing on yourself, friends, family and pets.” See; see also

6. Jhaveri, A., Walsh, S.J., Wang, Y., McCarthy, M., and Gronowicz, G. “Therapeutic touch affects DNA synthesis and mineralization of human osteoblasts in culture.” J. Orthop. Res. 26(11), 1541-1546 (2008).

Eugenie V. Mielczarek is Emeritus Professor of Physics at George Mason University and a former officer of the Division of Biological Physics.

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.