MRI Technology - EMF Biological Effects - Heart Rate Changes - Cellular Phone DNA Damage - Chronic Low Level Exposures - Limitations Of Experimental Design - Many Variables Not Taken Into Account
Details an email exchange with G., an authority on MRI technology. Describes several EMF biological effects including heart rate changes and cellular phone DNA damage. Describes the limitations of experimental design in studying the effects of manmade electromagnetic radiation, including the difficulty in assessing the effects of chronic low level exposures. States that due to the complexity of the phenomena under observation, many variables are not taken into account in scientific studies of EMF. Describes a reader's attempt to measure the electromagnetic field surrounding an MRI. Includes a visual schematic of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Website Correspondence - February 8, 2004
*2004.2.8. 6:25 a.m.
I received an email from G., an authority and strong proponent of MRI technology. He corrected my understanding of the science behind the operation of these machines. He stated that magnetic resonance imaging machines utilize "radiofrequencies [that] are well within the safe range for humans". He concluded that in life there are certain "necessary evils" such as "MRIs" and "nuclear weapons" -- and that I should just "deal with it".
The following is my response.
Thank you very much for emailing me. You are one of the few scientists who have taken the time to critique my observations in the year or so that that experiential MRI post of mine has been up. I appreciate your trying to improve my scientific knowledge base.
I find it odd that only the protons from hydrogen atoms are aligned to the MRI's magnetic force. I would think that all protons -- of all atoms -- would respond in the same manner. But science is not my strength, so I will take your word for it. Nevertheless, that is still a lot of atoms! If the body is 90% water, and if each molecule of water is "H2O" (two hydrogen atoms paired with an oxygen atom), that is still one heck of a lot of biological material for MRIs to exert their magnetic effect upon.
You say there is no radiation used in the procedure. I think our difference here is a matter of semantics/definitions. It is my understanding that the MRI uses "non-ionizing" frequencies (frequencies that are said to lack the energy to dislodge electrons from their orbits around the atomic nuclei, thereby creating ions) in the range of 100 MHz (100 million cycles per second) through 5 GHz (5 billion) -- and nothing in the much more powerful "ionizing" frequencies above THz (terahertz, or visible light, about 400 trillion cycles per second). So, if you are calling gamma rays and x-rays (which have frequencies higher than that of visible light) "radiation" and the lower frequencies (2.5 GHz or so) employed by microwave ovens and cellular phones something else, then I understand our difference. (See bottom of page for a nice visual representation of the entire EMR spectrum.)
However, if you are saying that there are no human health problems associated with exposure to this "non-ionizing" radio frequency radiation, I would have to disagree. At the very least I would have to say that this is a "gray" area. There are literally thousands of proven bio-effects -- which you acknowledge -- from exposure to low level microwave and radio wave radiation: metabolic processes, cognitive functioning, and macro behavioral responses are all effected by exposure to manmade EMF. There does not have to be a thermal effect (actual heating of body tissue) for these other bio-effects to be observed. The science is pretty conclusive here.
What is not understood is exactly how this non-ionizing radiation contributes to diseases of the circulatory, nervous, and other physiologic systems. The exact etiologies of stroke, cancer, depression, Parkinson's, and cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer's and memory loss are virtually unknown. There are likely hundreds of contributing factors to these diseases, with manmade electromagnetic radiation being but one of them. I believe that it would be incorrect to assume that EMF posed no risk at all. In other words, EMF likely poses a larger risk than you presume. One example of a proven effect -- though we still don't know the mechanism for this -- is cell phone radiation at the 2.45 GHz frequency being able to break DNA bonds (pdf). More from RF Safe here (pdf) and here (pdf). Such DNA effects are thought to lead to genetic mutation and cognitive impairment.
I did a quick Internet search for related information. Though there are likely more "authoritative" sites, RF Safe interested me. From one of their pages: "A resource on non-thermal radiofrequency radiation hazards states non thermal effects have been observed such as calcium ion efflux, blood/brain barrier impairment, disruptions to melatonin [a sleep regulating hormone], and alterations in EEG due to low-intensity modulated radio frequency fields have been observed. Some studies have shown DNA damage resulting from exposure to radiation at a lower field strength than even handheld cellular phones".
G., in your email you say, "There are definite physiological effects of entering a high strength magnetic atmosphere which have been adequately documented (changes in heart rate is one example) but none which have been documented to cause harm as long as the guidelines for what is MRI safe are followed. On occasion, tissue may be warmed or even turn red in areas where unprotected skin touches the bore of the magnet but this is due to the strength of the smaller magnets (gradients) which are utilized during the scan. The only time any interior tissue can be burned is when there are coiled wires within the body (such as are used with pacemakers) that the magnetic lines of force pass through (which induces current)".
There are many criticisms of your position; but I am among the least qualified to mount a strong scientific rebuttal. I have read, however, that there are many factors that diminish the validity of much of the scientific "consensus" regarding the "safety" of EMF. One example is that there is very little understanding about cumulative, chronic exposures to all manmade frequencies over a long period of time. It is hard to design longitudinal studies in this area. There are just too many variables to account for. Also, to presume that the only harm done is that caused by thermal effects is simply false. Many studies, such as those mentioned above, have demonstrated harm -- or at least significant effects -- from weaker exposures. As well, all studies are limited by what data they specifically set out to gather. Information that doesn't fit their hypotheses is typically ignored, or not recorded in the first place. What I mean is that, for example, if all an experiment is looking at in terms of effects of MRI exposure is "heart rate", what effects are being missed/ignored? I would say there are literally thousands of other metabolic, cognitive, and energetic effects that are observable as well -- but they are not recorded or analyzed on account of the limitations of the experimental model being employed. Lastly, the complexity of EMF effects is grossly underestimated. Exposure to EMF effects many bodily or bio-chemical functions simultaneously; and those changes themselves in turn effect other bodily functions. To add further complexity, many of these changes are dependent upon both frequency and field strength of the various forms of EMF that are all present simultaneously in the modern environment. Such complexity overwhelms experimental designs that typically seek to control a single variable and determine a linear cause and effect relationship. It is hard to have such a "control" in an environment when so many other factors are both unknown and changing. But difficulty in determining causation doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.
The problem, currently, is that science has no satisfactory explanatory model for the observed effects. Should this give the green light to wireless industries, simply because no one can scientifically prove causation of a particular disease? I would say that it should not. I would like to see much more restraint and use of the "precautionary principle" (Wingspread Statement [pdf]) (Wikipedia [pdf]) -- as opposed to the "body count method" employed in the USA today.
You say, "I am glad that you toned down your rhetoric as far as the evilness of those who created the MRI machine. It might interest you to know that the creators of the technology were just issued the Nobel Prize for their contributions to mankind. For all their evils, nuclear weapons have ensured that you and I and those who came before us can have a life of our own choosing. In this life there are certain necessary evils...deal with it."
In my view, the Nobel Prize committee could be just as in the dark as mainstream medicine with respect to EMF. Their awarding this prize is just more "social consensus" on the usefulness of the technology; it's not a validation of its safety. I am willing to grant you that nuclear weapons played a role in securing peace during World War II -- though I have heard that dropping nuclear bombs on Japan was not necessary. But I am also aware that their continued presence and proliferation undermine the very security that we aspire to obtain. And this doesn't even take into account the radiation hazards associated with their manufacture, testing, and deployment. I am not seeing President Bush do anything to limit or restrain this dangerous and, ultimately, harmful technology; and now he wants to be able to launch nuclear weapons from outer space! In my view, it is possible for humanity to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy production -- while obtaining the peace we seek. I think that any sane person would desire such a future.
With respect to the benefits of MRIs, I do not doubt there are situations where this technology has proven of great benefit. My point is that people with extreme electrical sensitivity, such as myself, would be better served if they were advised to avoid this modality of medical assessment. The condition of electrical sensitivity is part of a broader category of environmental illness that modern medicine is only now coming to acknowledge. I hope that during the coming decades that modern medical doctors begin to make their decisions with such conditions as mine in mind.
G., I appreciate our having had the opportunity of sharing this intellectual exchange.
I wish you many years of succesful practice in the field of magnetic resonance!
A Reader's Comment
I just read your account of the negative effects of your MRI experience and thought you might find this interesting.
When I had an MRI appointment, I took my gauss meter along out of curiosity (F. W. Bell Triaxial ELF Magnetic Field Meter Model 4080). The staff allowed me to measure the EMF radiating from the MRI machine. This gauss meter only measures up to approximately 500 milligauss (mG) and it was "off the scale" a few feet after walking through the door of the room that housed the MRI machine. (For comparison purposes: In ordinary household environments, this meter typically goes off the scale when held within a few INCHES of an electric fan motor, the back of a TV, electric trimmer, AC power transformer, dishwasher or microwave oven control panel, etc...) As I moved toward it to a point approximately 5-6 feet from the MRI machine, something completely unexpected happened. The force of the magnetic field was so powerful that it suddenly forced the gauss meter out of my hand and knocked it violently away from the MRI machine onto the floor. It reminded me of the magnetic "repulsion" effect that happens sometimes if one tries to force two magnets against each other, except this force was much more powerful than the magnets that children typically play with in science experiments. I have never seen anything else like this in nine years of measuring household EMF levels, areas around powerlines, etc..
Chronic background levels of typically only 30mG or more from nearby powerlines or other sources have been associated with reported cancer clusters. Given the violent strength of the electromagnetic field already well beyond 500mG at approximately TWO YARDS from the inactivated MRI machine, I cannot even start to guess the magnitude of the strength of the MRI magnetic field when a human body is inside of it! Exposing human body tissues to fields that strong is nothing to be taken lightly even if the exposure only lasts a few minutes. Prior to this experience, I was led to believe that the risks of MRI machines are minimal in comparison to other diagnostic options, but after this experience, I believe that people are generally misled into a false sense of complacency about the casual and routine use of MRI machines as the medical industry continues to profit from the combination of excessive MRI referrals and ignorance of the long-term effects. Like you, I also felt negative effects during and after the MRI, though with me it was a general sense of tiredness and exhaustion that seemed to clear up within a few days.
I would consider using an MRI machine again (along with other diagnostic options) if it were a life or death situation in which an MRI scan is likely to provide superior diagnostic benefit. However, I would seriously consider other diagnostic options along with it.
PS. I just did a quick search and found "The magnets in use today in MRI are in the 0.5-Tesla to 2.0-Tesla range, or 5000 to 20000 gauss." From How Stuff Works I believe one tesla = 10,000 gauss = 10,000,000 milligauss and 1 gauss = 1000 milligauss, so I guess a MRI machine magnetic field is somewhere between 10,000-40,000 times stronger than my gauss meter's 500 milligauss maximum range.
From How Stuff Works: "In this photograph, you can see a fully loaded pallet jack that has been sucked into the bore of an MRI system:"
For a better grasp of the electromagnetic spectrum, I present the following visual display (borrowed from this site):
"The biggest and most important component in an MRI system is the magnet. The magnet in an MRI system is rated using a unit of measure known as a Tesla. Another unit of measure commonly used with magnets is the gauss (1 Tesla = 10,000 gauss). The magnets in use today in MRI are in the 0.5-Tesla to 3.0-Tesla range, or 5,000 to 30,000 gauss. Extremely powerful magnets -- up to 60 Tesla -- are used in research. Compared with the Earth's 0.5-gauss magnetic field, you can see how incredibly powerful these magnets are." ~ excerpt from How Stuff Works
When I write about my own spiritual voice or antenna being drowned out by this powerful force, I wasn't joking. If the MRI I had contact with had a 3 Tesla magnetic field strength, then that is 60,000 times greater than the natural background magnetic force of the earth that we spend our entire lives immersed and grounded in. For a newly developing mechanism aimed at amplifying the earth's electromagnetic field (among other sources of naturally occuring EMF), this MRI exposure could well be catastrophic.
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