Sunday, August 31, 2014

Bioelectromagnetic Treatise by a Twentieth Century Pioneer in the Field: Review of “Cross Currents” by Robert O. Becker

Robert Becker (1923 – 2008) was an orthopedic surgeon and pioneering bioelectromagnetic researcher and author. As a scientist, he was a “home run hitter”, someone who was looking for a major breakthrough in medicine. Going for the home run was always rare among scientists; it’s basically non-existent today. For Becker, hitting the home run meant using a new electromagnetic theoretical paradigm of the human body to discover techniques for regeneration of limbs and brain / spinal cord tissue. Imagine if humans could regrow amputated limbs as do salamanders, or reconnect a severed spinal cord. Consider how it would transform the lives of amputees and paraplegics. The scientist who made this discovery would easily become world-famous, win a Nobel Prize, and usher in a paradigm shift in medicine.

Robert O. Becker

Sluggers are more likely to strike out than contact hitters, and Robert Becker struck out. He did not discover a way to regenerate human limbs. His electromagnetic theory of the human body didn’t have the wide-reaching influence he desired. Western medicine and biomedical science are still dominated by the chemical-mechanistic paradigm. Although electromagnetic technology is used in diagnostics (e.g. MRI), medical doctors treat most disorders using drugs and surgery. Harmful effects of non-ionizing electromagnetic fields are dismissed by the medical establishment.

Even though Becker didn’t achieve what he had hoped for, I think that there’s much to be learned from his book Cross Currents: The Promise of Electromedicine, The Perils of Electropollution. This well-written, accessible book, published in 1990, covers a lot of area in the bioelectromagnetic field, and has ideas that may one day lead to major breakthroughs in medicine.


History of energy medicine (Chapter 1)
Electrical and magnetic properties of organisms (Chapters 2 and 3)
Electromagnetic medicine (Chapter 4, 5, and 6)
Health hazards of electromagnetic fields (Chapters 7, 8, and 11)
Manipulative effects of electromagnetic fields (Chapter 9)
Biological mechanisms of action (Chapter 10)
Actions that can be taken (Chapter 12)

History of energy medicine

Becker begins by providing a brief history of medicine, from prehistoric times to the twentieth century. This history is presented from an energy medicine perspective. Although there are some fascinating details presented here, I dislike the simplistic moralistic framework that Becker uses when discussing the historical figures. It reminds me of the Objectivist view of history.

For example, Becker says that there were “3 wrong turns” taken in the history of energy medicine. The first wrong turn was in the victory of Galen’s ideas over Hippocrates’. According to Becker, Hippocrates was “good”, while Galen was “evil”. Hippocrates was an “ideal” physician, not arrogant or certain in his beliefs. Hippocrates recognized that a disease is the complex product of the external agent and the body’s reaction to this agent. “Disease is not an entity, but a fluctuating condition of the patient’s body, a battle between the substance of the disease and the natural self-healing tendency of the body” (p. 14). Galen, on the other hand, was “arrogant, self-serving, and prone to falsehood if it served his purposes” (p. 16). Becker said that Galen had incorrect ideas about anatomy and physiology, and responded to challenges with “a deliberate campaign of falsehoods and vilification” (p. 16). His “false dogma” suppressed any valid experimentation or questioning in the field for 1500 years.

This Hippocrates / good versus Galen / evil dichotomy is simplistic and detracts from what otherwise is an excellent book. I almost stopped reading at this point. Recall that Hippocrates had a theory of the 4 humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) that was not supported by later medical science. Galen had incorrect anatomical concepts because Roman law did not allow the dissection of human cadavers.

The second wrong turn was the reduction of life to chemical machinery that occurred in the twentieth century. Some key scientific advances that led to this were Paul Ehrlich’s discovery of an arsenic compound that cured syphilis in 1909, and Otto Lowei’s discovery of the chemical nature of the synapse in 1921. Scientists rejected any biological effect of electricity unless the current was strong enough to produce shock or burns. They also rejected any biological effects of non-ionizing electromagnetic fields (EMF’s).

The third wrong turn was the triumph of technological medicine. Some highlights of the technological revolution in medicine were:
  • The discovery of antibiotics and their widespread use to cure bacterial infection after World War II.
  • Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA, the subsequent discovery of the genetic code, and the tremendous progress made in the fields of molecular genetics and genetic engineering.
  • Advances in understanding of the body’s chemical processes, along with the use of pharmaceuticals to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Surgical techniques, such as the use of artificial organs and living transplants.
While many of us have benefitted from the advances made by technological medicine, its defects have become evident. Medicine has become increasingly expensive and complex. The promise of finding chemical “magic bullets” for diseases other than infectious diseases has not been successful (and we’re been waiting over 30 years for an AIDS vaccine). Technological medicine is unable to cure or prevent many of the chronic diseases people suffer from.

Electromagnetic technology increases our exposure to fields that we never encountered before (e.g. cell phones, WiFi, Bluetooth), but medicine, by excluding electromagnetic forces from life, doesn’t object at all to this exposure.

Electrical and magnetic properties of organisms

The weak historical chapter is followed by the strongest chapter in the book, entitled “The New Scientific Revolution: The Electrical Connection.” Becker describes the original research he did to understand the electrical control systems used in healing, regeneration, and embryonic development. From the healing of minor cuts, to some organisms’ (e.g. salamanders) ability to regrow legs, eyes, and ears, to the development of a fertilized egg to an adult organism, living beings are capable of amazing feats of growth and healing. What regulates this growth / healing process?

Becker “developed a theory of biological control systems based on concepts derived from electronics, physics, and biology” (p. 30). He theorized that the ancestral living organisms must have been capable of self-repair. He assumed that this self-repair requires a closed-loop (or negative-feedback) control system. This control system is triggered by an injury signal, and initiates a repair process. “As the repair proceeds, the injury signal diminishes, and when the repair is complete the signal stops” (p. 30). This control system doesn’t require consciousness or a sophisticated brain.

As organisms increased in complexity over time, this control system continued to provide the same function it did for simpler life forms. Humans use the same control system as salamanders and frogs. What can be learned from lower animals can be applied to human health.

Why is it if you cut off the foreleg of a salamander, it will grow a new one, complete in anatomical detail; but if you cut off a person’s arm, it will not grow back? The salamander is a simpler vertebrate, humans are more complex, but why should complexity lead to reduced ability to regenerate? Becker tries to answer this question based on his theory of electrical control systems. He studied salamander limb regeneration in depth. The process after a limb amputation is as follows:
  1. Rapid growth of the outermost skin cells in the stump
  2. A day or two later, the cut nerve ends in the stump grow and make a neuroepidermal junction (NEJ) with skin cells. The NEJ is essential for regeneration.
  3. A negative direct current (DC) semiconducting “current of injury” is created by the NEJ
  4. The negative current results in mature cells near the injury site becoming “dedifferentiated”, i.e. converted to an embryonic state.
  5. The mass of embryonic cells, known as “blastema”, reproduce and differentiate into specific cells needed to make a new limb.

Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra)

Becker contrasted salamanders with frogs. While salamanders regenerate limbs, frogs don’t. One difference he noticed is that frogs never produce a negative DC current of injury—frogs have a positive current. Becker concluded that negative current was necessary for regeneration.

Could mammalian limb regeneration be stimulated by negative current? Becker studied rats that had limbs amputated. He found that very small amounts of negative electrical current administered to an amputation site in a rat did indeed initiate a regenerative process. A blastema formed that grew into all the missing structures, including bone, muscle, nerve, tendons, etc. The problem was that the growth did not proceed beyond the elbow joint. There weren’t enough cells sensitive to the negative currents to allow for limb regeneration. In mammals, only some bone marrow cells are sensitive to the negative currents and will dedifferentiate in response to the current. In salamanders, all of its cells are sensitive to negative currents and can potentially dedifferentiate. Mammals (including humans) have the electrical growth control system required for regeneration, but not enough sensitive cells.

Becker develops his theory of the DC electrical control system later in the chapter. Input DC electrical signals carry information about the injury along acupuncture meridians to the brain. Some of the signals get interpreted as pain. The rest of the signals go to more primitive portions of the brain, where they stimulate output DC signals that caused the cellular and chemical mechanisms that promote repair and regeneration.

Becker believes that the DC electrical field contains enough complexity to provide the information necessary for regeneration and development. Each point in an electrical field can be characterized by a unique set of values of voltage, current strength and direction. The information in the electric field may interact with information stored in the DNA of the blastema cells to communicate instructions on how to differentiate and organize to form a body part or organ.

This type of information transfer is independent of the nervous system as science knows it today. Becker postulates a “second nervous system”, involving analog data transmission and control. This contrasts with the digital nervous system that involves neuron action potentials, the one known to neuroscience. The analog system is more primitive, something the first living organisms used, before the digital nervous system evolved. Both nervous systems exist in contemporary animals, including humans.

Becker found that all animals he studied, including humans, that had developed any kind of nervous system had a DC electrical control system (second nervous system) that mirrored the design of the conventional nervous system. Areas where nerve cells were concentrated (e.g. brain, cervical and lumbar enlargements) were electrically positive, and the nerve fibers outflows were negative, becoming increasingly negative the further out from the nerve cells.

I found Becker’s description of negative versus positive currents and potentials unclear. If an electrical current from point A to B is negative (e.g. electrons moving from A to B), then the same current from point B to A is positive. So a key question is: what are the beginning and end points on the body that Becker is measuring this current? This isn’t clear from the book.

We know that neurons are the cells that are involved in information storage and transmission in the digital nervous system. What cells are involved in Becker’s hypothesized analog nervous system? The glial cells, which surround the neurons and have various functions. These functions include:
  • Providing a structural framework
  • Supplying nutrients and oxygen to neurons
  • Electrically insulating neurons (e.g. myelin sheath formed by oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells)
  • Destroying pathogens
  • Cleaning up dead cells.
In an experiment with a tibia fracture in rats, Becker’s student found that Schwann cells can restore normal healing when the nerve supply was cut prior to the fracture.

Becker doesn’t present any evidence demonstrating that glial cells communicate by a DC analog control system. Recent research involving glial cells shows that they have more diverse functions than previously suspected. Radial glial cells have an important function in embryogenesis, acting as a series of guide wires, directing the migration of neurons in the brain. Astrocytes regulate the clearance of neurotransmitters from the synaptic cleft. Astrocytes can communicate with each other using calcium wave signaling, which may play a role in dreams and creative thinking. Although this evidence doesn’t directly support Becker’s thesis, the fact that glial cells are important in development and injury repair, and that they can modulate neuronal transmission, along with communicate with other glia, indicates that Becker may have been on the right track regarding the importance of glial cells.

Human astrocyte

The fact that gliomas are the most common primary brain tumors provides a transition to another topic in this chapter, cancer. Although we would like to see regeneration and growth of cells when there is injury, we don’t want to see the uncontrolled growth characteristic of cancer.

Becker acknowledges the advances in genetic understanding of cancers, including the discovery of oncogenes (genes that promote cancer), tumor-suppressing genes, and the role of some viruses in promoting cancer. These advances in understanding the genetics of cancer have continued since the book was published over 20 years ago. The problem is that these advances haven’t yet led to any major breakthroughs in treatment. Over half a million people in the U.S. died of cancer in 2013, making it the second most common cause of death. Becker would argue that the scientific community’s refusal to look at the bioelectrical perspective on cancer is a major reason that so many people continue to die of cancer, just as scientists’ refusal to look at the bioelectrical perspective on growth and regeneration has prevented any major breakthrough in treating amputees or spinal cord / brain injuries.

Cancer cells are partially dedifferentiated, more like an embryonic cell than an adult one. Becker mentions ideas of a 19th century German pathologist Julius Cohenheim, who thought that if an embryonic control system could be produced in a cancer, the cancer cells would revert to a totally embryonic state. They would then, by the normal process of differentiation, become normal cells. This idea was tested in the 1940’s by Meryl Rose. He transplanted frog kidney-tumor cells into the foreleg of some salamanders. The salamanders developed cancer. Rose then amputated the salamander’s foreleg through the tumor, leaving cancer cells behind in the stump. As the regeneration process took effect, the cancerous tumor merged with the developing blastema. The foreleg grew normally without cancer. Rose examined the foreleg cells microscopically. He found nuclei of the original frog cancer cells in the normal salamander cells in the foreleg. He concluded that “in the presence of a regenerative growth process, cancer cells could revert back to normal cells and become part of the growing blastema” (p. 52).

Rose’s work has been replicated a few times, but is so far outside the mainstream that scientists haven’t paid attention to it. Becker argues that DC electrical currents, which play a crucial role in regeneration, can transform the cancer cell to a normal cell. Mainstream research and clinical practice, on the other hand, has emphasized killing or surgically removing the cancer cells.

It’s difficult to imagine how cancer cells with DNA mutations or chromosomal abnormalities can become transformed to normal. They need to be killed or surgically removed. Becker admits that the “idea that the cancer cell could revert back to a normal cell is very much at odds with present knowledge” (p. 51).

Becker also argues for the vital role of the immune system in fighting cancer. This idea has taken root in recent years, and immunotherapy is now actively being researched in humans, with some remarkable successes. In the case of immunotherapy, drugs are given to the patient that use antibodies to “mark” cancer cells for termination by the immune system.

Electromagnetic fields may be able to treat cancer, but they can also cause cancer. Becker addresses EMF’s as potential carcinogens later in the book.

Magnetic and electrical fields are part of the same basic electromagnetic force. Becker talks about the effects of magnetic fields on living things in the next chapter. This chapter is shorter than the previous chapter, since Becker’s research focus was on electric fields.

Becker talks about the effects of magnetic fields on biological rhythms. Many psychological and psychiatric disturbances are characterized by sleep disturbances.

Free running rhythms occur in the absence of zeitgebers, environmental signals to which biological cycles entrain. The most important zeitgeber is the changing pattern of light and dark. Free running rhythms are usually slightly off from the 24 hour day. Could the geomagnetic field be a secondary zeitgeber that helps entrain biological rhythms in the absence of light?

Becker mentions Frank Brown’s research showing that Earth-strength magnetic fields can alter biological cycles in simpler organisms. “Brown’s experiments indicated clearly that living organisms had the ability to somehow sense these minute daily cycles in the Earth’s magnetic field and to use them to time their biological cycles” (p. 71).

Although magnetic fields can affect circadian rhythms, the idea of the geomagnetic field as a secondary zeitgeber doesn’t have research support. The best argument against this is that free running rhythms become progressively detached from the daily cycle. After a period of many days in constant lighting conditions, the cycles can be hours off from the true daily cycle. In most of these experiments, the environmental geomagnetic field is accessible to the organism studied.

Becker also mentions biological cycles that correspond to the lunar cycle of 28 days (e.g. female menstruation), along with patterns of change in human history that have some relationship to the 22-year solar cycle. For example, political and social disruptions such as revolutions and wars tend to occur during the peak of solar activity, and creative achievement tends to occur at solar activity minimum (or during long periods of no solar activity {e.g. 17th century}). There is some link between magnetic storms and health problems.

Becker collaborated with clinical psychologist Howard Friedman to study the connection between magnetic storms and mental health. They found a significant relationship between the rate of admissions for people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and the occurrence of major magnetic storms. They also found a correlation between level of psychiatric disturbance and levels of neutron flux (reflecting solar / geomagnetic activity).

Becker next presents evidence for two possible “magnetoreceptive organs”. One is the magnetite-based magnetoreceptor. Magnetite is an iron-based compound that can be used to make a compass. First identified in bacteria that use it to swim north, magnetite has been found in many different animal species, including humans. Much of the evidence for a magnetite-based magnetoreceptor comes from behavioral studies of birds; its exact location in the body and the means by which it transmits information to the brain is not yet known.

Becker identifies the second magnetoreceptive organ as the pineal gland, based on the fact that magnetic fields can alter melatonin secretion by the pineal. More recent research identifies the retina of the eye as the second magnetoreceptive organ, based on light sensitivity of magnetic behavioral responses, including melatonin secretion. Direct magnetosensitivity of the pineal gland can’t be ruled out, however, making it the potential third magnetoreceptive organ.

Becker talks about how organisms evolved to perceive the 2 portions of the natural electromagnetic spectrum that are always present on Earth: the geomagnetic field and visible light. The geomagnetic field can be broken down into its steady-state and time-varying components. Micropulsation frequencies are another name for the time-varying component, peaking at between 7 and 10 Hz. Although there is no evidence that organisms can sense micropulsation frequencies, the frequency spectrum of the micropulsations is virtually identical with that of EEG and MEG of all organisms. The major 10 Hz component of the micropulsation frequencies is also the major component of the EEG and MEG, and the most commonly used frequency for electrosensing.

Electromagnetic medicine

After presenting the scientific background for the book, Becker then turns to clinical applications. He groups the different electromagnetic clinical treatment approaches based on the amount of energy they transfer to the person:
  • Minimal energy: no external energy administered to the body. Examples are hypnosis and visualization.
  • Energy-reinforcement techniques: external energies are administered to the body, but at natural levels. These include acupuncture and homeopathy.
  • High-energy transfer techniques: energy is administered to the body at greater-than-natural levels. These include TENS and PEMF.
Becker generally adheres to the principle that the less energy transferred, the better. Most traditional treatments fall under the minimal energy or energy-reinforcement categories; most contemporary technological treatments fall in the high-energy transfer category.

Becker found that humans exhibited the same relationship between level of consciousness and DC current strength as lower organisms. Sleep caused a modest drop of current, and deep general anesthesia resulted in a drop in potentials to zero, beginning with the brain, then the extremities. This is relevant in understanding the state of consciousness known as hypnosis. Hypnosis is a minimal-energy technique. In true hypnosis, the DC potential from the front to back of the head undergoes a similar drop in strength as occurs during very deep sleep. In fake hypnosis, the DC potential goes up in strength.

Hypnosis can be used to produce local anesthesia. It’s possible to give a suggestion for the hypnotized person that one of his body parts is numb and unfeeling. Becker did an experiment to find out if DC potential across the numbed left arm on a hypnotized subject dropped, similar to how it dropped if a chemical local anesthetic was given. He found that the DC potential dropped to zero after a few minutes of hypnotic anesthesia. At the same time, the subject didn’t respond to a pinprick on the left hand or lower arm. The subject was then given a suggestion that the feeling in his left arm was returning. The DC potential in the left arm returned to normal. “The decline in the DC potentials along the [hypnotic] anesthetized left arm was exactly the same as that seen during standard chemical nerve block” (p. 91).

Becker sees hypnotic anesthesia as an example of how verbal commands can be given to the conscious digital portion of the brain, which can then control the operations of the DC analog system. Other examples of this minimal-energy technique include meditation, visualization, biofeedback, and the placebo effect. Indian yogis are extreme examples of mastery of the DC analog system, which means mastery of autonomic system control. They have the ability to control intestinal movements, slow their respiration and heart rate to near zero, and raise or lower their body temperatures.

Indian Yogi

Becker provides some examples of people who use self hypnosis, visualization, or the placebo effect to produce remarkable changes in their body. One is a Vietnam war veteran who had a severely infected nonunion of a fracture of a tibia, requiring several surgeries. Becker’s colleague Howard Friedman instructed the veteran on how to use self-hypnosis to control the postoperative pain, and to increase blood flow to the injured part of his leg.

Becker tells the story of Garrett Porter, who at the age of 9 was diagnosed with an inoperable and fatal brain tumor. Visualization is a technique in which the patient is instructed to look inward, to visualize a disease, and also visualize the immune system attacking the disease. Using this technique, Garrett was able to visualize the tumor in detail. After about a year of X-ray treatment combined with biofeedback, Garrett told his father that he couldn’t see the tumor anymore. No one believed him, but a CAT scan a month later confirmed the boy’s belief that the tumor was gone.

Becker argues against orthodox medicine’s attack on the placebo effect. Medicine considers a treatment valid if it has been clearly demonstrated to influence the target chemical system without the intrusion of psychological effects. But what if the psychological treatment, the placebo, is just as effective as the chemical treatment? This is the case for depression—the antidepressant pill is not significantly better than placebo for most patients. Why don’t doctors prescribe placebos for depression, reducing treatment costs and eliminating side effects? Irving Kirsch talks about this in his book The Emperor’s New Drugs (which I review here). Kirsch argues against deception by doctors who prescribe inert pills. He argues instead for the “honest” placebo of psychotherapy to treat depression.

Doctors today often inadvertently use a nocebo, or negative placebo effect, to take away the patient’s hope for recovery. This is done in the name of honesty. For example, doctors will tell a cancer patient that nothing can be done, that he has 6 months to live. Becker says that “I have personally known of far too many patients who have died exactly on the day that a physician’s estimate predicted” (p. 102). This “honesty” doesn’t take into account the possibility of spontaneous remissions or alternative treatments that sometimes work. It also destroys the patient’s enjoyment of the time remaining.

Becker talks about natural healing, the oldest medical technique, with its origin in preliterate hunter-gatherer societies. Becker isn’t sure if healers operate via the placebo effect, or by electromagnetic energy flowing between the healer and patient. Becker argues against the placebo effect by saying that preconditioned patients are in the minority. Also, Chinese healers work successfully with animals, and the placebo effect doesn’t apply to animals.

Becker is a believer in healing. “I have seen remarkable results obtained in a number of life-threatening circumstances” (p. 107). One example was Olga Worrall. In her later years, she conducted one healing session a week, in the basement of a neighborhood church. “[H]er patients reported experiencing a feeling of great calm and contentment and a sensation of having received ‘something’” (p. 107). Olga felt that healing took something out of her, forcing her to limit her treatments as she got older.

One explanation of healing is that the healer uses his “own electrical control systems to produce external electromagnetic fields that interact with those of the patient” (p. 108). This interaction could restore balance in the patient, and help the body return to normal.

Chinese scientists studied practitioners of Chi Gong, the Chinese version of healing. This ancient therapy, along with acupuncture, has existed for thousands of years in China. Researchers used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to determine if Chi Gong masters gave off EM radiation. They studied a chemical in a sealed glass container. Chi Gong masters were directed to “treat” the chemical by holding their hands at a certain distance from the container. Following the treatment, the NMR spectrum of the chemical changed significantly.

I have some experience with Reiki, which is a kind of healing technique. I’ve both given and received Reiki. I feel that there is some type of energy transfer occurring with Reiki. Some people have stronger energy than others, i.e. energy that affects me more. Doing Reiki can make me tired. Sometimes the psychological changes induced by Reiki can last for days.

Becker next turns to energy-reinforcement techniques, techniques that add, or reinforce, existing internal energies through the application of small amounts of external energy. He begins with homeopathy, which seems an odd choice for an energy-reinforcement technique. The homeopathic technique starts with some substance that causes a symptom in a person. It then dilutes the substance and subjects it to mechanical agitation, producing a final product that has little to no trace of the active agent. The product is supposed to help treat the symptom.

Becker presents research evidence and his own clinical experience supporting the effectiveness of some homeopathic remedies, but doesn't clearly state how this can be considered a bioelectromagnetic remedy, i.e. how it transfers energy to a person.

The other energy-reinforcement technique Becker mentions, acupuncture, has a much clearer bioelectromagnetic basis. Becker theorizes that the acupuncture meridians are electrical transmission lines for his hypothesized DC analog nervous system, and acupuncture points are booster amplifiers. This system of transmission lines and amplifiers transmits the pain signal. Needles inserted at the acupuncture point produce electrical disturbance, preventing the pain signals from being amplified. The patient experiences pain relief.

Becker and colleague Maria Reichmanis studied the electrical characteristics of acupuncture points and meridians. They found that about 25% of the acupuncture points on the human forearm did exist, that they had specific, reproducible electrical parameters, and could be found in all subjects tested. They found that meridians had electrical characteristics of transmission lines, while nonmeridian skin didn't have these characteristics.

Clinical studies of acupuncture pain relief in humans have had difficulty in showing significant improvement of acupuncture over placebo. The medical establishment views acupuncture as utilizing the placebo effect to treat pain. Interestingly, acupuncture has been increasingly used by veterinarians to treat pain, arthritis, and epilepsy in animals. Any effect on animals cannot be explained by the placebo effect.

Becker is critical of devices that apply electrical currents to acupuncture points, saying that it overloads the body with energy, and can possibly cause electrolysis and cellular damage.

This last sentence provides a transition to high-energy transfer techniques, which Becker discusses in the next chapter. After providing a brief history of electromagnetic devices, Becker discusses some safety concerns about the devices:
  • Electricity passing through any substance may produce heat. For human skin, any current above 1 mA / cm^2 can produce cell damage from heat.
  • If electricity is administered via electrodes made of metal, the positive electrode will give off possibly toxic ions. This toxic effect can occur for tissue at some distance from the electrode.
  • When subjected to electric voltage, the water in the tissues can undergo electrolysis, the breaking up of water into its constituent elements hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen gas can be toxic to cells. The electrolysis level of voltage in animal tissues is 1.1 volts.
Becker discusses Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS), which is used primarily for pain relief. TENS involves 2 electrodes attached to the skin over the painful area. The electrodes are attached via wire to a battery-powered pulse generator. The device is capable of delivering a wide variety of waveforms, pulse shapes, frequencies, and current densities. The patient is able to choose whatever combination gives him the most pain relief.

Becker has found that TENS devices produce local skin irritation at the electrode sites. He is concerned about potential side effects of high levels of pulsating current. He recommends that the devices only be used for chronic painful conditions that are unrelieved by standard treatments, and that they should not be used on the head, neck, and spinal cord.

Becker talks about an interesting experimental procedure using electrotherapy for drug addiction. Margaret Patterson, a British surgeon, tested out using low levels of pulsed electrical current to the head of drug-addicted patients. As soon as electrodes were applied, even severely addicted patients could completely stop all drugs. After a 6 week treatment, their personality changed from drug addicted to non-drug addicted.

Another application of electromagnetic devices is the treatment of bone fractures. Becker and his colleague Andrew Bassett demonstrated that bone growth in adult dogs could be stimulated electrically using implanted electrodes. They found a large mass of bone had grown in the marrow cavity in the dog’s femur around the negative electrode.

In the 1970’s, researchers developed new devices to stimulate bone growth in fractures that failed to heal. One involved implanting electrodes in bone marrow near the fracture site, and applying DC current. Another type of device emitted a pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF). Although both devices were successful in inducing bone growth, Becker opposed FDA approval of the devices. He thought that safety issues were not adequately addressed, and that the devices worked by producing injury that triggered reactive bone growth. Another concern was that the electrical and magnetic fields might promote cancer. Becker mentions several studies done by him and others that link electric and magnetic field exposure with increased growth of cancer cells.

PEMF device

Health hazards of electromagnetic fields

After discussing uses of electromagnetism in treating disease and injury, Becker turns to the contentious topic of how electromagnetic fields may be harming human health. Becker begins this section on “electromagnetic pollution” by discussing how changes in the geomagnetic field can affect life. Becker talks about how magnetic field reversals may have caused extinction of species. Magnetic field reversals are rare events; the last one occurred 780,000 years ago. A reversal involves a gradual change in polarity (i.e. north pole becomes south pole), and can take up to 10,000 years to complete. Becker mentions research by James Hays that 6 of the 8 extinctions of radiolarians (single-celled aquatic organisms) were concurrent with magnetic field reversals.

How do geomagnetic field reversals cause extinctions? The magnetic field never drops to zero during a reversal. The atmosphere and the geomagnetic field combine to shield the Earth from high energy particles from the solar wind. Becker speculates that reversals may be accompanied by major changes in magnetic-field micropulsations, which may have adversely affected the species that later became extinct.

Becker then discusses the deleterious health consequences of artificial electromagnetic fields. He begins by explaining that the electromagnetic field we are exposed to in the developed world is unnatural. He shows two opposing charts. One is the natural electromagnetic field in the spectrum between DC and visible light. Most of this spectrum is empty. The micropulsation frequencies are between 0 and 30 Hz. Lighting flashes are between 10 and 20 kHz. Visible light is in the terahertz range. These are the only natural electromagnetic fields affecting organisms. The other chart is the man-made electromagnetic field in the same spectrum. Most of the gaps in the natural spectrum are filled with artificial fields, including electric power, military ELF/VHF, AM and FM radio, shortwave, TV, and microwave. Since Becker wrote this book, civilian exposure to radio and microwave frequencies have increased, with the widespread use of Wi-Fi, cell phones, Bluetooth, microwave ovens, and other gadgets.

Becker next does a detailed presentation of various research findings showing the biological harm of microwave and power frequency EMF’s. One question in the research literature is whether biological effects “below thermal level” can be of concern. It’s known that microwaves above a certain level of intensity can produce heating of biological tissues (e.g. microwave oven). What about if the microwaves are below this level? Do they still have biological effects?

Studies done in the 1940’s tested whether low-power doses of microwaves can create cataracts in animals. The studies found that animals developed cataracts 42 days after exposure. Military-funded studies done in the 1950’s and 1960’s found that microwave-induced cataracts were produced by a heating effect. In the 1970’s, independent studies replicated the finding from the 1940’s that non-thermal levels of microwaves caused latent cataracts.

In the 1950’s, the medical officer for Hughes Aircraft reported between 75 and 100 cases of unexplained bleeding, as well as significant excess of leukemias and brain tumors among Hughes workers exposed to low-strength microwaves.

Also in the 1950’s, researchers reported that a short exposure to pulsed, 27 Mhz radio-frequency fields produced chromosomal abnormalities in the cells of the growing root tips of garlic plants.

Non-thermal biological effects of microwaves continued to be controversial, since no known mechanism could explain their effects. Based on the thermal level, an ANSI standard of microwave exposure of 10 milliwatts per square centimeter was developed for military and civilian use. “Researchers who reported hazardous bioeffects with microwave exposures at levels below this standard were ignored or ridiculed, and their research funds were withdrawn” (p. 194). Becker and other scientists continued to criticize this standard as inadequate.

In the 1980’s researchers at the FDA found that sperm production of mice decreased with a short exposure to nonthermal levels of microwaves. They also found that this was accompanied by significant abnormal changes in sperm chromosomal structure. When exposed male mice were mated with unexposed females, a significant increase in fetal loss was found. Researchers concluded that the mechanism appeared to be a direct effect of the microwaves on the chromosomes.

In the 1960’s, A. T. Sigler reported that children born to fathers who were military radar operators had a significantly higher incidence of Down’s syndrome. A study done 12 years later was unable to replicate this finding.

Long-Range Radar Antenna

Vernon, New Jersey, a small town of about 25,000, was fifth in the nation in numbers of microwave transmitters. The incidence of Down’s syndrome in this town was almost 1000% above the national average. The EPA, CDC, and NJ Dept. of Health investigated this possible link, but arrived at negative findings. Becker and others believed that the investigations were botched.

Becker next discusses health consequences of power line frequencies. While the microwave fields are in millions and billions of cycles per second, power lines in the U.S. are at the other end of the spectrum, 60 cycles per second (known as “extremely low frequency, or ELF). ELF fields have very high wavelengths (3000 miles for 60 Hz fields), and low energy content. For this reason, they were believed by experts to be completely safe for humans.

ELF fields can be transmitted great distances, and can penetrate into the ground and oceans. The U.S. Navy decided to make use of ELF’s for communicating to submarines. A large antenna system, code name SANGUINE, was constructed at Clam Lake in rural Wisconsin. This antenna operated at either 45 or 70 Hz. The SANGUINE was able to communicate with submerged nuclear submarines as far away as the Indian Ocean.

The Navy commissioned studies of the biological effects of EMF’s from the SANGUINE system. Becker was one of the outside experts asked to review the study results. They found a number of positive results. The most disturbing to Becker was that a one-day exposure to the magnetic-field component of the SANGUINE signal produced a significant increase in serum-triglyceride levels in 9 out of 10 subjects. Serum-triglyceride levels are increased by the stress response. All workers operating the test antenna at Clam Lake had similar elevations of serum triglycerides.

The SANGUINE study results should concern people about exposure to 60 Hz power line fields. The field strength from SANGUINE was a million times smaller than that of the field produced by the ultrahigh-voltage electric power transmission lines. Becker tried to use the study results to oppose the construction of 10 ultrahigh-voltage power lines in New York State. The Navy denied that the studies had taken place and that there was any evidence of harm from ELF fields. Becker was able to effect a moratorium on constructing these lines, and a five-year scientific study of the possible hazards.

Becker studied the effects of rats on chronic exposure to 60 Hz power fields. He found that exposed rats had higher infant mortality rates and lower birth rates than unexposed controls. These results are identical to studies of rat populations continuously subjected to stress.

High-Voltage Power Lines

British physician Stephen Perry observed that patients who lived near electric power lines had a higher incidence of mental disturbances and suicide. Becker collaborated with Perry and found a significant relationship between power-line exposure and suicide in Perry’s area.

Nancy Wertheimer of the U. of Colorado found that low-strength 60 Hz fields were significantly related to the incidence of childhood cancers. The 3 milligauss strength she studied is many times smaller than the normal geomagnetic field, and far below the average strength at a fifty foot distance from the standard transmission line.

The above research results were severely criticized by other scientists on the basis of no known physical mechanism to explain them.

The New York State Department of Health commissioned studies of the health effects of power line frequencies. The study was funded by utility companies. David Savitz of the University of North Carolina tried to replicate Wertheimer’s results. After a five year, $500,000 study, Savitz found that 20% of childhood cancers were produced by exposure to 3 milligauss power line fields. Results from other studies in this project included reports of significant behavioral and CNS effects of power line EMF’s, as well as stimulating effects on cancer-cell growth.

Despite these results, the utilities were reluctant to act on them. The Public Service Commission, which commissioned the study, set a “safe” level of power line exposure of 100 milligauss, which is more than 30 times the level at which Wertheimer and Savitz found a connection to childhood cancers. The reason for the high level is that 100 milligauss is the exposure at the right-of-way of the standard 345kV transmission line. If a lower safety level is set, then the right-of-way around almost all transmission lines would have to be considerably enlarged. Also distribution lines near homes might have to have their power reduced. Utilities were reluctant to do this.

Other studies explored the line between ELF fields and cancer. Wendell Winters of the U. of Texas found that cancer cells increased their rate of growth by several hundred percent after a 24 hour exposure to 60 Hz fields. These results were replicated by Winters and his colleague Jerry Phillips. Human cancer cells can permanently increase their rate of growth by as much as 1600%, and develop more malignant characteristics.

Jose Delgado exposed chick embryos to ELF fields of 3 different frequencies (10, 100, and 1000 Hz), and extremely low field strengths. Embyronic malformations were produced with all 3 frequencies, with most occurring with the 100 Hz fields. At this frequency, major developmental defects were produced by field strengths as low as 1 milligauss.

In 1986, the U.S. Navy sponsored a study involving 5 separate laboratories to replicate Delgado’s experiment. Five of the six labs did replicate this study, reporting that “very low-level, very low-frequency, pulsed magnetic fields contribute to increased abnormality incidences in early embryonic chicks” (p. 210).

How can ELF and microwave frequencies have similar biological effects? Becker thinks that this is a result of the modulation of the high-frequency microwave signal at lower frequencies. Supporting evidence is from research by W. Ross Adey of the Loma Linda Medical Center. He found that the release of calcium ions from nerve cells following exposure to 16 Hz fields may also be produced by exposure of nerve cells to microwaves modulated at 16 Hz. Since body systems are tuned to natural frequencies between 0 and 30 Hz, it makes sense that biological effects of high frequency signals are caused by modulation. Frequencies that are slightly above the natural frequencies (e.g. 60 Hz power lines) will be sensed by the body, and generate health effects.

Becker summarizes the research findings of effects of artificial magnetic fields:
  • Effects on growing cells. One example is the increase in the rate of cancer-cell division. There is also the increase in the incidence of certain cancers.
  • Embryotic abnormalities.
  • Alterations in neurochemicals, resulting in mental health problems
  • Changes in biological rhythms
  • Stress responses that, if prolonged, could lead to declines in immune-system functioning
  • Deleterious effect on learning
Becker wrote this book for the general public. It’s not a scientific review article. He includes research studies that support his viewpoint, but doesn't include any contradictory studies. The lack of consistency and reproducibility has hindered the scientific acceptance of harmful effects of non-ionizing EMF’s.

Since the book was published in 1990, exposure patterns to EMF’s have changed. In the developed countries, exposure to power frequency EMF’s is basically the same. We had power lines and electrical power and appliances then; we have them now. In developing countries, with rapid industrialization and migration to cities, there has been a massive increase in exposure to power frequency EMF’s.

Exposure to radio frequency / microwave EMF’s has greatly increased in both developed and developing world. Some of the big technological changes include the proliferation of cell phones, WiFi, and Bluetooth.

Research on the health consequences of exposure to EMF’s has continued in the past few decades. There have been thousands of studies from all over the world. As in Becker’s time, there continues to be inconsistent results.

Mechanisms of how EMF’s can affect biology aren't understood. The consequence of lack of reproducibility and lack of understanding of mechanisms has hindered scientific acceptance of health risks of EMF’s. As a consequence, there has been little to no regulation of electromagnetic technology in any country.

Becker may have been right about these risks, but he was unable to prove them, and his successors in the research field also have been unable to prove them.

One thing I would like to see is more research on the effects of EMF’s on sleep. I think that I’m much more sensitive to EMF’s when sleeping than awake. Epidemiological studies on residential exposure cannot distinguish whether EMF’s affected people when they were sleeping versus awake. Most human lab studies of effects of EMF’s have been waking studies. This is mainly due to convenience and lower expense and time required. There need to be more lab studies of sleep effects of EMF’s on humans and animals.

Another important area of research is differential degree of sensitivity to EMF’s. I don’t think that people are equally sensitive to EMF’s. I am much more sensitive than most people. EMF’s can affect different people in different ways. Some people may be more prone to cancer, others to psychiatric disorders, others to heart problems, or neurological problems, etc.

After discussing how EMF’s affect health, Becker discusses “The New Plagues”, which are both new diseases and increases in prevalence and virulence of existing diseases. Among new diseases, Becker mentions first “Electromagnetic-Hypersensitivity Syndrome”. Becker initially didn’t believe that this was a real thing, but due to the number of complaints he changed his mind. William Rae, a former surgeon from Texas who suffered from the condition due to technology in the operating room, established a clinic in Dallas that tested people for electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

Exposure to a novel electromagnetic field is always the inciting cause of the illness for people reporting this problem. This triggers an abrupt onset of symptoms. People become sensitive to many common devices that never before produced any symptoms in them (e.g. TV’s, computers, stereos, fluorescent lights, telephones, etc.). There is a range of severity for those affected. Some patients develop severe neurological responses, including confusion, depression, decreased memory, sleep disturbances, convulsions, or grossly abnormal behavior. Others only have mild symptoms. The only treatment other than psychotherapy or drugs is to avoid exposure to the offending fields.

Scientists are no longer allowed to call this condition “Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome”. They have to call it “Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance Attributed to Electromagnetic Fields”. The reason for is that research has not supported the connection between the symptoms and electromagnetic fields. Many double-blind provocation studies have been done, in which the patient is given real versus sham exposure. Most patients get symptoms from sham exposure as much as real exposure. The patients also can’t distinguish between real exposure and sham exposure. When looking at objective measurements like physiological measurements or cognitive changes, studies have also been unable to identify differences between sham and real exposure.

I had a severe psychological reaction after trying out a new headset at work recently. I had a major mood change after one phone call using the headset, and started hearing voices. The severe symptoms (lasting several hours) were in contrast to the minor mental fatigue I got from my old headset. The two wired headsets look similar, and probably have identical electrical characteristics. I had a severe reaction years ago to a Bluetooth headset. My cell phone doesn’t bother me nearly as much, even though it is putting out a stronger radio signal than a Bluetooth headset.

The above example shows the challenges in this type of research. A person’s sensitivity to a device is probably idiosyncratic and hard to duplicate. Not everyone who claims to be sensitive to electromagnetic fields is in fact sensitive. Most studies are done on waking patients out of convenience. I’m much more sensitive to electromagnetic fields when sleeping. If I was to choose a type of waking sensitivity for an experimenter to test in me, I would choose headsets / headphones.

Becker mentions Chronic-Fatigue Syndrome, which has similar symptoms to Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity, but with a less clear connection to electromagnetic fields. This syndrome has been especially prevalent among workers in Silicon Valley.

Correlational evidence for the connection between autism and EMF’s is that autism was first identified in the 1940’s, a time when there was a major and rapid increase in exposure to electromagnetic fields among people in developed countries (via electrical power and appliances). Brain imaging research shows that children with autism have structural differences in the cerebellum compared to controls. There has been research showing some pathological changes in the cerebellum of experimental animals after exposure to microwaves. Whether the structural changes in the cerebellum of children with autism is caused by microwave or other EMF exposure hasn’t been determined. It’s also unclear if the cerebellar structural changes are connected with autistic symptoms.

William Sturner found that babies who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) had significantly lower levels of melatonin than infants who died of other causes. Melatonin level was reduced both in the brain and blood. Since the pineal gland produces melatonin, and the pineal may be a magnetic sense organ, there may be some connection between EMF’s and SIDS.

Some diseases which have been around for a long time, but are increasing in prevalence, include Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, cancer, and psychiatric disorders. Becker doesn't provide any evidence that links Alzheimer’s Disease or Parkinson’s Disease with EMF’s. There is some research support connecting Alzheimer’s disease to occupational exposure of ELF fields.

In other parts of the book, Becker links cancer and EMF’s (e.g. EMF’s can increase the rate of multiplication of cancer cells). He focuses on melanoma in this section. Melanoma has had a worldwide increase in prevalence in recent years. The main environmental risk factor is exposure to UV radiation in sunlight or tanning booths. Becker speculates that other, low frequency or DC fields may also be a risk factor for melanoma. He mentions the high prevalence of melanoma among workers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Workers there are routinely exposed to high DC magnetic field levels.

The strongest connection between EMF’s and any disease is the connection between ELF fields and childhood leukemia. A recent review article concludes that there is a 1.4 to 1.7- fold increased risk for developing childhood leukemia at high levels of exposures to ELF fields. This corresponds to a global 2% of childhood leukemia cases that can be attributed to ELF fields (4% in the Northern America).

One supposed cancer connection that has received a lot of publicity is the connection between cell phone use and brain cancer. There has been a lot of research in this area, but according to The National Cancer Institute, studies have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancer.

In the 1980’s it was revealed that people under the age of 45 had twice the prevalence rate of mental disorders as people older than 45. Between 1950 and 1977, the suicide rate for 15-to-19-year-olds rose fourfold in males, and doubled in females. This trend of increased rate of psychiatric disorders among children and younger people has only accelerated in the 24 years since this book was published.

According to Becker, “[o]ver the past three or four decades, some environmental factor has been introduced that has seriously influenced the basic levels of mental functioning, perhaps in the entire population” (p. 264). There is little research supporting a connection between EMF’s and psychiatric disorders. Becker did a study linking geomagnetic storms and behavior of hospitalized psychiatric patients. On my website, I present evidence for a link between my psychiatric disorder and magnetoreceptive abilities.

Overall, the evidence linking any of the diseases Becker mentions in this section and non-ionizing EMF’s is extremely weak. This hasn't changed much since the book was written. Becker may be right about some of the diseases, but there is no proof.

Manipulative effects of electromagnetic fields

After talking about the harmful effects of EMF’s to health, Becker discusses how electrical / EMF stimulation of the brain can be used to manipulate and control animals and people. He focuses on research by Spanish neurophysiologist Jose Delgado. Delgado studied electrical stimulation of the brains of animals and humans. In rats, electrical stimulation of the “pleasure center” of the brain led to extreme compulsive behavior. Given a choice to press 2 levers, one that delivered food, and the other that delivered electrical stimulation of the brain’s pleasure center, rats chose to press the lever that provided stimulation of the pleasure center, even if it resulted in them dying of starvation.

Jose Delgado

Another famous Delgado animal electrical stimulation experiment was recorded and played on TV around the world. Delgado first implanted electrodes in a bull’s brain. He then stopped the charging bull in its tracks by activating the electrodes, using a radio transmitter when only a short distance from the bull in the ring.

Delgado extended his research to human subjects. He “discovered the exact parts of the brain in which electrical stimulation produced fear, anxiety, pleasure, euphoria, or rage in human subjects” (pp. 221-222). For example, stimulation of one site could cause flirtatious, sexually aggressive behavior in normally reserved young women. Other sites could inhibit aggressive behavior.

Delgado promoted this technique for behavior modifications of psychiatric patients. Some patients reported that electrical stimulation of the brain was so powerful that they were unable to resist its power. Delgado’s book Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society summarized his experiments and viewpoint.

While these experiments are interesting and thought provoking, very few people have undergone brain surgery to implant electrodes. Brain surgery comes with major risks and is only done today in the most extreme cases of neurological or psychiatric disorders. What’s frightening is the manipulation of behavior by ELF electromagnetic fields, a topic that Delgado studied later in his career. Delgado was able to use low strength ELF fields to produce either sleep or manic behavior in monkeys. In other experiments, he was able to change the effects of electrical stimulation of the monkey’s brain by pretreating the monkey with an ELF field.

There isn't a large evolutionary distance between monkeys and people. Electromagnetic fields are invisible and undetectable without specialized equipment that most people don’t have. ELF fields can travel long distances and can penetrate most common building materials. The secretive use of ELF fields to control or manipulate behavior of people is a scientific possibility.

Becker concludes this section by mentioning that the low strength EMF used by Delgado in his monkey experiments isn't strong enough to stimulate neuron firing. It must be acting on the brain by a different mechanism, perhaps by affecting the secondary DC analog nervous system that Becker proposed in Chapter 2.

Biological mechanisms of action

Becker understood the importance of identifying a mechanism for effects of EMF’s on organisms to achieve acceptance of health hazards of these fields. One possible mechanism is the “antenna theory”. This theory postulates that the maximum transfer of energy to the human body is by radiation with wavelength equal to the dimensions of the body. Electromagnetic radiation in the FM band (88 – 108 MHz) has wavelength in this range. Unless a person is very close to the FM transmitter and received adequate power from the signal, however, tissue heating from the radiation couldn't occur.

The antenna theory doesn't explain any biological effects of ELF radiation, which has wavelength in the range of thousands of kilometers. Becker hypothesizes that biological effects of ELF radiation are due to the cyclotron resonance effect. This effect alters the motion of a charged particle or ion. It occurs due to the interaction of a steady magnetic field combined with an oscillating electric or magnetic field. In this case of biological effects of ELF radiation, the geomagnetic field is the steady field, and the ELF radiation is the oscillating electromagnetic field. Considering the average strength of the geomagnetic on the Earth’s surface (between 0.2 and 0.6 gauss), the resonant frequencies for biologically important ions are in the ELF region.

The cyclotron resonance theory was tested by researchers at the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center. The experiment involved rats exposed to a field producing resonance with the lithium ion. They used the power-line frequency of 60 Hz, and a steady magnetic field of 0.2 gauss. Rats exposed to this field exhibited much less activity, and were more passive and submissive than control rats. This is a similar effect to giving rats large doses of lithium.

Becker speculates that healers may utilize resonance to sense diseased areas in the patients. People communicating via ESP may also utilize resonance, with the geomagnetic field as the steady field. This would explain why a disturbed geomagnetic field interferes with ESP.

Actions that can be taken

Becker’s last chapter deals with action—what changes individuals should make in their own life to limit exposure to electromagnetic fields, and what kind of collective action should people take. Important considerations are risk / benefit and dose-rate. How does the benefit of the electromagnetic device or electric transmission line compare to its risks? Nothing in life is risk-free. We should only take action to stop exposure if the risk clearly outweighs the benefits.

Dose-rate is another important consideration. He gives an example of an electric razor. If it’s plugged into a wall outlet, it creates very high EMF’s, 200 to 400 milligauss one-half inch away from the cutting edge of the razor. Because 60 Hz fields of only 3 milligauss have been shown to have some cancer risk, this is concerning. But the electric razor is only used for a few minutes a day. Compare this to an electric blanket, which generates somewhat lower EMF’s, but is used for hours, providing a larger total dose of EMF’s to the user.

Becker discusses the cathode-ray TV sets and computer monitors that were prevalent at the time he wrote this book. These devices emitted broadband radiation, from 60 Hz to MHz range. Exposure by pregnant women to the EMF’s produced by these devices may have been responsible for some miscarriages and birth defects. The replacement of these bulky devices with LCD and Plasma TV’s and monitors has led to less EMF exposure in the office and home, a win for public health.

Fluorescent lights are the main source of light in public buildings such as offices and schools, and are also replacing incandescent bulbs for residential use. While incandescent lights emit in a broadband spectrum in the visible range, fluorescent lights only emit in a narrow range of frequencies. Incandescent lights are more like natural sunlight. Compared to incandescent lights, fluorescent lights emit much stronger EMF’s, 20 times or greater strength. Since people are exposed to these lights for hours, the EMF exposure is a source of concern, something that is overlooked compared to the benefits (e.g. longer life and less power consumption than incandescent).

Other devices that emit EMF’s that may be harmful include electric clocks, hairdryers, electric heaters, microwave ovens, and mobile phones. Probably the device that has been researched the most is the mobile phone, since it emits powerful RF EMF’s very close to the head. Becker would argue that dose-rate considerations are important here. Someone who doesn’t talk much on the mobile phone is at much less risk than someone who spends hours on the phone each day. Exposure to hairdryers is usually only a few minutes per day, except for people who work in the beautician industry. Microwave ovens are probably safe if there are no leaks of radiation due to damage to the device.

Living close (less than a half mile) from a TV or FM broadcast tower can be a problem. A major obstacle (such as a hill) between you and the tower can mitigate exposure. AM transmitters don’t require line of sight, so hills won’t block exposure. Microwave, like TV and FM, requires line of sight. Without expensive measurement equipment, it’s impossible to determine your exposure to this kind of radiation. Even if you had the equipment, there are no federal guidelines to exposure other than the ANSI standard of 5 mW/cm^2, which is a high level, unlikely to be met.

It’s easier for the community to organize to prevent a proposed installation than to shut down an existing one. The money involved in the proposed installation makes it a difficult fight to prevent construction. Citizens’ groups can use the press and media to help make their case. They can also use their voting powers. Scientific experts will usually side with the company that is trying to build the installation. A typical recommendation from an expert consultant is that while some risk may be present, it isn’t enough to prevent an installation from being constructed.


The most important part of the book is Chapter 2, in which Becker proposes a second nervous system involved in growth and repair. This analog system, in which glial cells exchange information by means of semiconducting DC currents, evolved before the digital nervous system known to neuroscience. This second nervous system interacts with the magnetoreceptive organs. Understanding this system could help biology better understand the processes involved in development of organisms, self-healing and repair, how a salamander can regenerate an entire limb while humans cannot, how animals navigate by means of information in the geomagnetic field, and how alternative therapies like acupuncture, meditation, and hypnosis work. Understanding this system can also help medicine come up with new therapies for conditions and diseases in which it provides very little help today: brain and spinal cord damage, limb amputations, psychiatric disorders, Alzheimer’s Disease, metastatic cancer, autism, etc.

It’s a pity that Becker didn't develop this theory further. I’m not aware of any current research that is attempting to test or extend this theory. It’s not taught in the standard biology or neuroscience curriculum. Although as presented in this book it’s highly simplified, this is a fascinating idea that needs to be pursued. Considering the complexity of biological systems, it’s guaranteed that the reality of the electromagnetic properties of the human body is incredibly complicated. This explains the failure of replication in so much bioelectromagnetic research.

Understanding the mechanisms involved will not be easy, but Becker’s theory combined with current scientific knowledge is the best way to tackle this problem.

Becker should have focused on developing his theory rather than battling utility companies over new transmission lines. His idea of a general public health hazard of electromagnetic technology has not been scientifically supported. There have been thousands of studies from all over the world. Aside from a small increased risk for childhood leukemia, electromagnetic technology, including the old power lines and TV stations, and newer gadgets like cell phones and wireless networks, is probably safe for most people at common levels of exposure.

Some people, like myself, are sensitive to certain devices and electromagnetic fields. Understanding who is sensitive, how this sensitivity works, and what are the health risks involved is an important future research endeavor. To avoid the inconsistent results that have plagued the bioelectromagnetic research field, it’s critical that we achieve scientific understanding of the basic mechanisms involved. I believe that Becker’s second nervous system theory should be the starting point for future scientists working in this field.

Although published 24 years ago, Cross Currents is so well-written and comprehensive in approach that it is worth reading today. I have devoted my longest book review to it because I recognize its importance. I recommend it to anyone interested in the science or practice of bioelectromagnetics, including energy medicine, and health consequences of EMF’s.