Hi, this is my first post for this new blog and it fills me with some trepidation. One thing that Patrick Holford does very well is supply lots of references for what he says and its a bit of a nightmare to check them all. But checking them is well worthwhile as his interpretation of these studies can be highly selective . I guess that 99.9% of the people on his web sites like just take his word for it and never check anything.
Well, some of us are a bit sad and have too much time on our hands and do check.
I want to delve off track from the normal nutrition nonsense and look at Patrick’s forays into the world of physics. What standards of evidence, understanding and accuracy apply here? Let’s look at an article by Patrick (Are you being Electrified?) on the ‘dangers’ of the ‘smog’ of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) around us.
Now before we start, it is worth noting that Patrick sells stuff on his site to help protect us against the ‘dangers’ of EMR. We might then not be surprised at his conclusions. For-warned is for-armed.
So, Patrick starts off by telling us about one of the machines you can buy to ‘detect’ EMR. It apparently makes a whining sound when it detects the offending waves. Probably very loud.
This is just a simple scare tactic. These machines are the equivalent of vacuum cleaner salesmen pouring soot over your carpets. Or those detox foot baths that produce brown gunk and pretend that it is ‘toxins’ coming out of your feet. What this machine is, is nothing more than a simple radio. Your handy kitchen radio does the same job of turning EMR into loud sounds. It just has a tuner in it to filter out unwanted EMR, or ‘local radio stations’ as we like to call them. Patrick’s device is designed to scare – nothing more. It tells you nothing about whether you are being exposed to anything dangerous.
What of Patrick’s understanding of the Physics? He takes great pains to go into the science of EMR, but unfortunately, it does not get too many marks out of ten. His errors include:
- ‘The higher the frequency, the more energy the signal has’. Er, no. The higher the frequency, the higher the photon energy. Frequency has nothing to do with signal energy.
- ‘The higher the frequency, the more energy the signal has, and the greater the potential to damage you.’ Gamma rays and x-rays are more dangerous because they are ionising. You can have extremely low signal strength gamma-ray sources that are still dangerous. Conversely, non-ionising radiation can be very high signal strength and not necessarily be dangerous. If he meant this, he would be selling geiger counters and not radios. Geiger counters detect penetrating ionising radiation, like gamma-rays.
- ‘The frequencies at the lower end of the spectrum don’t have the potential to ‘cook’ ‘ Damn. I’m sending my microwave oven back to the shop.
- ‘they don’t have the same penetration power’ (talking of radio waves). Well, in that case Patrick, how come I can still hear my radio inside my thick stone-walled house, but I know x-rays would never get through that?
- ‘For example, computers, televisions and other household gadgets give off ELF [Extremely Low Frequencies], all of which can generate heat.’ What do you mean, Patrick? Heat is transfered from these devices as infrared radiation? Are you saying that infrared is bad? Should I throw out my toaster?
- ‘Anything that radiates – from the sun to your radio – has a certain amount of electricity. This travels as a frequency, and from this traveling electricity emanates a magnetic field. ‘ This is just plain gobbledygook. It is not even wrong. And anyway, my radio is passive – it receives radio-waves, not emits them (in any significant quantities).
- ‘While electric radiation is measured in Volts and Watts, magnetic radiation is measured in microTesla (µT).‘ Um, Volts is a measure of electric field strength – not ‘radiation’. Watts is a measure of power. A radio source could be measured in watts. Magnetic fields are measured in Tesla. The point is Patrick, you just don’t get what electromagnetic radiation is. There is no such thing as seperate electric and magnetic radiation. They are a unified phenomenon. My head hurts. Its just difficult to know where to start explaining when you are starting from a base of such nonsense. Just go and buy a physics book!
We might forgive Patrick if this was an attempt to simplify complex physics for a general readership, but it is still possible to simplify an issue without getting things wrong. Patrick’s exposition of the physics of electromagnetic radiation does nothing to make his case stronger or introduce concepts that make things clearer later. Is it just an attempt to pursuade the reader how much he knows?
So, from classical physics to health physics…
Regardless of Patrick’s poor grasp of the underlying physics, it might just be that all this EMR is doing some harm. What does Mr Holford have to say about this?
Right this is where it gets reference heavy. Patrick starts by looking at what the experts say. I’m not going to review every reference. There is some good telly on tonight. But let’s just start with a paper, by Albom et al., on pooling together experiments to see if magnetic fields cause childhood leukemia. The researchers are cautious in drawing conclusions from their study and note the problems of possible selection effects. They cite problems with having very few children at high exposure levels and the inconsistencies when comparing these results with experiments with rats that cannot support the hypothesis. Not too water-tight then.
Holford quotes various government bodies and how they “all agree that magnetic fields are in fact a possible carcinogen for humans”. The key word here is ‘possible’. Let’s look at a few of these, the UK National Radiological Protection Board Advisory Group on Non-Ionizing Radiation (AGNIR) and and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) , and see what they say,
Laboratory experiments have provided no good evidence that extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields are capable of producing cancer, nor do human epidemiological studies suggest that they cause cancer in general. There is, however, some epidemiological evidence that prolonged exposure to higher levels of power frequency magnetic fields is associated with a small risk of leukaemia in children. In practice, such levels of exposure are seldom encountered by the general public in the UK. In the absence of clear evidence of a carcinogenic effect in adults, or of a plausible explanation from experiments on animals or isolated cells, the epidemiological evidence is currently not strong enough to justify a firm conclusion that such fields cause leukaemia in children. Unless, however, further research indicates that the finding is due to chance or some currently unrecognised artifact, the possibility remains that intense and prolonged exposures to magnetic fields can increase the risk of leukaemia in children.
Being good scientists, they admit the possibility that there is a problem, but, actually, there is scant evidence that this possibility is realised. Big difference. It is a possibility I will win the lottery tonight too. So, not enough evidence yet to rush out and buy any of Patrick’s protection goodies. The UK National Radiological Board, as a result of the evidence, see no reason to reset exposure levels. Patrick sees this as scandalous, obviously. He mentions that Bristol academic, Dennis Henshaw who believes the safe limit must be much, much lower. That would be the same Professor Henshaw behind the 1980’s radon scares (remember them) and the theory that Foot and Mouth disease was spread by electricity pylons.
What Holford is doing is being highly selective. Cherry picking ‘experts’ and studies that might just help him with what look like preconceived opinions. Most scientists consider that the evidence that magnetic fields cause cancer is weak to non-existent.
Next up is the issue of mobile phone safety. Actually, let’s leave that to another time. For now, let us just say that we are not all about to drop dead from mobile phones.
Patrick in the past has also tried to sell QLink pendants, a very ridiculous product. These trinkets are supposed to help protect people from the alleged harmful effects of EM radiation. If Patrick is so worried about EM, then why not still sell them, or does even he shy away from such an obviously suspect device?
What is strange here is that Patrick is selling products related to protection from potential problems that have nothing to do with nutrition. Then again, Patrick has just as many Physics degrees as he has Nutrition degrees so it ought not to surprise us. Oh, to be fair, he does have an honorary DipION in nutrition, awarded by the institution he set up. Are we to see an Institute of Optimum Physics too?