A Long Look at BEMS

Abe R. Liboff, Ph.D.
Florida Atlantic University,
Boca Raton, FL

My first introduction to BEMS, in 1979, was strictly accidental. I was on sabbatical at the Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI) in Bethesda and Elliot Postow told me that a paper dealing with electric effects in bone was to be presented at a meeting at a downtown Washington hotel. I found the meeting room well before the scheduled time for the talk I wanted to hear, just in time to hear someone called Adey introduced. After a few minutes into his presentation I was totally captured by what he was saying, namely that the biologic signals conveyed across cell membranes were soliton-like. This was a novel explanation for experimental effects that had been very difficult to explain, effects that I had seen first hand in bone at the NYU physics department in the late sixties. After listening to Ross Adey not only did my interest in bone became secondary to learning more about physical events at the cell membrane, but I also became a member of BEMS.

The years following found me involved in the consequences of the provocative report by Wertheimer and Leeper relating childhood leukemia to power line wiring codes, and therefore to 60 Hz magnetic fields. There was intense opposition to this report, mainly because the milligauss intensity levels implied by these codes were thought not to be biologically interactive, much less hazardous. Although the question of hazard was of great personal interest, both as a parent and as a concerned citizen, what was of even greater interest was the underlying scientific puzzle. There was simply no reasonable explanation for why microtesla magnetic fields could have physiological consequences.

And, equally interesting, a similar situation had developed surrounding the deployment of Project Seafarer, a low frequency communications system deployed in Michigan and Wisconsin, meant to provide doomsday codes to US submarines. In an attempt to allay environmental concerns, the Navy asked me to look at the problem. I don’t think the Navy was happy when I found that ELF magnetic fields caused changes in the proliferation of human embryonic cells. But the really surprising thing about this work was the discovery that the effects did not scale as might have been expected if they were the result of Faraday induction of currents in the cell cultures.

I presented these results at the BEMS 1984 meeting in Atlanta. At this same meeting Carl Blackman reported on the latest of his ongoing experiments on the remarkable calcium efflux phenomenon. This effect, discovered by Suzanne Bawin in Ross Adey’s laboratory, showed that brain tissue tended to release calcium when exposed to specific low frequency signals.

Blackman’s experiment was a beautiful example of creative exploration in science. He asked whether the calcium efflux results were dependent on the static magnetic field, discovering that the Bawin/Adey results could be turned on or off by the relative orientation of the static field, but only for certain intensities. When he showed his data I immediately surmised that the results were strongly suggestive of an ion resonance effect. But only after I got back to my room at the Omni and called my brother, asking him to look up the atomic weights of calcium and potassium, was I able to insert the right numbers to be absolutely convinced.

Back at NMRI, where rats were being exposed to 60 Hz magnetic fields as part of the New York State Power Lines Project, I convinced John Thomas to forgo the rigidity of the original research program by applying ICR magnetic field combinations to his highly trained rats. After setting up the experiment, I left for the Ettore Majorana School in Erici, Sicily, where I convinced Alessandro Chiabrera, the co-Director, to shuffle his program slightly and let me speak directly after Blackman. My presentation, aimed at explaining Carl’s results, was received with derision, but I was unfazed, actually enjoying the consternation that I caused. Thinking back, only three persons in that audience were positively impressed with my talk: Chiabrera, Emilio del Giudice, and Bruce McLeod. Carl pretty much knew what I was going to say, since I had written him a note following Atlanta that he responded to, maintaining his belief that his group had observed some sort of electron effect. In any event, when I returned home I forgot about all the criticism that my talk had engendered in Sicily when John Thomas told me that our ICR experiment on rat behavior had succeeded, in his words, like “gangbusters”.

Then, no less than today, I believed that the Bawin/Adey/Blackman discovery was a pivotal turning point for BEMS. Prior to this, the Society was mostly involved with engineering matters, mainly assessing the interactions between electrical fields and living things using tried and true techniques, perhaps best illustrated by Herman Schwan’s masterful articles. But once “windows” or more properly, resonances, were found, the nature of the game changed profoundly, since these were effects that were not predicted by electrical engineering.

This is not a trivial distinction. Once, in a heated discussion with a prominent electrical engineering professor, he scoffed at the notion that the calcium efflux effect was real, because, in his words, “you can’t have efflux and influx depending on who does the experiment”. For me, this comment typified the difference between engineer and scientist. Rather than reject work by a qualified and experienced colleague as untenable, one should instead ask whether this is an interesting finding that needs to be further explored. Many of my BEMS friends over the years never understood that good science is mainly concerned with things that are still unknown. Thus the constant rift in BEMS between the thermals and the nonthermals, the hazard proponents and the nonhazardous, between the kT crowd and the no-limits people, and those that always find “junk science” in anything new compared to those who keep questioning things. It does not take much talent to tear new ideas apart. But only the better scientist has the insight to recognize the potential in strange new observations.

In a larger sense this tension is very healthy, actually an important part of the scientific process, what Thomas Kuhn wrote about when discussing how old paradigms crumble and are replaced by new ones.

However BEMS has another problem. Our research area is unique in that it largely overlaps both corporate and national interests. So what began for many of us as a wonderfully exciting scientific exploration became more and more constrained by funding decisions that were politically dictated. The BEMS leadership could have been more forthright in coming to grips with this problem. As a result research was limited to things that made good engineering sense, but rarely given over to ideas that might in the long run have explained things better. For example there was a time when DOE research proposals that wanted to explore effects at frequencies other than 60 Hz were not accepted. Less cell culture was done and more epidemiology. Corporate pressure influenced who was chosen for NIH study sections. A lot of research money went into telling us what wire codes meant. Even more money went into animal cage design. The epidemiologists, playing it safe, refused to bend to the experimental observations concerning the reality of windows, designing studies that depended on the simplistic notion that “more must be worse”. Predictably, all these studies, mired in the past, came to naught.

And, as the lackluster research projects that were funded failed to find much evidence for bioelectromagnetic interactions, it was inevitable that further government research support dried up. Some BEMS researchers changed their field of interest. In lieu of federal funding, there appeared, to fill the breach, EPRI, and later, Motorola. Shades of the Council for Tobacco Research!

Meanwhile the scientific research that might have been done, indeed should have been done in the US was continued overseas, in Russia, in Italy, in Germany, and most recently, in China. Mikhail Zhadin’s work especially stands out, demonstrating now in a number of independently replicated studies, that AC magnetic fields as weak as .01 - .05 microtesla can drastically affect the physical properties of amino acids in solution. We need only go back a few years to recall those stuffy pronouncements from on high lecturing us that biological interactions less than about 5-50 microtesla were physically impossible. And when careful, well-designed experiments found otherwise, the work was deemed fraudulent.

Presently, BEMS finds history repeating itself. Instead of low frequency effects associated with power transmission, we find potential problems at high frequencies due to mobile phones. If anything can be learned from the past, epidemiology will not put this question to rest. Nor will untold thousands of exposed animals. Good basic experimental work opened up the case for weak field ELF biological effects and that’s where the emphasis must be if we are to learn more about effects at high frequencies. It is also interesting that the intense arguments surrounding the likelihood of electromagnetic hazard may soon be finessed by the realization that if weak fields can result in physiological change, then there are probably yet to be discovered medical applications attached to these fields.

Despite all my complaints, I honestly think that my 28-year involvement with BEMS has been very positive. The Bioelectromagnetics Society has proven to be a wonderful crucible of scientific thought, mixing high standards of engineering excellence with radical new discoveries. And, I have to confess that the very conflicts that were so personally frustrating over the years were at the same time definitely mind expanding.