ICNIRP/WHO/BFS WORKSHOP on risk factor for chidhood Leukemia

The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, ICNIRP <http://www.icnirp.org/>, is glad to announce its next international workshop on “Risk Factors to Childhood Leukemia”, which will be held in Berlin, Germany, May 5 to 7, 2008. The organization is a joint effort by ICNIRP, the World Health Organization, WHO <http://www.who.int>, and the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection, BfS <http://www.bfs.de/en/bfs>.

Rationale: The increased incidence of childhood leukemia observed in epidemiological studies at low-level magnetic fields or near nuclear facilities is puzzling experts in radiation protection. The findings will be considered in the light of other possible risk factors and of new data on the complex origin of childhood leukemia in the upcoming workshop on “Risk Factors for Childhood Leukemia”.

For more detailed information concerning programme and registration conditions please visit http://www.icnirp.org/WChildhoodLeukemia.htm.

New Associate editor for the Journal: Carmela Marino

At its recent winter meeting, the Board of Directors approved the nomination of Dr. Carmela Marina of the European National Energy Agency (Italy) as the newest Associate Editor of The Bioelectromagnetics’ Society’s journal, replacing Damijan Miklavcic of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

James Lin, editor-in-chief of the journal, welcomed the board’s decision, noting that “as a biological scientist, Dr. Marino has investigated biological effects and medical applications of RF and ELF fields. Her research and publications have involved cells in vitro, animals in vivo, and the characterization of exposure systems and their use in experimental systems. My experience in working with her as manuscript reviewer suggests a high degree of thoroughness, scientific objectivity, and fair-mindedness. She appreciates the importance of exposure systems and the fact that proper exposure procedures are fundamental to reliable experimental observations.”

Epidemiological Studies on the Risk of Brain Tumors from Cell Phone Use

Cellular telephones and brain tumours – is there a risk or not? How controversial is this topic? At least 30 epidemiological studies have been completed and published to date. Many believe it is time to draw an interim result. Despite the fact that many studies differ in methodology and details that obviously matter, quite a number of publications provide an abundance of effect estimates. So, is there a better plan than inviting key researchers of the individual studies to introduce their work in one joint scientific session and invite a renowned expert in epidemiology to summarize the findings before discussing them in plenary? Such a session is planned for the upcoming annual meeting in 2008 in San Diego.

Session organizers have divided the original peer-reviewed papers from these studies into four categories:

  • independent case-control studies based on brain tumor cases diagnosed in the late 90’s, with the two biggest studies conducted in the USA.
  • case-control study series from Sweden conducted by Professor Hardell and co-workers.
  • cohort studies including the Danish retrospective cohort of cellular telephone subscribers and the multinational prospective cohort study (Cosmos) which just started in Denmark and is about to start in Sweden, the UK, and Finland.
  • the Interphone study, which is a pooled analyses of 16 case-control studies conducted in 13 countries. Several of the national studies have already been published.

Each category will be presented by a principal investigator of the respective studies. Dr Martha Linet, Chief of the Radiation Epidemiology Branch of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), USA, will present the category 1 studies focusing on the large NCI study published in 2001. Dr Lennart Hardell, Professor at the Department of Oncology of the University Hospital of Örebro, Sweden, will present the Swedish case-control study series. Dr Joachim Schüz, Head of the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology, Copenhagen, Denmark, will present the cohort studies. Dr Elisabeth Cardis, Head of the Radiation Group at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Lyon, France, (soon to move to the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology, Barcelona, Spain) is the coordinator of the Interphone study and will present all Interphone results that are published before the BEMS meeting.

To aid the audience in the overall interpretation of the four presentations, Dr Jørn Olsen, Professor and Chair at the Department of Epidemiology, UCLA School of Public Health, USA, will present his view and summarize the available findings. After this final talk, a plenary discussion will commence with the five speakers. Professor Maria Feychting from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden will chair the plenary session. Watch for this session on Monday, June 9, starting at 4 pm.

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.

Martin Blank, Ph.D.
Columbia University
New York City, NY

The scientific roots of bioelectromagnetics go back to the origins of modern science, but our 30 year old Society for the study of electromagnetic field (EMF) interactions with biological systems still has not properly defined a biological dose of EMF. This problem has impeded progress in understanding basic mechanisms, and it adds to the controversy about safety standards. We probably should have paid more attention to biology all along, instead of being guided almost entirely by electromagnetics. By tying our scientific discussions so closely to the divisions of the EM spectrum, we separated biology in the power (extremely low frequency, ELF) range from the same biology in the radio frequency (RF) range. As a result, we have two inconsistent measures of EMF dose in the ELF and RF ranges, and neither is related to biology.

In the ELF range, the EMF stimulus and implied dose is the flux density, measured in gauss and proportional to a force. In the RF range, it is the energy, or more precisely the rate of energy output/input (i.e., power) that is considered the dose. The rate of energy output/input is generally referred to as a thermal standard since the magnitudes are determined by the change in temperature. To complicate matters, the output is measured in W/cm2 and the input in W/kg, so the input rate varies with the mass, an additional source of ambiguity.

The thermal standard is clearly untenable as a measure of dose when EMF stimuli that differ by many orders of magnitude in energy can stimulate the same biological response. In the ELF range, the same biological changes occur as in the RF, and no change in temperature can even be detected. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, there are those who oppose any attempt to correct the thermal standard.

The underemphasis on biology has also led to an undefined role of frequency in the biological response. We know that the divisions of the EM spectrum based on frequency are arbitrary and unrelated to biology, except for the special case of the visual range. There are optimal frequencies associated with the kinetics of the few electron transfer reactions studied, but in most biological studies, frequency does not appear to matter. With DNA interactions, the same biological responses are stimulated in ELF and RF ranges even though the frequencies of the stimuli differ by many orders of magnitude. The biology stimulated by the non-ionizing EMF can also be stimulated by higher frequencies in the ionizing range. The thermal mechanisms that are activated as EMF energy increases appear to be in addition to the low energy mechanisms. Analysis of the DNA in the promoter of a stress protein showed that different DNA sequences respond to EMF and thermal stimuli.

The effects of EMF on DNA to initiate the stress response or to cause molecular damage reflect the same biology in the different frequency ranges. For this reason, it should be possible to develop a scale based on DNA biology, and use it to define EMF dose in different parts of the EM spectrum. The stress response, EMF stimulation of DNA to initiate synthesis of stress proteins, is activated in both ELF and RF divisions of the EM spectrum, as well as in the ionizing range. We also see a continuous scale in DNA experiments that focus on molecular damage, where single and double strand breaks have long been known to occur in the ionizing range, and recent studies have shown similar effects in both ELF and RF ranges.

One can assess quantitatively the stress response or molecular damage as a measure of EMF dose over a large part of the EM spectrum, but DNA damage also makes possible a quantitative relation between EMF dose and disease. This can be done by utilizing the data banks that have been kept for A-bomb exposure and victims of nuclear accidents that link one time exposure to ionizing radiation and subsequent development of cancer. There are also data from experimental studies of DNA breaks with ionizing radiation that can be used to extend the scale relating cancer incidence to weaker EMF exposures. Many studies of DNA damage at different exposure intensities and durations for both non-ionizing and ionizing frequencies would be needed. Estimates of DNA repair rates would also be needed, especially to compare one time exposure with continuous and multiple exposures.

In practice, we should be able to determine the number of single and double strand breaks or micronuclei produced in a standard preparation of DNA of a given size, caused by exposure to EMF for a specified duration, under comparable conditions. Short durations would minimize the effect of intrinsic DNA repair mechanisms, but it would be better if the repair enzymes were inhibited. The assays are not easy; biological systems change in reaction to external stimuli. Nevertheless, it would be worth the effort if it leads to a quantitative relation between DNA damage and EMF exposure parameters (e.g., intensity, duration, frequency), in other words, a reliable measure of biological dose. Since the same DNA biology is activated in different parts of the EM spectrum, it should be possible to develop an unambiguous definition of EMF dose and a single scale for its measurement based on the biology.

Editor’s note: With our 200th issue, three longtime BEMS members offer their perspectives on some of the important issues facing our Society, past, present, and future. We invite other members to send their ideas about the Society to bemsnewsletter@gmail.com for publication in future issues.

Negotiating in the Middle Ground

Ben Greenebaum, Ph.D.
  University of Wisconsin
Parkside, WI

Who can argue with either the idea of a “scientific” basis for standards or a “biological” one? Both terms are good public-relations strategies, but obscure the real differences that deserve serious consideration. In fact, proponents of each approach base their arguments on the scientific literature and both are thinking about hazardous implications of biological responses to exposure to electromagnetic fields. The crux of the matter, obscured by the shorthand descriptions, is that the two viewpoints disagree on how to assign, interpret and act on uncertainties. Whether this is ultimately based on different motivations as well is a matter for another column. My goal here is to explore whether either of these strategies provides a useful starting point for standards setting.

Setting protection standards always starts with assessing the science. Ideally, this assessment objectively sorts out what is well established, or known, by identifying important results that are supported by adequate, repeatable, and reliable research. In doing this job well, the assessment also outlines the fuzzy boundaries of what is not known. Key to this work is identifying, in some objective way, what constitutes sufficient evidence to establish an effect, and then to look further to assess the impact of that effect on an organism. Work that produces results that seem inconsistent with previous work should be reviewed carefully for differences in experimental techniques that might be relevant to the observed outcome. Standards cannot be based on spurious experimental results, nor should they reflect a willingness to overlook or hide evidence of potentially biologically significant impacts.

At one of the extremes in present day work, the “scientific” approach demands many flawless experiments, all with very consistent, highly significant results that include both observed and theoretical links to illnesses, as proof of a hazard needing regulation. We know from work in related disciplines that this is a nearly impossible standard, given our fundamentally incomplete knowledge of most normal and abnormal biological pathways.

At the other extreme, there would be a “biological” ban on any fields that ever showed the slightest effect in any experiment. Again, from work in related disciplines, we know that small variations in experimental technique can sometimes lead to big differences in results. Without a critical assessment of the true cause of an effect, we can build support for banning what may not be the causative agent.

Few would deny that in an ideal world regulations should protect against hazards that are certain while not precluding what clearly has no effect. What is at issue is, in essence, deciding where to draw the line. It should seem obvious that in practice, neither extreme is viable. Unfortunately, there is no universally agreed upon point of demarcation between the two options to help us navigate this territory easily. Partisans for each extreme each have their own criteria for what constitutes sufficient evidence; that is, how to assess the certainty or uncertainties associated with any particular experimental result and how to weigh the full set of results that may be relevant to any particular possible effect.

Disputes arise in the middle ground where the observed effects are potentially significant, but may not be immediate or clearly a result of a single factor, yet they appear with sufficient robustness to preclude ignoring them altogether. These issues prompt committees, governments, groups and individuals to consider what, if any, “safety factors” or “precautionary measures” are appropriate and to take or advocate any “prudent avoidance” measures that are dictated by their assessment of the uncertainties. To this extent, the “scientific” and the “biological” paradigms are not so different in principle, although in practice they may come up with quite different results. The differences arise from using different concepts of how much, how consistent, and how certain the results must be to be considered sufficient.

Talking past each other in hopes of drowning out the other point of view benefits no one. Social as well as individual factors are important here. To begin the critically important dialog, each side must first show it is willing to hear and understand the other, independently of any actual agreement on any point. One recent sign of hope in our professional community is that the “scientific” ICNIRP and IEEE standards setting bodies now note that their assessments of the research do not draw any definite conclusions about relatively small-incidence effects from long-term exposures to weak RF fields. They add that that the safety factors they started with are indeed somewhat arbitrary and have intended to cover all uncertainties. From the “biological” side, some advocates acknowledge that many of the experimentally observed biological changes may not have a direct harm to health, though they note that the changes can imply long-term possibilities of such harm. They contend that these possibilities are not being taken seriously enough and advocate for stronger precautionary measures, also set arbitrarily.

While I would hope that these acknowledgments might indicate that each extreme is starting to examine each other’s evidence and viewpoints, for some partisans, the acknowledgments may unfortunately be more formal than real. Thoughtful discussion of these important issues should begin with clarifying underlying assumptions and criteria. I submit that talking past each other may only be replaced by real discussions if we take seriously the recognition that the differences are basically due to approaching weighting and interpretation of the evidence from opposite directions. That implies being clearer about the underlying motivations, assumptions, and approaches: it means openly identifying and airing the differences with the goal of resolving them rather than obliterating the other side. I noted above that social and individual factors play an important and usually unspoken role behind these differences; these are underlying values that also need to be recognized and brought to the foreground, without unnecessarily requiring that some are “better” than others. If the scientific community can seriously evaluate the differences among themselves, we can move toward a compromise that most can live with. In doing so, we will have performed a great non-scientific service for society in general. Shorthand phrases like “scientific” and “biological” can jog emotions, but do not help clarify difficult choices that have significant social and human consequences.


“I was president of the Bioelectromagnetics Society when Nancy Wertheimer won the D’Arsonval Award so I introduced her at the awards presentation. The d’Arsonval Award is presented by BEMS to recognize outstanding achievement in bioelectromagnetics. Dr. Wertheimer was the first woman to receive this distinction.

She had been a member of the Bioelectromagnetics Society for many years and was recognized by colleagues on an international scale as the person most instrumental in pointing out the potential health hazards of power lines and environmental electromagnetic fields. Her quiet but serious approach to investigating electromagnetic field effects had been noted and appreciated by many in the society for years prior to this award.

We will all miss her because she had such a warm and unassuming unassuming personality even though she never agreed with all the compliments we bestowed upon her!”

Betty Sisken
Lexington, KY

“Nancy Wertheimer’s first paper on the relationship between power lines and childhood leukemia was the proverbial butterfly’s wing that began a far-reaching cascade, in this instance of further research. It stimulated more epidemiological studies, development of methods for field surveys of ELF fields, extrapolation of these data to population exposure estimates, and a wide variety of investigation into interaction mechanisms. Many new papers published today still cite Wertheimer and Leeper (1979) as motivation in their introductions.”

Ben Greenebaum
Parkside, WI

“A couple of years after Nancy shook up the BEMS community with her report on childhood leukemia she embarked on another 60 Hz study examining the possible correlation between electric blankets and miscarriages. I was in Washington when I learned that she was going to present some data on this subject at the venerable New York Academy of Sciences. I was able to get a cheap shuttle flight to New York to attend this evening talk. It was practically standing room only. I remember many of the other attendees, including Sol Michaelson, Art Pilla, and Louis Slesin. As always her talk was clean, crisp and fascinating, unencumbered by the negative mind set that always accompanied such politically charged topics. Afterwards she was subjected to some withering criticism, mainly surrounding the questionable use of epidemiological techniques to elicit information about 60 Hz hazards. Throughout her demeanor was calm, and, even sweet, as she smiled to those in the audience who were the most insulting. This is how I will always remember Nancy, capable of making discoveries that others failed to see, and completely self-assured in her abilities.

As a postscript to that memorable evening on New York’s East Side, a few years later the manufacturers of electric blankets made the necessary wiring changes to reduce the 60 Hz magnetic field at the blanket surface.”

A R Liboff
Boca Raton, FL

“I attended the memorial service held for Nancy Wertheimer here in Boulder and was impressed by the extensiveness and devotion of her family -- including all of her children and adult grandchildren. Like most of her BEMS colleagues, I had known her primarily from her scientific work, so it was quite inspirational to learn about the other dimensions of her life.

I first met Nancy, and Ed Leeper, when they visited us at the University of Colorado shortly after I joined the faculty. At that time they expressed an interest in the bioeffects of EMF that we were studying mainly in the RF and microwave domains - but I think we were helpful to them in devising a stratagem for estimating, at least by rank order, the magnitude of ELF fields adjacent to power lines.

As everyone now knows, they were able to combine some physics principles, some engineering advise and some good-old intuition in devising their “Wiring Code” approach to dosimetry and used that to imply an association between power line fields and the occurrence of childhood cancers in the Denver-Boulder area. When their work caught the attention of a group in upstate New York who were opposed to the construction of a new transmission line, the New York State Power Authority commissioned a broad study of the issue and came to us at CU to try to replicate and improve on Nancy and Ed’s childhood cancer study.

All told, my scientific interactions with Nancy lasted for over twenty years and, throughout that time, I always respected her creative thinking abilities and her willingness to discuss points of difference as well as agreement between us. Nancy and I did not always agree on the interpretation of the various studies that we were both involved in, but I always enjoyed having the opportunity to work with her, She was a truly unique individual and will be sorely missed.”

Howard Wachtel
Boulder, CO

“Nancy Wertheimer has a singular place in bioelectromagnetics as a pioneer whose curiosity about possible neighborhood factors in childhood leukemia led to a seminal 1979 publication that sparked a decades-long investigation into the role of power frequency magnetic fields in health and biology. Her initial data were acquired with characteristic directness, simplicity, and insight simply by walking the streets and alleys in greater Denver with equipment no more elaborate than the human eye, a pen, and a stack of index cards. That 1979 paper, “Electrical wiring configurations and childhood cancer,” published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, put Nancy and physicist colleague Ed Leeper in the eye of a storm of controversy. As in the 1982 paper on adult leukemia that followed, Wertheimer and Leeper devised power line wire codes as a technique to measure exposure without attempting to engage with all the complexities of a complete characterization of the electric and magnetic fields in each home, an undertaking that went forward much later in the hands of others. Their papers introduced the hypothesis of a causal mechanism for leukemia that directly or indirectly involved environmental 60-Hz magnetic fields. Then, as now, the question was, “Could that really be true?” This became the stimulus for hundreds of others who eventually followed in trying to understand what was going on.

The observed associations — like Wertheimer and Leeper themselves — were pushed aside for several years by critics finding faults in the limitations of their methods and observations that lacked a firm mechanistic explanation. However, in 1986 David Savitz and collaborators at the University of Colorado reported comparable results that propelled bioelectromagnetics into the spotlight worldwide and led to RAPID, a multi-year research project mandated by the U.S. Congress, and research programs in many other nations. Staying far from any spotlight, Nancy pursued possible causal factors for the improbable association of weak magnetic fields and cancer using analytic techniques of striking creativity and clarity. The fact that Nancy and Ed worked without major funding is not simply incidental to the overall economy with which they practiced science.

For more than a quarter century, many others have undertaken epidemiologic and engineering research of growing intensity and complexity that sprang from Nancy’s open-minded inquiry into possible causes of childhood leukemia. Much has been learned, but at her death, there remains a seemingly irreducible uncertainty about whether the initial reports by Wertheimer and Leeper are essentially right or wrong in pointing to magnetic fields as a possible causal factor. Perhaps this in itself is a fitting epitaph to a scientist with an unblinkered respect for facts as they are, however unsatisfyingly incomplete the picture and tentative the conclusions.

I learned much about Nancy when she became a collaborator in a pooled analysis of data from various studies worldwide that followed hers. Working with her as she generously transcribed the original records of her study into a format suitable for pooled analysis, I soon found that her fastidious approach to data was matched by a precision with language that, true to the mark of a fine intellect, did not allow fuzzy ideas, overstatements, and inexact wording.

Nancy brought many personal gifts to her career in science, none more powerful than a deep and natural humility that allowed her to stand before data, as before her challengers, with complete respect and without a touch of arrogance. Her simple way of being meant that while others engaged busily in profiting from the career and business opportunities she made possible, Nancy maintained her unquestionable integrity as an independent worker freely pursuing scientific questions that interested her. The dignity with which she bore her tall frame was in its wordless way a perfect rejoinder to those who attacked her.

I am saddened by the passing of this woman of grace and quiet strength. Her unique ways of being a human conducting scientific inquiry are worthy of long reflection. They and she will not be forgotten by those privileged to have known her.”

Asher R. Sheppard
Redlands, CA

“Nancy Wertheimer (and Ed Leeper) burst on the bioelectromagnetics scene in 1979 with the publication of their famous childhood leukemia paper (American Journal of Epidemiology 109:273-284). Sometime after this, the Electric Power Research Institute held a meeting in the Denver area at which they invited Nancy to present her results. I do not remember that I actually met Nancy there, but I do distinctly remember the intensity of the criticism of her study among many if not most of the attendees. Indeed, Nancy and Ed’s work was widely criticized in those early days. I have always thought that Nancy handled this better than most and exhibited a remarkable level of perseverance and self-motivation in continuing her work in the face of so much negative comment.

In about 1983, the New York Power Lines Project issued a RFP relating to epidemiological research. They funded two studies, one a childhood leukemia study at the University of Colorado, the second an adult leukemia study at Battelle Northwest. In the spring of 1984, a meeting was arranged between these two research groups in Denver. Since it was clear that wire coding would have to be part of the exposure assessment used in both studies, Nancy and Ed were invited to attend. On the plane flight to Denver, I read Nancy’s 1979 paper carefully, particularly the section about wire coding, and decided that I understood it. The next day, after various discussions, we adjourned to a local alley to look at wiring. I positioned myself close to Nancy and I still remember her asking me about a particular wiring configuration we encountered. That was when I discovered that wire coding was harder than it sounded on paper. By the end of our alley tour, it was evident that I had a lot to learn. I hastily arranged to meet with Nancy the next day in Boulder and spent that day walking down alleys and being instructed by her. This training was crucial.

I subsequently participated in several studies that included wire coding. For each study, I drew up a detailed protocol for the wire-coding component and generally asked Nancy to review what I had done. She always did this graciously. The largest epidemiologic study I worked on that involved wire coding was the so-called NCI study, a study of leukemia in children that started in 1989 and whose main results were published in 1997 (The New England Journal of Medicine 337:1-7). My colleagues and I put a great deal of effort into the wire coding component of the study, and I (secretly) expected that we would find an association between wire code and leukemia risk similar to that observed in most previous U.S. studies. I was truly shocked to discover that there was no observed association at all!

Nancy always argued that we had erred in using her wire coding system in areas other than Denver. She felt that her (and Ed’s) system was designed specifically for the Denver area and the construction practices used by the utility there. She felt that one should develop a customized wire coding system for each area and utility involved in a study. My counter argument was that the correlation between wire codes and measured magnetic fields was as good in the areas covered by the NCI study as it was in Denver. To this day, I do not think it is known with any certainty whether either view is correct.

In the late 1990’s, I several times contemplated nominating Nancy for the D’Arsonval award of the Bioelectromagnetics Society. However, each time, I convinced myself that her work was sufficiently controversial to prevent this award. I was certainly wrong here, as someone else (I do not know who, but thank you for doing so) did nominate her and she received the award in 1999. I believe this award was well deserved: Prior to Nancy and Ed’s 1979 paper, the focus was on electric fields produced by high-voltage transmission lines. This paper started a process that, ten years later, resulted in a research focus almost entirely on magnetic fields produced by lower-voltage distribution lines and home wiring.

I was saddened to hear of Nancy’s death. She was a truly gentle and kind person, a good friend and my early teacher. Nearly all of Nancy’s work in Bioelectromagnetics was not funded. I once asked her why she did not apply for funding. She told me that she occasionally thought of this but usually could not bring herself to do so. I think she enjoyed the independence she had as a result of not being funded, and I suspect that this independence enabled her to see things in ways that we funded researchers tended to miss.”

Bill Kaune
Port Townsend, WA

“I remember Nancy Wertheimer as a creative and thoughtful person. She was always cautious about appearing too convinced of her EMF results because she knew the limitations associated with epidemiological work. Nevertheless, her expressed caution caused her observations to take on greater weight. She was always probing to try to understand the results she observed in a larger context. I remember receiving occasional phone calls from Nancy to discuss some effects reported to be caused by low intensity ELF EMF because she thought they might help her as she continued to evaluate her published data. Nancy was cordial to every one, and was highly motivated by her research results to find both the cause and the public health significance of her observations. Nancy was a pioneer in Bioelectromagnetics who truly deserved to receive the d’Arsonval Award.”

Carl Blackman
Raleigh, NC

Nancy Wertheimer, Ph.D., (April 30, 1927-December 25, 2007)

An excess of electrical wiring configurations suggestive of high current-flow was noted in Colorado in 1976-1977 near the homes of children who developed cancer, as compared to the homes of control children. The finding was strongest for children who had spent their entire lives at the same address, and it appeared to be dose-related. It did not seem to be an artifact of neighborhood, street congestion, social class, or family structure. The reason for the correlation is uncertain; possible effects of current in the water pipes or of AC magnetic fields are suggested.

Am J Epidemiol. 1979 Mar;109(3):273-84

This short abstract, written by Nancy Wertheimer and her longtime partner, Ed Leeper, had a big impact on much of the work of BEMS members and lead to a series of New Yorker articles by Paul Brodeur that brought national attention to our fields of research. Dr. Wertheimer, born Lavina Steele MacKaye, a member of the Bioelectromagnetics Society for many years, died on Christmas day 2007 of complications from hip surgery.

Dr. Wertheimer was born in New Haven, Connecticut and attended the University of Michigan where she received her B.S. degree in psychology and biology. She received her M.A. and her Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard and Radcliffe. Her post-graduate studies were in biochemistry at the University of Colorado and in Epidemiology at the University of Minnesota. She obtained an academic position in the Department of Preventive Medicine, University of Colorado Medical School as clinical Assistant Professor in 1980. In addition, she held positions at the Fort Logan Mental Health Center, the Mental Health Branch of the State of Colorado Department of Institutions, University of Colorado Psychology Department, Rockland State Hospital and Worcester State Hospital. She was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, and the American College of Epidemiology. Dr. Wertheimer’s early research was on metabolic efficiency, rheumatic fever and the incidence of schizophrenia. Her primary research on exposure to electromagnetic fields involving power lines and any ensuing health effects was never supported by major grants or contracts, yet the results of her efforts were published in Bioelectromagnetics, American Journal of Epidemiology, Science, International Journal of Epidemiology, Annals of the New York Academy of Science, Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, Health Physics Society Newsletter, and the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Dr. Wertheimer was the seventh recipient of the d’Arsonval Award, presented by BEMS to recognize outstanding achievement in bioelectromagnetics. Nancy was also an artist, creating sculptures of the human and animal figure in wood, stone, plaster, stained glass, and other media in her earlier work. Later she developed “found art” works in beautiful rocks and carved branches, tree roots, and driftwood. She is survived by her former husband Michael Wertheimer, their children Karellynne Watkins, Mark Wertheimer, and Benjamin Wertheimer, and eight grandchildren, as well as by her sister Jean Colby, her stepsister ZoAnn Hessmer, and her long-time friend and associate Ed Leeper.

A Memorial Service was held at the Boulder (Colorado, USA) Meeting of Friends (1825 Upland Ave.) at 3 pm on December 30th, 2007.

Margaret Adair Quinn accepts award on behalf of Eleanor Adair at Winter Workshop

At the recent BEMS Winter Workshop, the Society formally bestowed its highest honor, the d’Arsonval Award, on Eleanor Adair. Accepting the award on behalf of her mother, Margaret Adair Quinn (pictured here with former BEMS president Ben Greenebaum) gave an acceptance speech that will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal.

Margaret Adair

The citation on the award reads:

The Board of directors of
The Bioelectromagnetics society

takes great pleasure in conferring the d’Arsonval Medal to

Eleanor Reed Adair

whose creativity and accomplishments in bioelectromagnetics have brought new understanding to the plaited strands of physiology, electromagnetics, and society; whose instruments and keen intellect married the physiologist’s measures of flesh and sensorium to the physicist’s measures of order, revealing balance among life’s vital molecular flames, electromagnetic rays, and the body’s cooling humor; whose firm grasp on the wand of scientific understanding dispelled fears of energies too faint to tear life’s frailest bonds; and whose vision, patience, and purpose guided new standards for safe uses of electromagnetism in medicine, communications, industry, and defense. With delight in recognizing these enduring deeds, appreciation for the dedication and energy she gave this Society as a Charter Member and Secretary-Treasurer in its formative years, and mindful of the esteem with which she is warmly embraced by colleagues worldwide, we proudly confer this highest honor in bioelectromagnetics on this eleventh day of June in the year two-thousand-seven on the occasion of the Twenty-ninth Annual Meeting of the Society

Asia-Pacific EMC Week and Technical Exhibition
Date: May 19-23, 2008
Location: Singapore
Notes: The 1st Asia-Pacific Symposium on Electromagnetic Compatibility and the 19th International Zurich Symposium and Technical Exhibition on EMC will be held jointly in Singapore from Monday, May 19 to Friday, May 23, 2008. The symposium will cover the entire scope of electromagnetic compatibility. Prospective authors are invited to submit original papers on their latest research results. We also solicit industrial forum contributions as well as proposals for special sessions, topical meetings, workshops and tutorials.
www.emc-zurich.org www.apemc2008.org

The Bioelectromagnetics Society 30th Annual Meeting
Date: June 8–12, 2008
Location: Town & Country Resort, San Diego, CA, USA
Note: BEMS’ block of sleeping rooms is contracted at the prevailing US Government per diem rate which is currently $131+ tax single plus $20 per additional guest in room.
Contact: bemsoffice@aol.com, www.bioelectromagnetics.org

Gordon Research Conference in Biochemistry
Date: July 20-25, 2008
Location: University of New England, Biddeford, ME
Details: see September/October BEMS newsletter, page 2

XXIXth URSI General Assembly
Date: August 9-16, 2008
Location: Hyatt Regency Chicago Hotel on the Riverwalk,151 East Wacker Drive, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Notes: see article in BEMS Newsletter, Jan/Feb 2008, page 11
Further information: http://www.ece.uic.edu/2008ursiga/

12th International Conference, International Radiation Protection Association, IRPA 12
Date: October 19-24, 2008.
Location: Buenos Aires, ARGENTINA.
Focus: 1. Epistemology of radiation: Methods, current knowledge of physical and biological sciences in relation to effects of radiation exposure. 2. Radiation Protection of people 3. Practice of radiation protection by practitioners and industries.
Contact: Maximo D.Rudelli, Organising Committee, irpa12.committee@gmail.com

Energy-Based Treatment of Tissue and Assessment
Date: January 24-29, 2009
Location: San Jose, CA (USA)
Notes: see article in this newsletter
Contact: http://spie.org/BiOS

BioEM2009: Joint Meeting of The Bioelectromagnetics Society and the European BioElectromagnetics Association
Date: June 14-19, 2009
Location: Davos, Switzerland