The 2,027th Meeting of the Society

April 8, 1994 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

Do Weak Electromagnetic Fields Cause Bioeffects?

Why Is There Such Skepticism? What Are the Answers?

Theodore Litovitz

Professor of Physics, Catholic University

About the Lecture

The association of biological effects at the cellular level with exposure to weak electromagnetic fields has remained a controversial subject despite over a decade of such reports. There are two basic reasons for such skepticism, 1) the lack of replication of many reported effects, and 2) the existence of theoretical arguments based upon signal-to-noise considerations which predict that it is impossible for these effects to occur.

Over a period of six years, the Bioelectromagnetics Group at CUA has investigated electromagnetic field effects in a number of in-vitro and in-vivo systems. The research results confirm that indeed weak 60 Hz magnetic fields do cause a variety of biological effects. I will discuss how the “lack of replication” is in fact a real and significant aspect of the bioelectromagnetic mechanism and will present data that contradict the theoretical arguments against the occurrence of bioeffects based upon signal-to-noise considerations. We can now understand how cells discriminate against large local thermally induced EM noise fields which are thousands of times larger than the applied 60 Hz fields. In addition, these findings also suggest an economical method for mitigating the effects of magnetic fields created by the distribution and utilization of electrical energy.

It is our conclusion that weak EM fields do cause bio-effects. It is our further conclusion that these effects can be easily and economically mitigated. The major question remaining is “Can weak electromagnetic fields cause adverse health effects in humans?” In other words, we have answers, but “Is there really a problem?”

About the Speaker

Mr. Litovitz received his Ph.D. from Catholic University of America in 1950 and became a Professor of Physics at the university the same year. Over the last seven years, he has been Director of the Bioelectromagnetics Group at CUA. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and of the Acoustical Society of America. Mr. Litovitz has written over 100 publications, including co-authoring the book Ultrasonic Absorption with Karl Herzfeld.


The President, Ms. Enig, called the 2027th meeting to order at 8:17 p.m. on March 31, 1994. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2026th meeting and they were approved. The President then read a portion of the minutes from the 419th meeting, March 31, 1894.

The President introduced Mr. Theodore A. Litovitz, of the Department of Physics, Catholic University of America, who spoke on, “Do Weak Electromagnetic Fields Cause Bioeffects? Why Is There Such Skepticism? What Are the Answers?”

Mr. Litovitz began by expressing what he thought were the feelings of many working in the field that it did not seem to be science because of the intense interest and controversy. In 1979, Werthheimer reported on clusters of childhood leukemia cases associated with proximity to power lines. He estimated that the exposure increased the risk ratio by a factor of three. In a 1991 study supported by the power industry, Peters found essentially the same risk ratio. Mr. Litovitz groups the problems encountered in conducting such research in three categories: (1) difficulties in framing a priori theories of how electromagnetic fields (EMF) may have bioeffects that subsequently have health effects, (2) the general problem of biological studies in replicating experimental results, and (3) the technical problems arising from the extremely low signal to noise ratio where the local EMF noise transients are about 1000 times larger the 60 Hz field of the exposure signal.

In the early 1980's the Environmental Protection Agency attempted to study magnetic pulse effects on chicken embryos at 6 different laboratories; 2 observed pronounced effects, 3 observed small effects and 1 was not able to observe an effect. In a “fit of youthful exuberance” four years ago (when he was 66) Mr. Litovitz decided to attempt to repeat those experiments. In his initial trials he saw a strong effect, but 6 months later he saw no effect. Using 6 different genetic pools over a 3 year period, he found that the strength of the effect appeared to depend on the genetic pool.

In 1980 it had been observed that the activity of the enzyme ornithine decarboxylase rose and fell in certain successive stages of embryonic development, and that EMF exposure produced a higher and earlier peak in that activity followed by a relative lack of activity in later stages that led to developmental abnormalities. The signal to noise ratio for the effect was about 1000 times that for the cause and at least 10 seconds of coherent EMF signal were required; shorter coherence times led to a rapid diminishing of the effect. There seemed to be two factors important in these observations. The first was biological cooperativity; a number of receptors had to be simultaneously and coherently activated in order to affect cellular functions. The second was spatial coherence. Cells seemed to discriminate against thermal noise by failing to respond to spatially incoherent signals. Thermal noise would produce uncorrelated responses from different receptors on the membrane, whereas the EMF signal would be spatially coherent, at least on the scale of the cell. It was reasoned that brief incoherent bursts of EMF noise, which were nonetheless spatially coherent over the cell surface should be able to confuse the mechanism for discriminating against thermal noise. Superimposing such a “confusion” field on the impressed EMF should eliminate the bioeffect. And indeed, with control abnormalities at 6%, and EMF exposure abnormalities at 19%, exposure to the same EMF plus noise generated abnormalities at 7%.

In summary, Mr. Litovitz believes there is credible evidence that weak EMF can cause bioeffects, that cellular detection of weak EMF can be explained by conventional physics and biochemistry, and that the inhibitory effects of externally applied incoherent fields (noise) can be used to test for a positive response to coherent fields. He considerately answered numerous questions from the audience.

The President thanked the speaker on behalf of the Society. The membership chairman announced that there were no new members. The President announced the speaker for the next meeting, made the parking announcement, and adjourned the 2027th meeting at 9:35 p.m.

Attendance: 66
Temperature: +12.9°C
Weather: partly cloudy

Respectfully submitted,

John S. Garavelli
Recording Secretary