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Electromagnetic Fields and Parental Panics

A Case Study in How Science Can Bring Comfort

I AM A SCIENTIST IN THE FIELD OF EVIDENCE-BASED medicine and public health. Essentially, I am a science translator and communicator. I help healthcare workers use current science when treating patients, and in developing policies and programs. Much of what I do involves working with experts on a wide variety of topics to determine answers to health-related science issues. We ask questions about effectiveness of medical treatments. Which treatment is better? What treatments might cause harm? What are the risk factors for disease? We analyze results of clinical studies to figure out exactly what the results mean and what we should do with this information.

In addition to my career, I live the typical life of a working mother. I have two kids (a girl and a boy), a three-bedroom house in the suburbs, a two-car garage, a cat, a dog, two fish and an amazing husband. Rarely do my profession and personal life interact, but a few years ago on my daughter’s first day of school in first grade my worlds collided. While the children were having fun on the playground after school, one of the other mothers threw me what I call a panic science bomb. It seems that her daughter has eye twitches, and she concluded that they were caused by electromagnetic fields (EMF) emanating from a transformer outside of the girl’s classroom. The transformer also happens to be in front of my daughter’s new classroom, so that got my attention. Oh, and EMF causes cancer in children, she continued, suggesting that our daughters’ lives were at stake!

I call this a panic bomb because, although I am a scientist, I knew little about the health effects of EMFs. So for a moment I began to panic! What exactly are EMFs? And what might they be doing to my daughter and the other children at her school? My heart started racing. This is, of course, a natural reac tion. As Dr. Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow,1 people tend to react first with rapid intuition and emotion. But after a few moments my more thoughtful and critical thinking kicked in. I asked the mother what her daughter’s pediatrician or eye doctor had said about the eye twitches. Her response was completely unexpected. She had not taken her daughter to either a pediatrician or eye doctor. Presumably her medical information came from the Interweb. She said she has a very high standard of health for her family and was demanding that the school have the transformer moved.

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About Skeptic

INTERNET PORNOGRAPHY SPECIAL SECTION: IS PORNOGRAPHY BAD FOR YOU?; How Porn Is Messing with Your Manhood; Skeptical of Porn Skeptics; Hazards of Herbal Medicine: Lessons from Aristolochia; What is Sexual Orientation?; Did a Teenager Discover an Ancient Mayan City on Google Earth?; Paleo Diets and Utopian Dreams; Does AA Work? Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-Step Programs, and What We Really Know About Substance Abuse Treatment; The Clash of Eschatologies: The Role of End-Times Thinking in World History; Nightmares from the Id: The Neurophysiology of Anomalous Psychological Experiences; Terror Attacks that Never Were; Electromagnetic Fields and Parental Panics: A Case Study in How Science Can Bring Comfort; REVIEWS: Who Invented Science?; Science and the Creation of the Modern Mind; Heaven Is Not For Real; When Scientific American Put Psychics to the Test; JUNIOR SKEPTIC: MammothMysteries! Part One. The Hidden History of Mammoths and Mastodons