Magda Havas’ New EHS Study Has Serious Flaws

Dr. Lorne Trottier, a CFI Science advisor and electronics engineer, and his colleaque Harvey Kofsky have graciously allowed Skeptic North to cross-post their recent appraisal of Magda Havas’ recently published study,  which purports heart rate effects from a domestic cordless telephone.  The following is a reprint from his website www.emfandhealth.com where a wealth of information can be found on the bad science and misinformation of microwave radiation for communications and so-called “dirty electricity.”  Dr. Trottier’s bio can be found at the end of the article.  The original article can be found here.


Introduction

A very recent study by Dr. Magda Havas et al. sharply contradicts accepted studies on electrohypersensitivity (EHS). This study purports to show that the heart rate of electrosensitive subjects is subject to dramatic increases in the presence of EMF from a cordless phone (see Provocation study using heart rate variability).  On her web site, Havas states that this study was published “in the peer-reviewed European Journal of Oncology Library Vol. 5 2010”. Upon investigation it turns out that this impressive sounding journal is actually an internal publication of the Ramazzini Institute. This organization is the source of discredited claims that the artificial sweetener aspartame is a dangerous carcinogen. These studies have been widely criticized for serious flaws in methodology in the scientific community, and are not accepted. Not all scientific journals are of equal weight. However, the new Havas study needs to be evaluated on its own merits, not on where it was published.

The authors of the new Havas paper claim that this is the first double blind study that demonstrates a “real” electrosensitive effect. This single study is in sharp contradiction with dozens of other rigorous studies such as the systematic review paper by Rubin (see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bem.20536/abstract). The Havas study is highly questionable due to this fact alone. However, our group has identified a number of potential flaws with this study such as electrical interference within the equipment, and improper blinding.

The heart of the Havas paper (no pun intended) consists of several charts such as the one below which is a plot of heart rate over four consecutive 3 minute intervals. A cordless phone was turned on and off at three minute intervals. The Havas paper claims that the heart rate of electrosensitive subjects speeded up or started to race when the cordless phone was on.

We will evaluate three different hypotheses to explain these dramatic results.

Hypothesis 1: Havas’ conclusions are correct. Electrosensitive individual’s hearts react to cordless phones

Hypothesis 2: The experiment was not properly blinded, and electrosensitive subjects had a psychosomatic panic attack when they believed the cordless phone was on.

Hypothesis 3: The apparent high pulse rates are an experimental artefact due to electrical interference within the equipment

Explanation of Chart

The vertical axis is “R-R Interval” which is the interval between heart beats measured in seconds. So a pulse rate of 60 gives an R-R interval of 1 second. A pulse rate of 120 gives an R-R interval of 0.5 seconds. The horizontal axis is time. Havas has time markers at 8:09:04 PM, 8:12:00 PM, and 8:14:44 PM. These are at approximately 3 minute intervals, which correspond to 3 minute on/off cycles of the cordless phone.

Hypothesis 1 & 2

Given the rather brief description of the experimental set-top in the Havas paper, there are many ways in which the “double blinding” could be imperfect. The cordless phone shown on Havas web site has at least two LED’s which light up when the power is on. Either the subject and/or the experimenter might be able to see this, which would defeat blinding.

The cordless phone was manually connected by the experimenter to either a live or a dead power outlet (unlabeled) every 3 minutes. This was the method used to randomize the on/off cycles. Any number of cues could have been picked up by the experimenter so he would “know” which was which. This would also defeat blinding. These are some of the many ways that experimental protocol may have been improperly blinded. However, the heart rate charts themselves raise serious questions.

Looking that the above graph, there are a lot of “spikes” in the intervals with high heart rate when the cordless phone is “on”. It is hard to believe that this data is real based on straightforward physiological considerations. It is plausible for heart rate to suddenly race – for example if someone panics (fight or flight reflex). But it is implausible for heart rate to suddenly slow down. Once the heart is racing, whether due to physical exertion or adrenalin, it takes time for it to settle down. This chart if full of sudden jumps in heart rate, but it also contains sudden multiple decreases in heart rate. It is highly implausible that a person’s heart rate could suddenly race multiple times in a 3 minute interval, and it is especially implausible that the same heart rate could suddenly slow down.

Furthermore, the person being tested would surely notice that their heart was racing. Such a fast heart rate indicates a state of panic. The experimenter should have verified such a dramatic change by taking the person’s pulse either manually or with a stethoscope. There is no mention of this in the paper.

For this reason, our conclusion is that both hypothesis 1 and 2 are highly implausible.

Hypothesis 3

Let’s consider the issue of potential electrical interference within the equipment used in the study. The study used heart rate monitoring software made by Nerve Express (http://www.nerveexpress.com/), which uses a heart rate sensor manufactured by Polar (http://www.polarusa.com/us-en/). In their instruction manuals both companies include warnings about the possibility that electrical interference from devices such as a cordless phone may interfere with the heart rate readings. The Nerve Express manual includes the following warnings.

From the Nerve Express User’s Guide P. 22:

http://www.emfandhealth.com/image/NervExpressWarning.jpg

Sensitivity to Electrical Artifacts

There are many factors that can lead to erroneous heart rate readings due to the extremely weak electrical signals from the body that are used with this technique for heart rate measurements. Thought Technology sells heart rate monitoring devices that use a similar “electrode to the skin” method for measuring heart rate. Their warnings about the sensitivity of heart rate measurements (see document HRVThoughtTechnology.pdf), also apply to the Nerve Express/Polar equipment.

On P 12:

“Garbage In, Garbage Out”

The EKG signal is measured in microvolts (1 μV = one millionth of a Volt), which means it is a fairly small signal. Because artifact can be many times larger than the actual signal, some care has to be taken to minimize all possible sources of signal distortion. This is often illustrated with the GIGO principle: Garbage in, garbage out. If the raw signal you are recording contains too much artifact, the IBI (inter beat interval) output will be wrong and the analysis that can be generated from it will probably be bad as well.

Also On P12:

“HRV Artifacts”

When processing signals for HRV analysis, two kinds of artifacts can occur: Missed beats and Extra beats. Both types are most often caused by signal distortion. A missed beat, for example, can occur when the signal is so distorted that the software is unable to identify the beat pattern and only picks up on the next good beat. The end result is an artificially long IBI value. An extra beat, on the other hand, occurs when the program confuses a distortion in the signal for a beat and “sees” two beats, or more, when there should be only one. Extra beats cause the appearance of abnormally short IBI values. Both types of artifacts are easily seen on a graph which plots the IBI values over time as sudden very high rises or very low drops”.

On P. 25:

Electromagnetic interferences”

The Infiniti encoder and the EKG sensor are capable of detecting very tiny electrical signals (millionths of a Volt) generated by the human body. Therefore the system is very sensitive to electromagnetic fields generated by other devices in the room or nearby, such as radio transmitting devices, computer monitors, medical devices (for example x-ray machines) and fluorescent lights. It is a good idea to turn such devices off if they are not needed during the session.

It is also recommended to make sure that your biofeedback instrumentation is kept at least 10 feet away from any radio transmitting devices and 3 feet away from electronic devices (including monitors) and fluorescent, halogen or neon lights.

Conclusion

The experimental setup in the Havas study completely ignored all these warning about electrical interference producing artifacts in the heart rate measurements. This includes the specific warning about keeping “transmitting devices” at least 10 feet away, and especially the warning that “artifacts are easily seen on a graph which plots the IBI values over time as sudden very high rises or very low drops”. This is precisely what is seen in the Havas charts!! The cordless phone base unit – which is a transmitting device – was located only 30 – 50 cm (1 – 2 ft) from the sensitive Nerve Express/Polar equipment. All this strongly suggests that simple electrical interference was responsible for the sudden changes in heart rate “measurement”.

This type of electrical interference is highly sensitive to the relative placement of the various pieces of equipment including the Nerve Express/Polar chest sensor and receiver, the wiring to the computer, the location of the cordless phone, and the subject. It would not be unusual for such interference to be erratic and intermittent due to the manner in which the computer attempts to extract the heart rate from the noisy signal. This would explain why high pulse rates were not detected with all subjects. It is also consistent with the fact that 3 out of the 4 “intense” subjects were consecutive (they were the last subjects). The equipment placement is likely to have been constant for these three subjects in a row.

One of us (Harvey Kofsky) tested a Polar heart rate monitor (Polar S510/520) similar to the one used in the Havas study. The “measured” heart rate jumped to over 200 beats per minute when the unit was in close proximity to a laptop computer. This is a clear and direct demonstration that this device is highly susceptible to electrical interference. This adds considerable weight to the hypothesis that the abrupt heart rate increases in the Havas study were actually caused by electrical interference. We plan to continue with our investigation of this matter.

Dr. Lorne Trottier. is an electronics engineer, a co-founder of Matrox a major hi-tech company. He is President of the Foundation of the Montreal Science Center, and has an honorary doctorate from McGill University. He has spent considerable time (with colleagues from McGill) putting together the web site www.emfandhealth.com which contains a wealth of information and credible scientific references on the issue of EMF and health. Included on the web site are references to statements from most of the world’s public health organizations attesting to the fact that there is no credible scientific evidence that EMF causes health effects. Dr. Trottier is a member of the CFI Canada board and a science adviser to the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) at the Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Harvey Kofsky is a Professional Engineer. He has a BaSC degree in 1966 in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto. He is an entrepreneur who has founded a number of successful electronics companies including Promatek Industries Ltd. during his career. Kofsky is passionate about ensuring that the public is given appropriate information in order to evaluate pseudo scientific media reports.

17 Responses to “Magda Havas’ New EHS Study Has Serious Flaws”

  1. Blondin says:

    The fact that many EKG monitors are susceptible to electrical interference is something that most people who have had EKG studies would be aware of because the tech’s administering the test tell you they need to remove your cell phone because it interferes with the monitor. I’ve even had them take my chip credit cards to a different room while they did the study. Anybody who’s ever had their cell phone sitting near their computer speakers should be familiar with the “morse code-like” interference they emit.

    So much for Havas’ “expert” opinion. They say you should never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence but one has to wonder.

  2. Don Cates says:

    I’ve measured heart rate in a research setting and seeing the response to be very nearly a doubling of rate would immediately make me suspect a waveform distortion leading to a double count. I see from the product literature that the actual waveform is available for viewing. I would always check that on seeing any rate change but in particular with a doubling.

  3. P@J says:

    Anyone else note the irony of using a Polar wireless heartrate monitor to study the effect of wireless communication on heart rate?

    Heloo?

  4. Lorne says:

    Interesting the graphs showing the sudden jumps in heart rate up or down. I use a Polar heart rate monitor when I exercise, mainly cycling, and get similar results every once in while also. The Software Polar provides with their monitors has got simple error correction to help smooth out those anomalies. These type of anomalies can be caused by a large number of factors. I had static electricity caused by windy conditions and synthetic materials, cause large errors readings. You can even get cross talk between heart rate monitors.

    Personally I’d kill to have a recovery rate as indicated in the graph, 50 BPM is less than a second, I don’t think professional athletes can even achieve that.

  5. Art Tricque says:

    I think it is worth highlighting some other points about the the dubious nature of the publishing of the Havas article in the first place. You noted that the European Journal of Oncology is published by the scientifically-suspect Ramazzini Institute. In addition, however, one should note that the the co-”sponsor” of the issue, besides the Ramazzini folks, is the International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety (ICEMS), the grandiose name for the group founded by and for EMF woomeisters. Furthermore, the journal’s (or at least the issue’s) two editors are Livio Giuliani and Morando Soffritti, who were as of 2008 the ICEMS Spokesman and an ICEMS member respectively per the ICEMS resolutions page; Havas and another author of the paper are ICEMS members. The article has almost been self-published! At most charitable, it does raise serious questions as to just what sort of peer review the article was put.

    I think it also points to a pattern of how desperate the EMF woomeisters have become, as respectable journals realize that their science is discredited: the publishing last year of portions of the BioInitiative Report in an issue of Pathophysiology (Pathophysiology 16 (2–3): 67–69. doi:10.1016/j.pathophys.2009.02.002 ) … guest-edited by Martin Blank, one of the three members of the BioInitiative Organizing Committee. And the fact that the BioInitiative Report itself was released through the internet. Even the most recent Levitt and Lai article (“Biological effects from exposure to electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell tower base stations and other antenna arrays” Environ. Rev. 18: 369–395 (2010) doi:10.1139/A10-018 ) rehashes old info, and conveniently ignores more comprehensive, rigorous conflicting research.

    Since the EMF woomeisters have lost the scientific battle, they have turned to PR and the media, trying to influence politicians and the lay public, who have less of a capacity to understand just how bankrupt the message being spun is.

  6. i love you says:

    call me a fucking moron, but when I first read this study, i had a hard time criticizing anything but the publishers. how I didn’t think that a transmitter like that could affect the heart rate monitors, and more importantly, that an INSTANT 50BPM drop in heart rate doesn’t make any fucking sense, is completely beyond me.

    thanks for sharing the excellent use of your critical thinking skills, i was getting ready to possibly give this EMS bullshit a little consideration

  7. What is the delay between “wifi signal on” and heart rate monitor response ? If it is below 10 ms we know there is no human being in the circuit as nerve impulses travel rather slowly.
    James

  8. comelately says:

    OMFG if we were to listen to the “scientists” that old bumble bee would never fly. I’m new to all this however after reading a lot of EMF’s there is a saying if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck then it most likely is a DUCK.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that the so called science experts have a hidden agenda. Just follow the money as the saying goes.
    Time after time the experts in many different fields where proven wrong. The latest is the flu scam. So do you really think I’d believe your expert witness?? The duck syndrome begins to look more like a chicken and then you offer no evidence other than the equipment was not used correctly. So therefore it nulls all research it nulls people who have benefitted by using this unproven EMF’s methods.
    Like the saying goes you can make anything to prove anything with logic. However the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And people are experiencing wonderful pudding. Despite the logic.
    Think about the science people who said that smoking was not harmful? And all the BS they manufactured to “prove” their point. Or how about the Dr who was ridiculed because he said wash your hands. How many great discoveries were found by accident?? How many times have we as lay people heard the so called scientists make statements and then they’d never admit they were in error.

    • Triona says:

      Thank you, comelately; there are so many many studies out there that prove the power of EMF and EMR; many de-classified military documents that show EMR has been around a long time. When in doubt, follow the money trail; here in BC it’s Tracey McVickers, Emerson, and others–with their hands in the pockets of Corix, BC Hydro and the Liberal Party. Why did the BC gov’t exempt the $1 billion smart meter program from the scrutiny of the Public Utilities Commission? There’s a lot of money riding on the presumed ignorance and apathy of the public–and BC Hydro is really anxious to get all these smart meters in before too many people are aware.

  9. MIchael says:

    The possible explanations for the findings that are discussed here are very good, but are not confirmed. They are possible alternative explanations. THE NEXT STEP IS FOR THIS INFORMATION TO BE SENT TO MAGDA HAVAS PhD, AND ALLOW HER TO REPEAT THE EXPERIMENT CORRECTING FOR THESE FACTORS. That is how science is properly done. Creating alternative explanations, no matter how sound they may be, is not the end of the story. Proper science is done when feedback for an experiment is provided to the public and to the scientist, so that the scientist (or others) can repeat the experiments with those factors addressed. Why is everyone so quick to wash their hands of this matter? This will take both a dialogue, done in good faith by the two (or more) scientists – Dr. Havas and Dr. Trottier, and further experimentation by Dr. Havas. In fact, actual experimentation by Dr. Trottier, if he has sufficient interest in the subject, would be of use.

    • Marc says:

      So just how much more tax payees money should we waste on trying to replicate these bogy studies? Scientists do these for so many years already… Don’t we have real* problems?

  10. Evilcyber says:

    I’m happy to see I’m not the only one with doubts about Mrs. Havas:

    http://evilcyber.com/the-rest/havas-wifi-research/

  11. Soapbox Jill says:

    The 2009 Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium topic was Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change: Geo-engineering or Mitigation?

    Climate change? Now, there’s a crack-pot issue.
    This is the pot calling the kettle black.

  12. michael says:

    Havas has answered your knee-jerk cognitive dissonance protectionism of the reigning paradigm and the industry

    http://www.magdahavas.com/microwave-radiation-affects-the-heart-are-the-results-real-or-are-they-due-to-interference/

    so many of you clowns call yourselves skeptics but you are just protecting your own psychological or economic turf. The establishment gets away with bloody murder whilst the alternative perspectives are drowned out by claims of junk science, fabrication etc. What real science has a chance in this environment?

    You claim that sudden decrease in heart rate (‘recovery rate’) cannot occur, by making analogy to situations where the heart obviously cannot normally recover, eg in exercise. this is not the same thing. this is noting the result of RF on the bioelectronic structure of the human body. If I insert electrodes into a dead frogs heart then I can pulse it so that it is beating at 60 or 120 bpm. When I turn off the power, the frog is still dead. Now that’s a great recovery rate.

    The word for you clowns is “psuedoskeptic”. Keep holding those phones close to your heads, and keep up with the long conversations. It’s a Darwin Award in progress.

    • Art Tricque says:

      The body is not “bioelectronic”.

      And yes, it is true, one can stimulate a heart using electrodes and current. But the currents are far higher than that can be achieved by cordless phones, which also do not have the advantage of being connected to the human heart by metal leads.

      Odd that Ms. Havas has not explained why she could not get the article published in a journal instead of having to publish it herself. Odder still that she has not taken up the offers to conduct the experiments with professional EKG heart monitor equipment instead of what she actually used.

      Oddest of all, how can she explain that the folks who were most “sensitive” seem to have elevated heart rates supposedly triggered by the cordless phones pressed to their heads, when the field strengths of those cordless phones were on the order of the ambient field strengths (once again measured by inadequate gear, instead of by professional spectrum analyzers)?

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    Michael is an advanced-care paramedic in York Region, just north of Toronto, Ontario. A semi-retired theatrical lighting designer as well, he re-trained in 2005 as an EMT-PS at the University of Iowa and as an ACP at Durham College, and is currently working towards a B.Sc at the University of Toronto. Michael is a founder and the chair of the board of directors of Bad Science Watch. He is also the recipient of the first annual Barry Beyerstein Award for Skepticism. Follow Michael on twitter @anxiousmedic. Michael's musings are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer or Bad Science Watch.