Saturday, February 7, 2004

High-voltage lines, negative ions and rats

Tests show how personal toxic cloud of ozone is created

Based on experiments involving rats and ozone, scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have identified a chemical reaction that may explain higher rates of illness observed among some people exposed to strong electromagnetic fields such as those produced by high-voltage power lines.

The findings may also bode ill for those "negative-ion" air fresheners so popular as health-inducing gizmos for home and office.

"There's been a lot of research into whether these electromagnetic fields have health effects, but most studies have been inconclusive," said Steven Goheen, an analytical chemist at the lab, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, in Richland.

While some epidemiological studies have found higher rates of cancer or other illnesses among those exposed to strong electromagnetic fields, Goheen said no studies have been able to suggest a cause. Perhaps for this reason, he said, scientific interest in this once-high-profile potential health threat has waned of late.

"It's hard to get funding for this kind of thing," Goheen said, adding with a laugh: "It's hard for me to even get people to talk about it."

So, while officially working on his well-funded protein studies at the national lab, he and his colleagues recently launched a non-funded "seat-of-the-pants" side project to explore an idea he first pondered some 20 years ago.

The idea centers on ozone, a chemical in the air made of three oxygen molecules rather than the "normal" pair that make up the oxygen we breathe.

Before he came to the lab, Goheen had worked in California with other scientists exploring the biological effects of negative-ion air generators along with ozone generators.

"People used to think (breathing) ozone was good for you," he noted. It's now generally regarded as a toxic pollutant, Goheen said, that causes damage -- especially to the lungs -- because of its highly reactive chemical nature.

Negative-ion air generators usually don't produce much ozone and there is evidence that negative ions do clean the air and may provide health benefits. But these devices produce the negative ions by what's known as a "corona discharge" -- a continuous release of electrons and charged molecules. When an animal is put close to this electron flow within a strong electric field, ozone levels skyrocket, the Richland team of scientists found. High-voltage power lines sometimes produce corona discharges as well.

Goheen recalled an experiment done years ago by researchers in San Francisco. They placed rats in a negative-ion chamber close to the air generator, intending to prove that the negative ions provided longevity and other health benefits. But the rats, instead, died prematurely.

"The results weren't published," Goheen noted. He asked a pathologist to study the rats' lungs to see what might have caused the damage and they found evidence of ozone toxicity. But because the negative-ion air generators don't directly produce much ozone, it was still not clear what had killed the rats.

Now, a few decades later, Goheen thinks he has found the smoking gun.

It is the rats themselves that are producing the ozone in response to the electromagnetic field, or EMF.

"We'd been looking in the wrong place," Goheen said. Scientists looking for the health effects of EMFs were looking for toxic chemicals or changes inside the body, he said, when the likely culprit was in the air surrounding the body.

There's no reason why people exposed to the same strong EMFs, Goheen added, won't do the same thing -- generate their own personal, toxic cloud of ozone.

In the experiment, published in the current issue of the journal "Bioelectromagnetics," three rats were exposed in close proximity to a device producing 10 kilovolts -- about what negative-ion air fresheners produce.

The ambient level of ozone in the air before the device was turned on was about 10-20 parts per billion (ppb).

When the electrical device was switched on, Goheen and his colleagues reported ozone levels spiked as high as 200 ppb -- about twice the "chronic" level allowed by federal regulators in a workplace setting.

Public health experts believe immediate damage or acute health effects from a single exposure to ozone won't occur until the concentration reaches about 5,000 ppb.

Goheen also cautioned that the rats had to be placed much closer to the electrical device than would be the case for most people and their ion air generators.

But he and his colleagues think their findings should at least prompt scrutiny into this new potential link between EMFs and health.

"Experiments (showing few or no health effects) have so far focused mainly on the direct biological effects of EMFs," Goheen and his colleagues wrote. What they have shown is that the adverse health effects may result from this indirect and unexpected "self-produced" cloud of ozone created when a body is exposed to the field.

Goheen and his co-workers said they think the ozone is produced from a reaction between oxygen and the electrons. It doesn't happen when the cage is empty of the rats, he noted, but can be produced if the cage floor is filled with water that is electrically grounded.

"Our bodies, of course, are mostly grounded water," Goheen noted.
P-I reporter Tom Paulson can be reached at 206-448-8318 or