The art of scaring you over nothing: aquifers cause cancer
An article appearing here was my introduction to a new, very confused and counterintutive concept: aquifers cause cancer and health problems for humans. Mr. David Reecher, who runs the website Aquifers and Health Institute, has undertaken a public campaign to warn of the hazards of aquifers. When I read the news article, I laughed, thinking it was from The Onion. The statements displayed such ignorant of how nature works that it HAD to be satire. I underestimated human imagination; it was real. I was compelled to investigate this one further.
I am more than a little familiar with how aquifers work here in the northeast United States. However, I wish to approach this issue from a layman’s perspective, not one of an authority. (If you wish to inquire about my qualifications, please ask. I’ll be glad to provide them.)
Mr. Reecher makes a number of claims on the website which contains a good bit of information designed to convince you of his hypothesis about aquifers and cancer. It’s a lot to slog through and pick apart, but I will try to do it in a broad brush way. To deconstruct every detail would take considerable time and resemble untangling a giant knot of slippery threads. By using a little critical thinking, I hope to provide an alternate view of the topic.
Examining the claims
Let’s examine the “facts” stated on the A&H Institute website page.
“When water is forced under hydrostatic pressure through tiny micro channels, science has discovered that electric current is generated due to the friction, pressure and ion content of the water. And because of this, there is a release of adverse energy that rises into homes or offices sitting directly above the aquifer.”
Several concepts are shoved into these two sentences. In order to make any sense of it, you would need to understand something about hydrostatic pressure, how water moves through rock, what happens when it does, and some principles of chemistry and physics. Then, you must accept the statements proposed about generation of electric current, the release of “adverse energy” and propagation of such “energy”.
In this first claim alone, we have a number of red flags indicative of pseudoscience: overuse of the word “energy” (with a vague meaning), sciencey-sounding words, potentially confusing terms, and the suggestion that there is something to fear.
Typical of claims that propose an alternative to what conventional scientific knowledge tells us about nature, some true things are warped into a mix that ends up “not even wrong”. It becomes difficult to hone in on errors because one has to backtrack and establish what is true and how much you can logically follow from that. I’ll try…
Hydrostatic pressure is a natural process based on physical laws that does cause water to move. Water does move through pore spaces or fractures in rock but typically very slowly – like inches per day.
Friction and electric current are oversimplified in this context in such a way that I would not agree that the statement made is accurate.* The actual physics of fluid flow is far more complicated than this. But, to remain in a simple context, essentially, these factors are negligible to us humans up above. The water moves too slow under natural conditions to create appreciable friction or significant electricity. The concept of adverse energy is not established anywhere in the scientific literature and is simply not recognized by science.
Looking into this more, I discovered concepts to which the author seems to be referring (but not using the same words) – electrokinetic potential and geopathic stress. At least, they appear to be close. Not everyone can or would do this, but I did seek out both concepts in scientific literature. Electrokinetic potential is real but “electricity” as used by the Aquifers and Health Institute may be deemed “pushing the envelope”. It can not be used validate the premises that follow. There are certain conditions by which this potential can be measured via sensitive instruments (not people). The conflation of meaning reminds me of the use of quantum mechanics to explain UFO and ghost experiences – you’ve gone beyond the concept. This improper use of a scientific theory is a hallmark of pseudoscience.
When I looked up “geopathic stress” I was not directed to any scientifically credible information. It is connected to highly dubious ideas such as ley lines, sick building syndrome, dowsing, negative vortexes, even hauntings! Interestingly, it’s an idea pushed by alternative medicine practitioners yet they admit that there is no science behind it! Not good for credibilty. Therefore, it’s absurd to say the causes of such a questionable thing are established. So, we have misapplied concepts to help explain an unestablished condition.
“Electrical fields of different force and wavelengths are generated.”
“It causes a change in the earth’s natural magnetic field in the locations where the electricity is being generated.”
Whoa! This is serious. Movement of the water in certain places in certain aquifers generates electrical fields that can change the earth’s natural magnetic fields*.
The electric potential generated is extremely small and far underground (perhaps the rock unit acting as an aquifer is 100 feet or more below the surface). Our own bodies generate electrical signals. Does a crowd of people standing around warp the earth’s magnetic field? Because our modern environment is full of electrical devices (that generate electromagnetic fields), EMFs are EVERYWHERE. With sensitive instruments, we can detect these anomalies apart from the broad natural patterns but they are too small to interfere with the overall magnetic field that envelops the earth. (Again, I am simplifying here because there are some local variations caused by bigger things, like mountains. Maybe next they’ll say mountains cause cancer…)
But, back to the stated claim. How has this been verified? I searched the site. No satisfactory answer is provided. The sidebar on the site references studies so I click it. It takes me to a page that states “Käthe Bachler, Famous Austrian Researcher” has completed “11,000 case studies from 14 countries”. Following through, you find out that this one person apparently examined 3000 apartments and houses that have a total of 11,000 people in them – a sneaky way of representing 11,000 case studies and another point to which I’d call foul. Plus, I see no evidence that these studies were worthwhile since they were published in a book (anyone can published a book), not a technical journal.We are given no idea how it was done, what was examined, what the standards were and any problems with methods. This is very shaky evidence indeed. It looks to me that use of the large numbers in a so-called study is done to suggest that these concepts are legitimate. It can easily fool those who don’t dig in and question. This is not how good, solid science is presented.
It’s not difficult to design a better, straightforward test of this hypothesis. In an area without man-made EMF influences, a map of EMF field measurements can be compared to measured data regarding groundwater movement. With careful controls in a large data set, we can more fairly judge if this hypothesis is supported. A simple solid test has not been done. There remains, also, this so-called “adverse energy”…
“[I]f you’re exposed to this adverse energy, your body will create a negative stress reaction as a way to defend itself. However, if the problem is not corrected, and you are exposed for long periods of time, your defense and immune system will weaken, and this can eventually lead to chronic stress and chronic disease.”
“When the human body is exposed to this adverse energy rising from an aquifer, a negative stress reaction occurs in the body in just 15-20 minutes.”
Measuring “adverse energy” is mixed with the concept of human stress response. We must separate them to understand what is being alleged here. Humans have stress responses to all sorts of things in the environment. How can we narrow it to the effect of one thing without careful controls over all the other things (variables)? Remember, there is no evidence to show that this “adverse energy” even exists. How can the claim be made that it affects the body within minutes if we can’t even measure it properly Basic questions are left unanswered. What is it? How can you measure it? How do we know it does the things you say? How has this been tested? If it’s so ubiquitous and terrible, why isn’t it obvious to health professionals?
Stress is caused by life in general. Some people have too much or can’t manage it. Chronic stress affects many people. Stress suppresses your immune response and can make you less healthy. The A&H Institute is saying I should worry about a new stressor that can apparently lead to cancer. Don’t we have enough stressors that can make us sick? Go on, add another mysterious miasma coming from underground…
“Millions of Americans live or work directly above this problem – that is, this adverse energy.”
“There are many unsolved cancer cluster investigations in the U.S. And each one of these unsolved cancer clusters have multiple aquifers flowing directly below the actual disease area – and this is NO coincidence.”
Mr. Reecher and the A&H Institute want to make this hazard from aquifers widely known. So, here’s a good place to examine a core definition in this argument, “what is an aquifer?” The A&H Institute site tells you on the FAQ page but that version is a bit off. A more general and common version is a rock unit (like a sandstone or limestone formation) that readily transmits water to wells and springs. There are good aquifers, that yield a lot of water really easily or poor ones that do not. There are also layers that essentially prevent water from flowing through them. However, it’s important to recognize that most rock layers permit some water flow. Even poor aquifers still support water wells. If you can drill a well that produces water, you live over an aquifer. Let me put that another way – essentially everyone, everywhere has an aquifer underneath their feet. Aquifers are a component of how the earth circulates water. So, yes, millions do live above aquifers. More than the Institute suggests. And, they live above them with no adverse issues.
“If you live above aquifers and are subjected to this adverse energy for extended periods of time, this can lead to chronic stress and chronic disease. Many people with chronic illness and disease will be found living above aquifers.”
My brain just crashed and rebooted. Now, we are beyond cancer and onto all kinds of “chronic illness and disease”. We might also say, “Many people with chronic illness and disease will be found living in area with a television,” but couldn’t fairly conclude the televisions caused illness and disease.
“The ways in which this adverse energy can scientifically be measured follows: The human body is the most accurate testing device.”
The claim about humans as the most accurate testing devices is a key to how completely unscientific this approach is. Humans are TERRIBLE as testing devices. We are prone to imagining that we feel funny or uncomfortable just through suggestion from others. We have biases that can make us think a particular way. We can easily be fooled. We are not very sensitive to subtle environmental changes. That’s why science relies on precise instruments to measure small changes in the environment. It’s called “objectivity” when the “object” is doing the measuring, not the subject. I’m afraid, in this case, the objectivity is long gone.
If these claims had merit, their validity would have been apparent long ago. Instead, there is no quality evidence that flow properties of certain aquifers can result in a health hazard.
Appeal to Celebrity
At the bottom of the main web page, the author includes a reference to Suzanne Somers’ book on cancer called “Knockout”. I could go into a tirade about into celebrity authors who promote completely baseless ideas about health and well-being but I won’t. I’ll just ask two questions — would you trust evidence-based conclusions agreed upon by thousands of trained, independent, professional specialists or would you discard that for what an actor (or any layperson) puts in a book based on a few specially selected fringe sources? Which one of those sources pushes their views and products on TV talk shows?
The scientific studies page off the A&H main page provides extremely weak support. The way it is presented may cause those who are unfamiliar with scientific studies to be misled about the hypothesis proposed. The links are to studies that are not necessarily peer reviewed (critiqued by fellow experts) or are in areas that are not scientifically established (alternative medicine). The first study listed used dowsing to determine the zones of “energy.” No matter how many people tell you dowsing works, it is a completely discredited technique. It is pathetic that any journal would have accepted this article for publication (it is not a U.S. journal nor one which would be considered “prestigious” as suggested). This information is worthless.
Questioning the “expert”
I emailed the Institute (i.e., Mr. Reecher) to inquire with some basic questions rasied by claims on the website. His extra answers attempted to bolster his claim that electricity generated from very specific aquifers where the pressure and friction are strong enough produces electromagnetic waves. These areas, he says, create a secondary eletromagnetic field that “changes/modifies/disrupts” the earth’s natural magnetic field. This modification “no longer supports the human body” and the body produces a stress reaction. He suggests the problem is worse “where two or more aquifers are crossing (at different depths)”. But, he stresses only specific aquifers, ones which have “violent movement of the ground water,” cause this problem.
In his responses, more questions are raised than answers given. Isn’t groundwater movement natural? How about electricity and EMFs created by natural substances – aren’t they natural too? How can a natural field disrupt a natural field? What’s not natural, here? What about the falling water or water flowing in pipes? Doesn’t that create electricity and, subsequently EMFs? How can such little electricity produced in such a tiny bit of the earth’s crust mess up the earth’s giant magnetic field? What the hell is “violent” movement of groundwater? That’s an odd word choice. Can’t say I’ve ever seen groundwater move violently. His answers to my questions were just as vague and silly as the information on the website.
I hesitate to state a number of things in this exposé. First, if I was so inclined (that is, unethically so), I could think of better ways to sell this idea that sound more credible. I could make a scared person WAY more scared of something for which they have no reason to be just by stating facts that can be taken out of context. Second, I won’t speculate on the motives of the people involved. I assume that they truly believe what they say is valid. And, they may very well have altruistic motives. However, they don’t have a coherent case.
I do not hesitate, however, to say that their claims as presented are scientifically nonsensical. Come back with real studies, logic and mechanisms to support your claims and maybe you can change my mind. If you wish to get attention for something that does not fit within the current body of knowledge about nature, you have to have put together a better platform than this.
While one can normally laugh off such ideas, this one is concerning. This Institute is spreading what I’ve pointed out is misleading, unsubstantiated and incorrect information that can cause people to become unduly concerned about their health or living conditions. If the cause of a health issue is attributed to the entirely wrong factor, improper attention or treatment may result. From what is mentioned in the news article and from Mr. Reecher’s reply direct reply to me, the researchers from the institute propose fixes to the problem that would cost money. A Geowave device was tested that supposedly “reinforces the human energy field (HEF) and seems to make it much less sensitive to stress, thereby improving the well being of humans and animals”. There’s a whole lot of silly in that sentence.
This entire Aquifers and Health Institute website is muddled top to bottom. Why does anyone buy into it?
Science is a realm of big, fancy words and professional activities with which most people have no familiarity. Understanding concepts in physics and geology require specialized training that most people don’t have and can’t get. It’s similar to medicine, dentistry, even a car mechanic or computer tech person. We often must rely on specialists to tell us if something is wrong and how to fix it knowing they might take advantage of our ignorance about the subject.
Not everyone who says they are experts really are. Not everyone with letters after their name or citations on their resume know what the heck they are talking about. They can be very far out in left field from the rest of the scientific world. Few mavericks uncover breakthrough results. Progress is made by building upon what we already know to be true.
For the average person reading about how aquifers can cause cancer or any other concerning claim, it is easy to be misled, especially when proponents appeal to fear and authority to sell it. Look for the red flags and be skeptical.
*A well done scientific paper that I found detailing this phenomena made the more accurate statement: “A measurable electric potential is developed due to fluid flow.” Yes, that is more difficult to understand. It also involves equations and carefully controlled lab experiments which makes it repeatble and much more valuable. (Brown & Haupt, 1997, Study of Electrokinetic Effects to Quantify Groundwater Flow, Sandia National Labs)
UPDATE: I have found this video of Mr. Reecher promoting a venture called “Live in Happy Homes“. I must say, I was appalled. In it, he does specifically cite “geopathic stress”, ley lines, negative vortexes and makes a strong suggestion of home organization in terms of feng shui without mentioning this word explicitly. In addition, he says that skeptics should look at the testimonials of people that have been helped. When you appeal to testimonials, and NOT any scientific or even remotely logical reasons for this stated phenomena, you are appealing to the lowest common denominator – emotion. He says don’t use skepticism to create doubt. I’d like to say that if your skeptical senses are tingling, you are right to doubt. This has a high degree of woo.
Posted on February 3, 2011, in Pseudoscience, Science and Nature, scientifical, Skepticism, Woo and tagged alternative medicine, anecdotes, aquifers, evidence, health, Pseudoscience, science, skeptical. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.