Years ago I was invited to a kind of garden party by the then German president, together with a number of other scientists. It was a beautiful late spring day. The wife of the president was a general practitioner, and she took care of her husband's health. I was introduced to her and we talked for a while, but when I started explaining to her MRI and the progress in imaging diagnostics, she became cool and slightly dismissive.
After some minutes she abruptly moved on, walking down the lawn. At first I didn't understand why, but then one of the president's staff explained to me that she believed in biomagnetism influencing daily life, and when traveling, she always arranged for her husband's bed and her own bed to be parallel to the magnetic lines in the bedroom.
I remembered this incident when I rewrote the chapter on safety of patients and personnel of an MR textbook1, and checked some books and articles on biomagnetism in my shelves and on the Internet. There I stumbled over two things: the accounts and suggestions of a number of people from Europe, Asia, and the U.S. about the influence of magnetic and electromagnetic fields upon the human body -- and the "Directive 2004/40/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 on the minimum health and safety requirements regarding the exposure of workers to the risks arising from physical agents (electromagnetic fields)" and its later addenda.2
I share the view of Frederic the Great: Let every man seek heaven in his fashion -- as long as he doesn't force his ideas upon his fellow citizens. This, for instance, includes the direction of his bed in the bedroom, her bed included. It's none of my business if some people believe that the best way to sleep is with the head south because then the magnetic field of the body and earth are in harmony, resulting in mental rest and undisturbed sleep. It doesn't bother me when somebody states: "When elderly or with deteriorating brain functions one should sleep with the head towards magnetic north and not in a bed with a frame or springs that can be magnetized." Chacun à son gout, as the French say.
Magnetism is a phenomenon that is difficult to comprehend because there is no visible force; it is a good breeding ground for any belief in miracles, superstition, revelation, magic, or the supernatural -- and pseudoscience. Parascience or pseudoscience often is coupled with angst, the fear of the unknown. According to the National Science Board, a U.S. federal agency, belief in pseudoscience is widespread and continues to thrive.3
What bothers me is when people try to impose their pseudoscientific views and half-baked rules on me. Reading the new EU directive on magnetic resonance is an eye-opener. It illustrates the estrangement of European Parliament members and Brussels civil servants from daily life and their responsibilities to the public. The directive would help close down all MR facilities in the EU because nobody would be allowed to work close to an MR system.
The real background to the EU directive is difficult to fathom. I do not know whether this proposal happened by oversight, lack of knowledge, or by other possible reasons I don't want to mention because it wouldn't be politically correct.
Without a doubt, there are numerous open questions concerning the safety of MRI, mostly at fields beyond 2 tesla. Ultrahigh-field equipment has for example heat deposition and noise problems. Certain other questions are open and caution might demand further research on possible adverse effects at high field strengths. Still, to date, there is no proof of any permanent damage to patients or staff caused by the magnetic or radiofrequency fields of commonly used clinical MR equipment. The measures envisaged by the European Parliament and the European Commission are plainly prophylactic, precautionary: perhaps something could happen, they argue.
In 2010, the mess created since the late 1990s was inherited by the new EU Commissioner of the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs, and Inclusion and his cabinet. Nobody there has any background on the topic, otherwise they wouldn't state: "The rules are to protect workers like doctors and nurses giving patients magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, people working with radar, welders, and workers repairing power lines."4
Thirty years ago, I was sent by the head of my department to the first meeting of the (German) national radiation protection agency dealing with magnetic resonance. I was in my late 20s. All other men around the big conference table were aged at least 30 years older than me. I was the only one who had ever seen and worked with MR equipment. The question was: What could be the possible hazards?
I remember two participants who tried to monopolize the others with statements about soldiers and the dangers of radar beams. There is a difference between magnetic resonance, industrial welding, and radar. The occupational hazards are also completely different. One cannot create one big ideological hodgepodge and decide the same rules apply for everything under the sky. Still, the EU tries.
There is always carping and criticism about great and anonymous administrations. In 2000, I wrote down my personal experiences with the European Commission applying for a university research grant and working as a scientific expert.5 Afterward I never worked for or applied to the EU again. My general view about the qualifications and the competence of the European Commission and the European Parliament has not changed. They are costly and harmful. All over the world, people suffer, perhaps even die, because of bureaucrats. Still, we have to live with them. But it's always better to steer clear of them as long as we can.
If the new EU directive comes into effect, no -- or only limited -- MR examinations could be offered to patients; they will be pushed into getting x-ray examinations. Today, plain or computerized x-ray equipment would fail in any approval procedure because of the known and proven radiation danger.
There are many lobbyists and union leaders from all over Europe involved in this new European-scale law. They have their own agenda. It is unfortunate for the new Hungarian EU commissioner that he and his crew will be held accountable -- he might be hanged for other people's mistakes. At present, he has to find a way out of the seeming dead-end without losing face, stepping on too many toes, and making too many waves in the media.
What would be a face-saving solution for both sides? Suspending the directive until the facts are on the table and the political gambling and bickering has ended. Why not arrange a European-wide study on possible side effects of MRI to answer the still-open questions? Money is no problem for the EU.
Such a study will easily take eight to ten years. In the meantime, many of the people in Brussels and Strasbourg will have moved on to new sinecures, back to Autobahnia or Ruritania, or they might have retired. Time is an excellent healer and some of the mistakes made will be forgotten and forgiven.
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- Rinck PA. Safety of patients and personnel. In: Magnetic resonance -- a peer-reviewed, critical introduction. 2012. http://magnetic-resonance.org/MagRes Chapters/18_01.htm
- Directive 2004/40/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 on the minimum health and safety requirements regarding the exposure of workers to the risks arising from physical agents (electromagnetic fields) (18th individual Directive within the meaning of Article 16(1) of Directive 89/391/EEC) / European Commission. Commission staff working paper. Impact assessment. Accompanying document to the proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the minimum health and safety requirements regarding the exposure of workers to the risks arising from physical agents (electromagnetic fields) (XXth individual directive within the meaning of Article 16(1) of Directive 89/391/EEC). Brussels, 14 June 2011. 120 pages.
- National Science Board (of the United States): Science and Engineering Indicators 2006. http://nsf.gov/statistics/seind06/c7/c7s2.htm#c7s2l3
- Commission proposes to revamp rules to protect EU workers from harmful electromagnetic fields.Press release; 14 June 2011. http://ec.europa.eu/commission_2010-2014/andor/headlines/news/2011/06/20110614_en.htm
- Rinck PA. Bureaucracy and waste tarnish EU grants. Diagnostic Imaging Europe.2000;6(10):23-24. http://rinckside.org/Rinckside Columns/2000 10 Bureaucracy and waste tarnish EU grants.htm