Noel Edmonds is a game show host, famous for Britain’s version of Deal or No Deal. As far as I can tell, he has no medical or scientific qualifications at all. This unfortunately has not stopped him from using his celebrity to offer dubious medical advice via his Twitter feed. Such is the world in which we live.
Edmonds tweeted, referring to the EMP Pad:
“A simple box that slows ageing, reduces pain, lifts depression and stress and tackles cancer. Yep tackles cancer!”
This Twitter-brief statement packs in many red flags for quackery and snake oil: such as a simple device that can tack a wide range of medical conditions that do not appear to share a common cause or mechanism. The word “tackle” is vague, but implies either a cure or at least a significant treatment. Anyone claiming to treat or cure cancer deserves close scrutiny.
In response, cancer patient Vaun Earl tweeted:
“I think Noel Edmonds should stick to what he’s good at. Presenting quiz shows and beard trimming, rather than curing cancer.”
To which Edmonds responded:
“Scientific fact-disease is caused by negative energy. Is it possible your ill health is caused by your negative attitude? #explore”.
There is no such thing as “negative energy,” but that is a common notion used to sell medical nonsense. So is the idea that a “negative attitude” can cause disease. This is blaming the victim (or the patient) which is very common among charlatans.
What is Edmonds selling?
Edmonds is apparently a fan of the EMP Pad. Before I get into this device and the relevant science, the company has distanced themselves from Edmonds’ statements, putting out a statement of their own (which looks like it was crafted by their lawyers):
The EMPpad Omnium1 and EMPpad iMRS use very low intensity and frequency pulsed electromagnetic fields (PEMF) which target the cells within the body and help to improve the way they function. Research has demonstrated that this can lead to widespread health benefits, including supporting an effective immune response and a healthy overall body.
Although research using very low frequency and intensity PEMF to help address cancer has produced some promising early results, it is currently in the very early stages and EMPpad does not make the claim that PEMF therapy can prevent cancer.
The company must be delighted – they are getting lots of free advertising and an apparently unsolicited celebrity endorsement. You can see in their statement a common strategy, to imply that a medical device or treatment works without making a specific claim.
This is Britain’s version of “structure function” claims, similar to those allowed by regulations in the US. Companies can make all the claims they want about supporting cell function or improving a structure. They then imply a link to health and disease without making an explicit claim.
But then they allow testimonials to make the final connection for them, and Edmonds has nicely provided that service for the company.
The Science of Pulsed Electromagnetic Fields
I always love to click the link on dubious health websites labeled “How it works” or “The science.” Hilarity is certain to follow. The EMP Pad site does not disappoint:
The EMPpad’s PEMF technology has been developed to deliver an electromagnetic pulse at an intensity and frequency which mimics the Earth’s magnetic field. Extensive research has demonstrated that this stimulates a process called cellular resonance throughout the entire body, which can lead to-profound, widespread and life changing health benefits.
Health claims for magnets and magnetic fields are exactly as old as our knowledge of the existence of magnets and electromagnetism. There is something alluring about the idea of invisible fields of energy healing our cells. If only it were true.
One immediate question I had – if the device exactly mimics the electromagnetic fields of the Earth’s magnetic field (because it is natural, of course), then why is the device necessary? Aren’t we all being exposed to the Earth’s magnetic field all the time?
They refer to “extensive research” that PEMF causes “cellular resonance.” It is strange that despite this extensive research, there is virtually nothing published about cellular resonance. The only references I can find have nothing to do with PEMF, but only an alleged phenomenon of neuronal communication.
I did find a good reference titled: Nonsense about signal transduction and “cellular resonance,” which nicely debunks the idea as pseudoscience.
Because we are partial to Bayesian analysis here at SBM we like to consider both plausibility and clinical evidence. There is almost no plausibility to the claims being made by EMP Pad. Low power electromagnetic fields have never been shown to have clinically significant effects on animals or people. There is no way to magically “heal” cells or make them live longer, or affect overall health with simple magnetic fields.
The plausibility for any health effect is not zero, however, since electromagnetic fields are at least real. I could be convinced by compelling clinical evidence. The EMP pad website has a section listing scientific evidence.
This is also a common ploy for dubious health products – provide a long list of scientific studies to give the impression that your claims are supported by science. A careful review of the references, however, typically finds that they are mostly irrelevant to the claims being made.
In this case the vast majority of the cited studies are basic science, looking at cells or at most animals. They are not rigorous clinical trials. They cannot be used to support clinical claims. They are also not studies using the EMP Pad, but any study using pulsed electromagnetic fields.
Having an effect on cells in a dish is a very poor predictor that the intervention will be clinically useful. Most such basic science effects do not lead to effective treatments. It is therefore deliberately misleading to cite such basic science studies to support the claimed efficacy of a treatment or device.
One section did contain some actual double blind clinical studies – orthopedic claims for arthritis and bone healing. They cherry picked a study from 1990 suggesting that PEMF increased the healing of tibial fractures. However, a 2011 systematic review concluded:
Though the available evidence suggests that electromagnetic field stimulation may offer some benefit in the treatment of delayed union and non-union of long bone fractures, it is inconclusive and insufficient to inform current practice. More definitive conclusions on treatment effect await further well-conducted randomised controlled trials.
“More research is needed” is essentially a euphemism for – the evidence is negative.
What about PEMF and cancer? We see only basic science studies of cells in culture, nothing on whole organisms.
Of course, if there were convincing clinical evidence that a particular PEMF could improve survival in any particular cancer, that would already be the standard of care. Cancer doctors would be using it.
The EMP pad, in my opinion, is a typical quack device – it is sold with wishy-washy structure-function claims and vague claims of dramatic health benefits. It uses sciencey jargon about resonance and magnetic fields, the appeal to nature fallacy, and irrelevant references to scientific studies that don’t even come close to establishing their claims.
However, the BBC reports:
The Advertising Standards Authority said it was aware of concerns about Mr Edmonds’s claims but after contacting the company was satisfied that no rules had been broken.
In my opinion this means that the regulations are entirely inadequate. The company charges £2,315 ($3,377) for their device, an added expense that most people suffering from a serious illness probably cannot afford. There is also always the risk that convincing someone a magic box will cure their cancer will make them less likely to pursue standard proven treatments.
In addition, you will now have a TV celebrity blaming you for your own cancer on Twitter.