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MindNet Journal - Vol. 1, No. 82
V E R I C O M M sm "Quid veritas est?"
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ELECTROMAGNETIC EFFECTS ON HUMAN BEHAVIOR
By Steve Mizrach
The question of what influence Extra-Low Frequency (ELF)
Electromagnetic (EM) fields have on behavior of organisms can
only be understood in light of the fledgling field of
radiobiology. The theory that one's mind is being controlled by
waves being beamed by some ultrasecret conspiracy is one found
among almost every stripe of paranoid; lest we excite such
individuals, we must tread very carefully. Since 60 Hz ELF
fields surround almost all electrical appliances, and are
particularly acute near power transformers, if a risk exists, it
must be dealt with; yet our lives are extensively dependent on
electrical power, and altering our demand for it is something
that requires definitive proof of a health risk.
It was an individual named Luigi Galvani who first noted that
the muscles of a frog's leg responded to electrical stimulation.
Later researchers of the 18th century would discuss a great deal
about "animal electricity," and a French philosopher named La
Mettrie adjudged from this electrical basis of life that
organisms could really be seen as machines. Electricity was "in
the air," during the 18th and 19th century, so much so that the
"spark of life" could be seen as electrical, and novels like
Frankenstein could be written where a "modern Prometheus" gave
life to dead matter through a stroke of lightning. A diletantte
called Mesmer claimed to discover an "animal magnetism" through
which he could cure his patients' ailments; that other savant of
electricity, Benjamin Franklin, was called over to investigate
and discovered Mesmer to be a charlatan. Yet "mesmerism" still
exists, an unexplained phenomenon owed less to Mesmer than one
of his disciples, a Frenchman named Charcot. (He was one of the
first investigators to examine the psychology of "memerized"
patient, and the physiology of the trance state.) One of the
powerful debates of the late 19th century involved "vitalism" --
was there some unique, vitalizing energy that made organisms
different from dead matter? As chemists found that they could
easily and artificially create organic substances such as urea,
the vitalist position fell out of favor, and Joseph Needham, a
biochemist, proclaimed in the early 1930s that "the vitalist
position was firmly and finally refuted."
During this time when mechanical explanations of life were
proliferating, the world was slowly becoming electrified. Tesla
and Edison argued back and forth, electrocuting animals with
each other's form of current (AC or DC) for evidence, as to
whose form of power was more dangerous; but as power lines
slowly began to cover the globe, the question as to what effect
they might have was largely ignored. Only recently had a clerk
named Maxwell showed that electrical and magnetic fields were
largely aspects of the same force, electromagnetism. And as
Marconi made possible the transmission of radiofrequency (RF)
waves, the human species suddenly became bathed in a sea of EM
radiations it had never been exposed to, with the ozone layer
filtering out many non-visible frequencies. Then in 1939, a
genius or a crank (depending on how you look at it) named George
Lakhovsky released a tract entitled _The Secret of Life: Cosmic
Rays and Radiations of Living Beings_. There had been some
discussion before his time of possible "mitogenic" rays or "N"
rays having influences on the growth and development of
organisms, but it had been largely ignored.
Lakhovsky theorized that "the cell, essential organic unit in
all living beings, is nothing but an electromagentic resonator
capable of absorbing radiations of all frequencies." Lakhovsky
suggested that cells were "oscillating circuits," that had
natural frequencies of resonance. Having observed orientation in
animals and other phenomena, Lakhovsky concluded that some of
the semi-crystalline matter within the cell nucleus might
exhibit electrical conductance. He coined the study of such
properties "radiobiology." Following Lakhovsky, neovitalism had
a raging revival. Wilhelm Reich claimed to discover a biological
energy called orgone, closely related to but distinct from
electrical energy. Professors Saxton and Burr at Yale used a
supra-sensitive voltmeter to measure electrical capacitance in
the skin and claimed to discover that it changed according to
health and other biological changes. Professor Seymour Kirlian
in the Soviet Union discovered a photographic technique that
made manifest fantastic electrical displays around living
organisms, also apparently correlated with their vital state
In that time of tumult and distrust of public authority, the
1960s, many people began to become alarmed at the spreading
growth of microwave transmission towers. Openly and aloud, they
wondered what health effects the EM fields these towers
generated might have on people nearby. And so many scientists,
not just those on the fringe, began to investigate the
relationship of EM and life, in earnest. Then, in 1977 a
muckraker named Paul Brodeur stepped on the scene, publicizing a
little-known study by epidemiologists Nancy Wertheimer and Ed
Leeper made in 1975 which claimed to find a higher than normal
incidence of childhood leukemia in those houses closest to
secondary electrical wires (leading from transformers) where the
highest ELF strength levels were also found. The matter bounced
back and forth; as recently as 1989, the question of ELF fields
radiated by electric blankets for pregnant mothers and by Video
Display Terminals (VDTs) for office workers became an issue of
public health concern.
Hence we shall closely examine one question in particular: what
role do ELF fields play in the behavior of organisms? And is
that role significant enough to consider ELF fields a risk? And
what can be done if they are?
Scientists have usually been wary of any suggestion that
nonionizing radiation might have biological effects. Ionizing
radiation, which usually involves radioactive decay of unstable
isotopes, usually generates dense alpha and beta particles
(which are really atomic helium nuclei) which can impact on
tissue and have significant repercussions. Nonionizing (that is,
EM) radiation involves only massless photons, of varying energy,
which as bosons (carriers of force) really are quanta of
information. Up until the 1960s, it was thought that the only
effects such energy could have would be thermal, i.e. raise the
temperature of organisms. It is only due to the growing
influence of cybernetics and system theory that the
informational aspect of organisms is becoming more appreciated,
and it is precisely from the perspective of EM radiation as a
carrier of information in the organism that effects are being
EM fields present a particular problem because in the "real
world" such fields do not spread out evenly over space. Dosimetry
depends a great deal on how close one is to the center of the
field, orientation, parts of the body exposed, shielding of the
object, and other conditions. Strangely, exposure in ELF fields
almost seems to work against typical force laws: it decreases
near the generator, increases over a particular zone, and then
falls off again toward the periphery of the field. Those ELF
fields generated by various electrical carriers and devices are
often rapidly alternating in flux and intensity. Many of these
unpredictable conditions can be hard to take account of in the
laboratory, which is a further obstacle to research.
Negative findings certainly do abound in the field. There are
many studies that report that periodic daily exposure of cats to
PF (power-frequency) 60 Hz fields for 6 to 8 months shows little
or no change in behavior. However, the inadequacy of many of
these results is due to the same problem that occurs with tests
of low-level ionizing radiation. People can be exposed to such
fields for years, not just months, and the studies of long-term
effects over 20 or 30 years just have not been done. Likewise,
the interaction and superposition of such artificial ELF fields
with natural ambient EM radiation (such as occurs in the real
world but not behind lead laboratory walls) has not been
examined -- the possibility of a synthetic effect. And in many
cases the researchers ignored entirely behavioral changes of a
very subtle nature, which would have been noticed by better
schedule-controlled procedures. Nevertheless, negative data is
there and cannot be dismissed; however, this paper concerns
itself with positive results, and searches for possible
mechanisms for such results.
Perhaps the longest recognized EM effects on human subjects have
been perceptual changes. One of the earliest students of
magnetic effects, D'Arsonval, noted that placing a changing
magnetic fields near a subject's head caused them to see
sparkling motes of light. These motes, known as phosphenes,
appear when the eyes are closed tightly, and also immediately
after one stares at a bright light. They appear to be
fundamental "building blocks" of vision and are prominent during
hallucinogenic states as well. Audial effects have also been
noted; many persons report an audible clicking sound in their
ears or a hissing noise when they are exposed to a radar beam.
It is possible that this sound may result from small
"shock-waves" in the fluids of the cochlea in the inner ear,
which may also explain the occasional distortion of balance or
orientation caused by a RF beam. Apparently, even deaf people
can hear microwaves pulsed at 300-3000 MHz as booming, hissing,
clicking, or buzzing. In addition to auditory sensations,
vestibular sensations were often noted as being similar to
seasickness; the researcher suspected that temporal-lobe
stimulation in the brain might be responsible. Many Navy
radar operators, who worked with cathode-ray screens analogous
to modern VDTs, reported problems of perceptual fatigue: blurred
vision, irritated, watery eyes, visually-related headaches.
The problem with the study, and others similar to it, was that
it did not really isolate possible eyestrain and other
stress-related factors from ones related to screen radiation.
Other sensory changes have been noted; one scientist even claims
that auditory hallucination can occur infrequently when one is
exposed to an extremely strong pulse of EM radiation.
Another class of ELF EM effects include circadian rhythm
changes, which in turn affect biological clocks.
Visible-frequency (VF) light has long been known as an important
zeitgeiber with biological rhythms. Strong natural light can be
an effective treatment for seasonal depression, jet-lag, and
other circadian disorders. It may be the case that non-VF EM
frequencies may alter those rhythms. Rabbits exposed to 2950 MHz
microwaves showed changes in both the amplitude and phase of the
circadian rhythm of cell division. In a test of monkeys
exposed for 2 weeks to 39 kV/m ELF fields, 75% showed
significant changes in their circadian cycles. Rhythms of
oxidative metabolism were phase shifted in male mice after
exposure to ELF fields; most importantly, nighttime synthesis of
biosynthetic enzymes in the pineal gland was reduced. It is
possible that even EEG rhythms may be altered by EM induction.
When fields are at the upper theta range (7 Hz), increased EEG
activity in the 6-8 Hz range in the hippocampus, amygdala, and
centrum meridianum is noted. It is possible that some of
these alterations of biological rhythms may explain complaints of
insomnia and changed sleep habits noted in Soviet ELF
epidemiological studies, as well as sexual dysfunction (it is
known that sexual arousal and performance is closely tied to
somatic rhythms as well).
A significant category of behavioral response to EM radiation
has been changed levels of activity or response/ reactivity. In
many cases, an avoidance reaction to the ELF fields itself has
been noted. Animals will, in many cases, make a deliberate
effort to step out of the field. In a 60 Hz field at 75 to 100
kV/m, rats and swine would avoid exposure, and during their
inactive period would never spend time in the field. (Humans
are apparently able to detect and register 50 Hz fields in the
0.35 kV/m to 27 kV/m range, but do not normally display an
escape reaction.) Albino rats tested in Eastern bloc countries
given long-term ELF exposure showed lowered reactivity to
electric footshock and deficits of performance in the
shuttlebox. John Ott notes that hyperkinetic activity among
schoolchildren increases considerably under the multiple
frequencies given off by fluorescent lighting. Rabbits
irradiated during four months with microwaves at 10 mW/cm sq. for
60 min. daily showed an inhibition of conditioned reflexes, and
even a lack of conditioned reflexes. Rats and monkeys
exposed to a 2450 MHz field showed disrupted performance on all
operant schedules. People exposed to 2-12 Hz fields showed
an increase in reaction time latency. Reduced locomotion and
exploratory behavior were noted in animals in a 40 MHz field by
D'Andrea; sexual behavior and dopamine/opiate-related responses
were noted by Frey and Wesler to be altered in pulsed microwave
fields; wild mallard ducklings were shown to alter fixed-time,
schedule-controlled behavior in 3-16 Hz fields.
Perhaps the most interesting influence of EM fields on animals
is changes in navigational/orientational ability. Scientists
have only become recently aware of the ability of many animals to
navigate utilizing the geomagnetic field. Homing pigeons, for
example, often were 45 to 180 degress off course if they had bar
magnets attached to their heads. Birds have piezoelectric
elements in their feathers; marine vertebrates such as rays and
eels also apparently utilize EM emissions for navigation,
showing extreme confusion when a ferromagnetic substance is
introduced into their tank. It has been found that
honeybees, which rely on geomagnetism, build bizarre, misshapen
combs in strong ELF fields. Many microbes display a
northward-swiming behavior that is reversed upon introduction of
a Helmholtz coil. Machin noted that an electric fish,
Gymnarchus niloticus, would respond to a magnet inducing a
gradient of 0.15 mV/cm; the solid state properties of its bone
fine structure may act as an oscillator. The question as to
whether an EMF receptor might exist in humans has been tested,
and it even appears to a small degree that humans may rely on EM
cues. Children driven out on a school bus, blindfolded, with bar
magnets atop their heads, had much more difficulty pointing the
way home than a control group without such magnets.
Last, but certainly not least, is the question as to how ELF
fields may or may not cause discomfort, pain, and/or reduction in
"quality of life." Needless to say, studies in this area have
frequently been nonconclusive and highly controversial.
Long-term exposure to 10 mW/cm fields produced occupational
complaints in an Eastern bloc survey including dizziness and
vertigo, headache, restlessness, eye pain, mood changes and
irritability, nervous tension, memory loss, epigastric pain,
depression, hypochondria, and fear. A survey of Ed Leeper of
electric powerline workers found that there was a statistically
greater incidence of suicide and depression among those workers
who actually worked near transformers or other sources of strong
ELF fields than a control group who did not work near such ELF
sources. (One researcher examined 438,000 deaths of workingmen
and found that the PMR (proportionate mortality) for leukemia
was greater in ten out of eleven occupations linked to EM field
exposure.) Yet another study by Marino found that job
quitting rate in electrical-related professions was incredible,
and he substantiates much of his argument by pointing out the
extreme rates of health insurance for such occupations. The
problem with these studies is simple; many variables impinge on
the "quality of life" in a human subject, and also on his
willingness to make complaints. Until good controlled studies
arise to isolate out these uncontrolled variables, the Soviet
studies and others need corroboration.
In order to understand behavioral changes in organisms exposed
to ELF fields, we have to begin to grapple with some of the
neural mechanisms involved. An EPRI study noted that electric
fields depress in rats the synthesis of melatonin by the pineal
gland. As melatonin production is keyed to the regulation of the
circadian "clocks" and also the growth rate of cancer, one
causal link may already have been found. The same study also
found that at the cellular level, there may be altered control
functions involving RNA. The researcher W. Ross Adey thinks
that protein strands might act as "Trojan horses" allowing weak
electrical signals to pass through the barrier of the cell's
membrane potential; and generating rhythmic waves travelling as
oscillations through the fluid-filled spaces of the brain. Also,
exposure to 8 kV/m fields has been found to show positive
changes in catecholamine and acetylcholine neurotransmitters in
the brain. There has been much research in EM transmission
as a form of biocommunication and/or informational transfer, and
Adey's research suggests that the "signal-to-noise" ratio may be
considerably distorted in the brain and elsewhere by external
An important area of EM effects in organisms is, of course,
thermoregulatory changes. As the ambient temperature of an
organism increases, it will undertake behaviors to attempt to
attain homeostasis. At a frequency of 360 MHz, significant "hot
spots" in the tail, rectum, and brain area of rats emerged --
the SAR of the tail reaching as much as 50 times the intensity
of the whole-body SAR. Since vasodilation in the tail is a
primary thermoregulatory mechanism of rats, RF-induced localized
heating of the tail could severely impair overall
thermoregulation. Possible thermoregulatory changes might result
in alterations of diet, avoidance of EM exposure, or other
actions in an attempt to make up for caloric changes or
Changes in temperature may not be as important as ionization
resulting from the attendant "charging" that occurs in an ELF
field. Although often overemphasized, positive ionization has
been noted to show an increase in sympathetic nervous system
activity and attendant heart rate/energy expenditure, whereas
negative ionization creates a relaxation response by affecting
the parasympathetic division. (It is for this reason that
atmospheric changes -- such as the increasing positive
ionization before a thunderstorm -- often create behavioral
changes.) One researcher strongly suspects that ionization
effects may play a role in EM behavioral effects. He correlated
response to 2400 Hz fields with blood ionization.
Yet another important factor is genetic, teratogenic (pre-natal)
effects. It is possible that many behavioral alterations may
result from ELF disruption of the genetic code involving
hereditarily-linked behaviors. (Concern over ELF pre-natal
effects has meant the release of a NIH warning for pregnant
mothers to avoid electric blankets.) When mother rats were
exposed to 6000 MHz fields at 35 mW/cm for 8 hours daily
throughout their pregnancy, pups were born exhibiting
differences in eye opening, postnatal growth, water T-maze
performance, and activity in an open field test. When
Leghorn chicken eggs were exposed to 100 Hz, 1.2 uT fields,
abnormalities in the cephalic and truncal nervous systems at
high intensities were noted, and the researcher linked this to
changes in observed glycosaminoglycans, which have electrostatic
properties and are involved in morphogenesis and cell
differentiation. One researcher noted the
electro-orientational nature of the formation of blastosomes in
the developing foetus, and found that ELF fields did play some
role in organ formation and differentiation.
Most of the cellular studies involving ELF effects suggest that
it is the cell membrane that is involved. There has been found a
10 to 20% alteration in calcium exchange from chick or cat brain
tissues exposed to ELF fields. Neurons may be a type of cell
particularly vulnerable. A transient change in the neuron firing
rate of Aplysia neurons was noted during exposure to
frequencies at 1 Hz and .25 V/m RMS. EM fields clearly play
a role in nerve regeneration; three mechanisms proposed for
neurite promotion by ELF fields include redistribution of
cytoplasmic material; alteration of membrane potential
asymmetry; and electrophoretic redistribution of charged surface
molecules in the plasma membrane.
Since there are specialized receptors in the retina to respond
to VF (visible frequency) radiation, it is possible that there
may be receptors in the brain or other parts of the nervous
system that react to non-VF EM radiation. One researcher
discovered that neuronal activity near the temporal lobe
increased dramatically when the brain was exposed to
low-frequency fields of alternating intensity, but could not
establish a brain area specific to this activity. There would
have to be some adaptational significance for such a receptor,
but biologists can only speculate on the survival value of an EM
receptor in humans. Another scientist considered that such a
receptor might have evolved to function in times when the
atmosphere failed to block out more harmful radiation
wavelengths, and remains as a vestigial holdover. In
general, studies in this area simply have not been done, simply
because scientists do not see the evolutionary advantage
conferred by such a structure, particularly in humans.
Within radiobiology, as in any other field, there is a
considerable "fringe" dealing with issues largely based on rumor,
speculation, anecdotal evidence, and making a spectacle of
various evidence. There is little data to support some of these
wild controversies, and to be fair to their proponents, even
mentioning them to "mainstream" radiobiologists is guaranteed to
generate contention. Such issues include several questions. Does
the EM radiation of celestial bodies such as the sun and moon
influence behavior? (To many scientists this smacks of
astrology.) Do human beings have a surrounding EM field? (The
so-called Kirlian "aura.") Has electromagnetism been used during
the Cold War as a weapon by the superpowers? (Once again, great
fodder for paranoiacs and propagandists.) These questions are
definitely on the "fringe," but radiobiology has little to say
on them either way, for the moment.
The possibility that behavior changes might be produced by EM
radiations in the environment has led to all sorts of
speculations. Many researchers have tried to compare outbreaks
of wars, societal collapses, and other mass behavioral changes
with sunspots, claiming that the changing surface of the sun
results in increased emission of RF and other wavelengths
reaching Earth. It is known that changes in the sun's output
does create some biological changes, such as in tree ring
formation, but behavioral links have not been fully established.
Yet others claim that the moon may exert an influence on
geomagnetism, which in turn can affect behavior, producing
"lunacy." Studies of asylum admissions and homicide reports
during the full moon in Dade County show, somewhat
inconclusively, that the moon may drive us to madness after all.
(What is known is that there are definite external EM zeitgiebers
to many biological clocks... behavioral influences are harder to
The question as to whether humans might have an electromagnetic
sense is also rather controversial. It does appear that people
are somewhat sensitive to the orientation of the geomagnetic
field. However, dowsers and members of geomantic societies (such
as the feng-shui practitioners) claim that humans are extremely
sensitized to geomagnetism, and recently there has been some
speculation that this may be due to the presence of an EM field
surrounding the human body. The Kirlian "aura" photographs show
dramatic discharges from the human body (although how much this
has to do with an intrinsic field is in dispute) and the Soviets
recently have devoted congresses to the topic of "bioplasma,"
i.e. the notion of a human energy field. Acupuncturists claim
they can identify meridians of energy flow along the body; these
may possibly correspond to the DC current flow observed during
limb regeneration, (just how much the Chinese ch'i corresponds
to Western concepts is difficult to say) and may explain the
success reported in electrifying the needles. In general, the
reputableness of this human EM-field literature is scanty.
Another area where there has been a great deal of speculation is
regarding the possibility of an electromagnetic "Cold war"
going on between the superpowers even during apparent detente.
When it was found that the Soviets were "zapping" the U.S.
Embassy in Moscow with low-intensity microwaves, all sorts of
people started suggesting, in typical paranoid fashion, that
they might be "beaming" ELF waves as an attempt at "mind
control," or at least to make life tough for the ambassadors.
(In all likelihood, it was all probably part of an ongoing
"bugging" campaign by the Russians.) In any case, both countries
do have an Electromagnetic Warfare division, and many people do
suspect that ELF-based weapons designed to confuse, disorient,
or weaken the morale of the enemy have been devised. However,
the greatest EM danger is really posed by the nuclear arsenals
of both nations: detonation of even a small aerial nuclear
device could create an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) which might
disrupt telecommunications and electronics severely.
Until more is known about just what role EM energies play in the
human organism, as to whether ELF fields pose a "health hazard"
remains unresolved. ELF fields do clearly have biobehavioral
effects, but there is a great deal of difference between a
minor, transient biological effect and a life-threatening health
hazard. Some of the changes reported -- minor offset of
circadian rhythms, change in a few somatic cells -- do not appear
to constitute any real "hazard." And those studies that indicated
something more serious -- influence on germ plasm, etc. --
usually involved almost impossible levels of exposure. The data
seem to suggest that the biggest danger from ELF fields is
continuous, ongoing, round-the-clock exposure. Those who probably
have the most to worry about are those who are around high-field
appliances constantly (hairdryers?), electrical-related
professions (such as power line workers), VDT users (such as
computer programmers), and radar operators. Reasons for this
include the fact that most of the EM effects seem to be more
connected to length of exposure than intensity.
The problem with current human behavioral studies is that it is
hard to isolate out the causes of human behavior. Is the person
suffering from depression from other causes, perhaps
biochemical, or is it really only his EMF exposure which is
responsible? Also, there has not been sufficient control of
exposure modalities -- how much of the body is exposed, for how
long, at what amounts, at what frequency, in what size resonance
cavity, etc. Until there are more experiments done that attempt
to control these factors, the precise role of ELF fields in human
behavioral changes remains, sadly, indeterminate. But the
position of this paper is to urge such studies be done,
immediately and carefully, for if health hazards are detected,
new exposure safety standards may have to be mandated. There are
clear neuronal and other biophysical alterations that could lead
to behavioral abnormalities. It is possible that some people may
be more vulnerable than others, perhaps even having a genetic
predisposition to being more affected by ambient ELF fields.
At the most extreme, we may have to witness a partial
de-electrification of our heavily EM-bathed world. Due to the
fact that there is a more clear effect notable in the RF
(radiofrequency) range, new exposure guidelines may need to be
set soon. As far as electrically generated ELF fields, there
simply is not enough research out there. But good, controlled,
human-volunteer studies with adequate controls need to be done,
over long periods of time. Then we may be able to really answer
the question of whether or not ELF fields pose a health hazard.
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 Chou, Chung-Kwang; Guy, Arthur W.; Galambos, Robert.,
"Auditory perception of radio-frequency electromagnetic
 Frey, A.H., "Auditory system response to RF energy,"
Aerosp Med., 1961.
 Smith, Prof. Karl U., "Radar Operator Fatigue," 1944.
 Persinger, M., "ELF fields and Temporal-Lobe episodes,"
 Ott, John, "Light, Radiation, & You," 1981.
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 Sulzman; Murrish, 1987.
 Duffy; Ehret; and Wilson, 1982.
 Badwin, Suzanne M.; and Gavalas-Medici, J.; Rochelle,
"Reinforcement of Transient Brain Rhythms by
Amplitude-Modulated VHF fields," 1974.
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microwave effects on the CNS," 1974.
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Hygiene and Occupational Diseases," 1973.
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of Medicine, 1982.
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of EMF," 1990.
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VLF fields," 1982.
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