Fucking magnets, how do they work?

There’s a distinct air of the Victorian freak show in today’s Daily Mail. First of all the paper openly supports the mocking and humiliation of the woman who drunkenly urinated near a war memorial, then there’s the surprise that a gay man might want to get a civil partnership, and, most freakish of all, there’s a human magnet.

Looking on the bright side, she should never lose her keys.

But for mother-of-one Brenda Allison, her mysterious ‘power’ that means metallic objects stick to her body has long since lost its attraction.

Dubbed ‘the human magnet’, Miss Allison says she is often embarrassed by the effect, which she has been told is down to a heightened electromagnetic current running through her body.

Except…

First of all, there’s the illustration of her power. The article opens with a picture of her covered in bits of metal, including keys and coins. Here’s an experiment you can do at home: get out a 20p, £1 or £2 coin (the coins shown stuck to her in the picture) and wave a fridge magnet over it. You will probably notice that these coins are not magnetic; the only British coins that are are the 1p and 2p (since they’re made of copper-plated steel). So already that should be a big warning sign that whatever’s happening, it’s not magnetic.

Most of the article is based solely on Brenda Allison’s description of her condition, which means there’s a lot of confirmation bias. We’ve all had light bulbs blow when we switch them on, but that doesn’t make us electrical. There’s a vague mention of what “doctors” have said, but the only relevant expert they quote is a Kathy Geminiani, spilling some woo about how “the brain is a magnetic field”. I decided to Google Geminiani, and this is the place she runs: the Bio-Electro-Magnetic-Energy-Regulation Health Centre – a site which claims magnetism can heal third-degree burns, gangrene, and even gaping sores. Well, that just screams scientific respectability.* There’s a quote from an electrosensitivity expert – itself not a scientifically proven condition – but that isn’t relevant to Allison’s condition at all – she claims to produce EM fields, not be susceptible to them.

As she grew up she started to keep a diary and realised the magnetic pulses were strongest at the end of each menstrual cycle.

[…]

She says her body can emit a negative or positive charge, depending on the time of the month.

Ignoring the fact that you don’t “emit” charge – which is an electrical thing, not a magnetic thing anyway – this too I really need to see some scientific evidence for. I’m not sure how you test your polarity – sure there are some plastics that when rubbed with a cloth become positive and other that become negative, but they’d be tricky to get your hands on. Did a doctor check – an actual doctor, not Geminiani? Apparently not.

There would seem to be a simpler explanation, though a slightly less pleasant one. One effect of the menstrual cycle is that women can sweat a lot, especially as they approach menopause (the infamous hot flashes). Changes in the rate of sweating will have a effect on the adhesiveness of the skin – even when relatively clean, you can press a coin against your body and have it stick. I wrote this paragraph with a penny stuck to my forehead, in case you were wondering.

This article is desperately in need of an actual scientist to weigh in. Of course, any actual scientist would have told the Daily Mail that the whole thing was bullshit and then they wouldn’t have had a story.

Edit: The Metro has revealed itself to be a surprisingly sceptical.

* Skeptic’s Dictionary has a good piece on magnet therapy.

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