Negative ions and health (a review)

So I mentioned a few new expensive rubber band scams in a previous post and have been promising a review of negative ions for a week or two.  Well, here it is (and it’s a bit of a monster…)!

[tl;dr: There are some interesting research avenues concerning the biological effects of negative ions.  These suggest a role in reducing serotonin levels in humans.  Ionising air particles also causes aggregation and precipitation of suspended particulate matter along with whatever pathogens happen to be hitching a ride on those particles.  However, NO RESEARCH has gone into the effects of small point sources of ions such as those in bands and bracelets and it is unclear whether these actually do anything at all…]

The EQ Bandz website that I mentioned in a previous post details a number of claims concerning their product.  When you google the terminology they use, it seems that these phrases are repeated verbatim across the internet, so it’s worth taking a closer look at them.  I think chunks of the text are copied from this WebMD article.

Background on Negative Ions

Ions in the air are charged gas particles.  Positive ions are called “cations” (“cat” ions are “pussy-tive” is the way I still remember that) and negative ions are called “anions”.  The air is made up of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, then bits of helium, carbon dioxide, and trace amounts of a bunch of other gases.  Molecules of these gases are “charged” or “ionised” when large amounts of energy are present.  This energy breaks the bonds between the ions which make up the molecules and rather than having a single molecule with no charge, there are multiple charged particles, or “ions”.  There are many natural processes (lightning, for example) that can generate such energy.  Background levels tend to be around 1,000 negative ions per cubic centimetre (“cc”) and 1,200 positive ions per cc.  Here is a table of some measured air ion concentrations:

Table 1 from Hawkins (1981) showing indoor and outdoor ion concentrations

Which particular ions are forming the bulk of the ions in the air is unclear, and the levels of these ions vary with air pollution, time of day, season and weather.  Following their discovery in 1900, a lot of research went into the biological effects of negative ions in the first half of the 20th Century and, just like today, many grandiose claims were made about their benefits.  It was these unsubstantiated claims that led to the Food and Drug Administration in the USA banning the sale of ionizers for medical purposes in the mid-1950s.

Research almost completely halted at this point, but experienced a resurgence at the hands of two scientists: Albert Krueger working on animals, and Felix Sulman working on human hormone levels.  Krueger worked on a number of different topics, demonstrating that negative ions influenced plant growth and animal hormone levels, as well as pathogen abundance (e.g. Krueger and Reed, 1976).  Inspired by Krueger, Sulman carried out a number of studies on the effects of meteorological phenomena (desert winds) on hormone levels in Israel.  The idea was that certain winds cause variations in ion concentrations.  He found that treatment with negative ions reduced the incidence of serotonin-related ailments (Sulman et al., 1974a,b).

Equilibrium Bands Claims

CLAIM 1: Anti-oxidising: US Dept. of Agriculture found that anions led to 52% less dust in the air and 95% less bacteria

OK, I tracked this one down fairly easily.  It’s a report by the Agricultural Research Service branch of the USDA.  The two studies (Gast et al., 1999; Ritz et al., 2006) looked at ways to remove dust from the air and found that electrostatically-charged were extremely effective.  So, a win for the pro-ion crowd, eh?  Not so fast…  You see the ionizers used in these studies were big, mains-powered units:  “Each ionizer bar was 50.8 cm long, with 1.27×1.27 cm cross sections and electrodes every 1.27 cm. The bars were…operated at –20,000 V direct current by a current-limited power supply” (Gast et al., 1999).  These are hardly energy bracelets…  Furthermore, you might have been wondering why the USDA was involved in all of this.  The reason is that the whole study was conducted in a bloody chicken coop!  The authors were interested in reducing dust and infection in chicks!  Finally, the finding that there is was “95% less bacteria” is due to the fact that the bacteria are sat on the dust particles.  A summary of the study stated that the treatment “reduced Salmonella in air samples by 95 percent in a room with Salmonella infected egg-laying hens.”  So we have evidence that if you are in a chicken coop with Salmonella infected egg-laying hens then there is less Salmonella in the air when you have mains-powered ionizers.  Good to know!  Now I really want a $40 rubber band!

CLAIM 2: “Emotional: 25 people tested with seasonal affective depression (SAD) found that anion treatment proved to be as effective against SAD as antidepressants without the side effects of these drugs”

For a start, the condition is actually “seasonal affective disorder”…  The website cites a small, poor study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (Terman and Terman, 1995) – not a title that instills much confidence.  A sample size of 25 is pretty poor for any kind of study.  However, I am not going to spend much time on that paper as the authors have subsequently published two more in far more respectable journals (Terman et al. 1998; Terman and Terman 2006).  These two subsequent studies do have some fairly convincing effects of high levels of negative ions and demonstrate that this treatment is as effective as bright light therapy for SAD.  The experiments were blinded and involved a number of comparisons between different levels of ions and different light regimes.  However, they note that the mechanism for this improvement is not known.  It is worth noting as I mentioned above that ion concentrations vary with time of day so it is not unreasonable to expect that they can be used to treat a disorder that is associated with daily cycles.  Again, however, this is a mains-operated air ionizer, not a rubber band…

CLAIM 3: “Immune system: Norwich Union Insurance Group: Reduced incidence of sickness and headaches by 78% when exposed to 1000 anions per C/C.”

This study was not actually conducted by Norwich Union…  It was conducted by a researcher from the University of Surrey in the UK, who happened to be using the Norwich Union headquarters as her experimental population.  The study (Hawkins, 1981) used a blinded model where three different rooms in an office block were either exposed to increased ion levels or not.  Where ions were not being supplemented, the fan on the room ionizer was left running so that the participants were not aware of ion levels.  This is the aspect of the design that makes the study so convincing.  There were considerable benefits in participant self-reported health (headaches and nausea) which were independent of affects of temperature or humidity.  However, as Hawkins notes: “Very little is known about the mechanisms for the biological influence of ions”.  Also, this is still a program of mains-powered air ionisers and not rubber bands…

CLAIM 4: “Aging: Dr Nagao Katsharu, Japan found that skin cells were replaced at 2.5 times normal speed with anions by accelerating the delivery of oxygen to the cells and tissues.”

This is a funny one…  Googling “Nagao Katsharu” only brings up balance band websites (and bloody hell are there hundreds, all using the same quotes!).  Also, putting the name into Google Scholar yields nothing at all.  Searching PubMed on the full author name gives nothing, either.  I’ll chalk this one up to an obscure grey-literature reference, but until I can read it for myself I’m going to label the claim as “unsubstantiated”.  If anybody knows of this study then let me know!  Without the reference, all we can say is that enhanced oxygenation of the skin will result in greater skin cell replacement.  This is an area that is currently being researched for skin grafts, which can be greatly improved by increasing blood and oxygen flow to the affected area.

CLAIM 5: “Respiratory: Swiss Textile Mill – 66% fewer sick days when exposed to anions at 1000 unites per C/C”

I’m going to admit to not being able to read this study, published entirely in German (Stark, 1971).  Instead, here is a blurb from a pro-ion website outlining the study:

Negative ions help prevent respiratory-related illnesses In a study conducted in a Swiss textile mill, negative ionizers were placed in two, 60’ by 60’ rooms, each containing 22 employees. In one room, the negative ion electronic air cleaner was turned on during the course of the study. In the other room, the negative ion air purifier was permanently turned off, although the employees in this room were led to believe they were working in a room enriched by negative ions. During this six-month study, a total of 22 sick days were lost by employees working in the room in which the negative ionizer was operating. In the room where the machine was not operating, a total of 64 days were lost to sickness. During a month-long flu epidemic, the first group lost a total of 3 days to sickness, while the second group lost a total of 40 days to sickness (Stark, 1971).

This is presumably the same well-documented effect that was found in the poultry cages: ions cause aggregation of dust particles in the air –> these particles cluster and drop to the ground –> bacteria that would be transmitted on the particles are lost –> lower rates of infection.  Also, we have the situation where, like the poultry house, a textile mill is an environment with very high levels of aerial particles.  Ionisation can help to reduce this number which can only have a positive effect on respiratory infections.  Again, though, it’s a big mains-powered ionizer, not a rubber band…

CLAIM 6: “Sleep: 1969 French Researcher found most people exposed to high levels of anions were able to sleep better”

I cannot find this reference anywhere, although based on another source it appears to involve a reduction in serotonin levels due to anion exposure.  The patients involved in the study all suffered from an over-production of serotonin which was causing sleep problems.  Exposure to negative ions apparently reduced the serotonin levels, thus relieving the problem.  This is a very specific group of people suffering from a specific ailment who were helped by an air ionizer.  You cannot extrapolate from this study to say that rubber bands help everyone sleep better.  Again, it is mains-powered air ionisers, not wrist bands, that are being tested.

CLAIM 7: “Mental performance: Negative Anions increase the flow of oxygen to the brain; resulting in higher alertness, decreased drowsiness and more mental energy.”

As opposed to positive anions?  Like Claim 4, this hinges on negative ions increasing blood flow. The Hawkins (1981) study, mentioned in Claim 3, demonstrated a weak but significant increase in mental alertness in the presence of ion supplementation.  However, specifying a mechanism such as “increased blood flow to the brain” might be a bit premature.  Certainly I haven’t been able to find anything to support that mechanism (but I would love to hear if anybody knows of a study).

Other claims…

On the EQBandz website they have some pictures showing how their bands improve circulation.  Of course, they are not the only company claiming that their negative ions help blood flow.  They aren’t even the only company using the same images of the same hands!  However, they do manage to get the images the wrong way around…  Here are two sets of images, the first from a product known as the Ki Flow bracelet (it’s also used by my old friends over at Harmony Balance Bands) and the comparison with Equilibrium Bands:

I think Equilibrium dropped the ball here – increased circulation would produce more heat in the extremities rather than “dissipating” heat.

Finally, the very claim that these bracelets are emitting detectable amounts of ions is questionable.  The Ki Flow bracelet advertises a maximum of 1,340 negative ions per cc when agitated and an average of 40 per cc at rest (I have no idea what this means…).  Here are some other meaningless figures:

But where is this measured?  How is it measured?  Is this in the material itself?  How far from the bracelet can you detect the effect?  I have assumed for the sake of argument that the bands discussed here actually do emit ions  As a comparison, the room ioniser used by Terman and Terman (2006) produced ion flow rates of 4.5 x10^14 ions per second (high-density exposure) or 1.7×10^11 ions per second (low-density exposure).  These units were positioned 60cm from the pillow on which the participant was resting.

Summary

As you can see from this review, there is no evidence for any kind of rubber band-related ionisation.  There seems to be pretty good evidence that room ionisers reduce air particles that can cause respiratory problems, and with them airborne pathogens, and there may be a physiological effect, likely via a reduction in serotonin production.  The mechanisms for the physiological effects are still unclear, though, and need further research.  However, there is NO EVIDENCE FOR BANDS OR BRACELETS PERFORMING THE SAME ROLE. It seems that “look at all this good stuff air ionisers do, here’s a bracelet that does the same thing” is like saying “look how great scuba equipment is for breathing underwater, here’s a paper bag filled with air”…
___________________________________________________________________________________

References

Gast, R.K., Mitchell, B.W., and Holt, P.S. (1999) Application of negative air ionization for reducing experimental airborne transmission of Salmonella enteritidis to chicks, Poultry Science, 78: 57-61.

Hawkins, L.H (1981) The influence of air ions, temperature and humidity on subjective wellbeing and comfort, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1: 279-292.

Krueger, A.P., and Reed, E.J. (1976) Biological impact of small air ions. Science, 193: 1209-1213.

Ritz, C.W., Mitchell, B.W., Fairchild, B.D., Czarick, III, M., and Worley, J.W. (2006) Improving In-House Air Quality in Broiler Production Facilities Using an Electrostatic Space Charge System, Journal of Applied Poultry Research, 15: 333-340.

Stark, W. (1971). Vitaionen-ein potentieller Gesundheitsfaktor. Lugano, Switzerland: Tipografia.

Sulman, F.G., Levy, D., Levy, A., Pfeifer, Y, Superstine, E. and Tal E. (1974a) Air-ionometry of hot, dry dessert winds (Sharav) and treatment with air ions of weather-sensitive subjects, International Journal of Biometeorology, 18: 313-318.

Sulman, F.G., Levy, D., Pfeifer, Y, Superstine, E. and Tal E. (1974b) Effects of the sharav and bora on urinary neurohormone excretion in 500 weather-sensitive females, International Journal of Biometeorology, 18: 313-318.

Terman, M. and Terman, J.S (1995) Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder with a High-Output Negative Ionizer, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 1: 87-92.

Terman, M. and Terman, J.S (2006) Controlled Trial of Naturalistic Dawn Simulation and Negative Air Ionization for Seasonal Affective Disorder, Am J Psychiatry, 163:2126-2133.

Terman, M., Terman, J.S and Ross, D.C. (1998) A Controlled Trial of Timed Bright Light and Negative Air Ionization for Treatment of Winter Depression, Arch Gen Psychiatry, 55: 875-882.

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17 thoughts on “Negative ions and health (a review)

  1. Although you certainly have done some research, this article is completely biased. You utilized too much emotion, thus rendering your argument ineffective. You come across as arrogant and condescending, and thus I don’t deem this article a credible source.

    • Hi Ban,

      Thanks for reading the post. My response:

      “Although you certainly have done some research, this article is completely biased.”

      If you could point out the places in which I misinterpret the research then I would be happy to discuss them with you.

      “You utilized too much emotion, thus rendering your argument ineffective”

      This is a non sequitur. How does emotion negate an argument?

      “You come across as arrogant and condescending, and thus I don’t deem this article a credible source.”

      Another non sequitur. I can be both arrogant and correct 🙂

    • This is an excellent review of the literature. I’m surprised by the data. I can’t think of any possible mechanism for how ions affect biology, and, as you say, little research has been done. As a biologist, I’d be interested in working with a physicist to try to come up with some reasonable hypotheses.

      • Hi Om, thanks for reading. The negative ions literature is really interesting. There seems to be a role for ions in some kind of physiological processes (mainly neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin), but the exact pathways haven’t been figures out. Some of the results do seem to give remarkable improvements in mental states, though. I’m surprised there isn’t more research going on right now…

  2. Hi,

    I was looking for more information about this product and found your website. This “negative ions” terminology used for different purposes, usually not even related, is everywhere on Internet.

    For exemple, the « Q-Ray bracelet » wich Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued (Park and QT Inc) for false advertising : finally, they will repay at least $22.5 million to people who bought their product (http://www.skepdic.com/qray.html).

    I also found this website about “pseudoscience marketing” very interesting : http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/pseudoscience-sells/

    Have a good day !

  3. Thanks for the well put together article. I’ve noticed a big trend with the bracelets but was having a hard time getting answers to, “but does it actually work?”

    • Hi BBB, thanks for the comment. I was having the same trouble as well. They seem to be based on the placebo effect, but very few proper trials have been carried out. That’s the reason for my post: “is there any reason at all to think that these bracelets might work?”.

  4. Although I agree with your argument that the bands are probably not as effective as the air ionizers; I still feel that the research from the effects of negative ion treatments would be beneficial for our health– if our doctors would actually do the necessary research that is needed to make this a viable option for medical treatments instead of catering to the pharmaceutical industries!

    I have actually seen testimonials online that claim that negative ion detox treatments in conjunction with alkaline water and vitamin supplements have actually destroyed terminal 4 cancer diagnosed in many patients who had stopped taking chemo treatments! Now who knows if the testimonials were true or a scam, but the point is that the medical community continues to rely on outdated medicinal therapies that obviously do not work (as evidenced by the larger amounts of people dying from various cancers being treated by radiation treatments in recent years)
    If the medical community wanted to really cure diseases; instead of just treating our symptoms, they would be doing more research in the areas of alternative medicinal therapies such as negative ion detox, multi-wave oscillators, sound and light therapies, etc.
    The point that most medical professionals miss is that by continuing the use of pill based medicines and radiation treatments– they are not really advancing medicine; they are just playing into the hands of the corporates who want to keep people sick so they can keep making money!

    Lets face it-they make more money by keeping people sick, so why would they want to focus on medicine that actually works? Think about it.
    If you are a doctor or medical professional reading this–I hope you research these areas before the diseases kill us all! Remember the plague, smallpox, and the influenzas that killed so many soldiers in the 40’s? There are still alive and well, despite what you hear from the medical community! How about some real medical research that will actually cure people instead of making them sick!

    • Hi ACC,

      Negative ion research is interesting, but there just isn’t enough preliminary evidence to justify a major clinical trial for many conditions. However, there have been clinical trials conducted using negative ions to treated various depression-related conditions (http://clinicaltrials.gov/beta/results?term=%22negative+ion%22&Search=Search) and asthma (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12917939) so it isn’t as though this isn’t happening.

      I’m afraid we can’t rely on testimonials as evidence for efficacy. Sometimes small case studies can be published can pave the way for larger studies, but we typically need some form of plausible mechanism by which the intervention can have an effect before we embark on expensive research.

      There are actually fewer people dying from cancer (mortality rates are falling) although there are more people contracting cancer (incidence rates are rising). This latter effect comes from the fact that we are living much longer and much healthier so something has to kill us! Cancer is the disease of the old and otherwise healthy!

      You keep making nonsensical arguments. Wouldn’t the discovery of a cure for cancer be the biggest pay-off in medical history? It would be worth a fortune! It isn’t in corporations’ interests to not make breakthroughs. Finally, the medical community has never claimed to have eradicated the plague or influenza (although we have effectively eradicated small pox from the wild) – but we have them firmly under control.

  5. Hi there! Would you mind if I share your blog with my myspace group?

    There’s a lot of people that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Many thanks

  6. Thanks so much for doing all this research to give some information on the source of studies of the band claims, and also some perspective on the amount of anions generated (in the air) in those studies vs. the amount supposedly generated by the bands.

    I came here because I’ve been reading about “earthing” and the concept that if we are going around bare foot, or sleeping on grounded sheets, that we can gain negative ions from the earth’s natural charge. That lead me to wonder if there wasn’t an easier way to get anions (my thought was a wrist device generating anions, which I didn’t know already existed in those rubber bands). Assuming that grounding and the resultant ion exchange is actually good for the health, my first question is (1) roughly how many negative ions does the body get by earthing (per hour? per inch of contact?) and (2) how does that compare with the number of ions exchanged with those rubber bracelets and (3) If those bands are too weak to have any useful affect, does it seem feasible to have a battery operated (?) wrist device that generates negative ions where it contacts the skin. (or does that already exist too?)

  7. Thank you so much for debunking these things. I was looking on a “mobility” website for something for one of my patients and came across exactly the claims you mentioned above and KNEW they were crap. I sent them an email saying so, and intend to contact the state attorney general with a goal of making (at least this one website) stop selling them to people who don’t realize rubber bands will not make them healthy. argh!

  8. Good arguments and research on info that is available about wrist ion bands.You make a good point about a larger source of energy that would be needed to see any sig. difference. I think the equivalent of a thunderstorm that will clear the air (the rain can then wash the dust particles) is needed. Maybe one can create a negative ion shower ‘experience (like a sauna experience) along these lines.
    But I was curious about these bands and recently bought one recently to check if it will make a difference… even if it results in a positive placebo effect…. cheaper than retail therapy of clothes etc. that cost more 🙂

  9. Have any of you posting here tried the wrist bands? If so, what were your symptoms? If you had symptoms, were they alleviated? I was having moderate elbow aches 2 yrs ago, so I tried the energy armor bands. Guess what – they worked. There’s no way it’s a “placebo” effect, because I forget that I’m wearing them. In order for the “placebo” effect to hold water, I would have to consciously be aware of the bands on my wrists at all times, given that my elbows have been ache-free at all times now for the past 2 years. So the “placebo” claim is bogus. The manufacturer claims that the bands contain tourmaline among other compounded minerals including lithium. If I’m not mistaken, industry uses lithium to manufacture lithium ion batteries. The batteries work, don’t they? I’m not saying that ion bands are a CURE for anything, but I am living proof that they do alleviate certain symptoms. I am an accounting and finance professional. I’ve logged approx. 24,960 hours in front of computers / printers / fax machines etc… in the corporate office. I began my profession in 2000, and began developing moderate joint ache symptoms in 2011. Doctors were unable to explain what was wrong with my elbows. I visited my family doctor and an arthritis specialist to no avail. I was a skeptic of the bands, but when you’re in pain – you’ll try anything. I did, and I scored BIG. If folks want to post journals reporting research that states that the effects of anion therapy is “officially” inconclusive – fine… I can go with that and I can understand it. But when it is pitched that there is no research proving that the bands work?… this is simply false and is bashing in nature. There is no “official” proof that the bands don’t work either, is there? I am living proof that it works for certain symptoms, and I’m so convinced that it can work for others with similar symptoms that I have set up an affiliate marketing site in an attempt to capture as many testimonials as possible to help prove my case. People are the science behind the research. I was lucky when I purchased my bands, as I was able to actually test them in the shopping mall before making my purchase. I was so absolutely dumb-founded with the results that I purchased two bands – one for each wrist. On a side note, one strange side effect that I’ve had ever since I started wearing the bands is much improved dream recollection. I can wake up in the morning now and write books like Stephen King because I can recall my dreams down to the minute detail. I’ve noticed even better recollection when I sleep with my wrist under my pillow near my head. Weird stuff going on here, but I think this is probably due to the weak charge coming off of any lithium infused in the band. I can certainly handle the dreams in exchange for no elbow pain! My wife purchased a band as well as she claims it alleviates her headaches (she’s been a migraine sufferer for most of her life). I’m looking for an official research site on this topic so that I can donate a portion of my commission proceeds to help further the cause. If anyone knows of such a site, please let me know. Thanks, Matt sales@negativeZion.com

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