Well Grounded Snake Oil

It’s important to ground your house. But you? Not so much. Image by Ali_K

I’m amazed at the lengths that some people will go to in order to make a dishonest buck. I mean, wouldn’t it be easier just to start a legitimate business than to spend years trying to scam people out of their hard earned money for things like cold fusion generators, cell phone radiation shields, and homeopathic nonsense?

And yet, here’s another scam you should know of, and avoid.

Technically speaking , grounding (which is also known as earthing) is a real thing. Your house is electrically grounded by conductive pipes and wires sunk into the soil. The conductors provide a path for electrons to flow between the electronics in your home and the earth. This is important because without it many electronic devices would malfunction, or you could get a serious shock when turning on or off lights and appliances. There are, however, no medical benefits to grounding your body, despite the assertions of a new wave of shysters.

The scam was recently featured in a Wall Street Journal article. Grounding proponents claim that you need to be grounded in the same way that your TV does, and that simply connecting yourself solidly to the earth, through a wire or by walking barefoot, can cure an endless list of ills. From diabetes to heart disease to insomnia to (I kid you not) pain in your big toe, grounding fixes it all for the mere cost of a few hundreds of dollars in equipment.

There is a very simple way to see why the medical claims can’t be true, which I’ll get to in a minute. A wise consumer, though, should quickly realize that anything that’s touted to cure essentially everything probably does nothing at all. Most of the ailments on the lists of things grounding is supposed to help have very well known and distinct causes. Is it likely that one treatment can address radically different diseases? No.

Your body as a bag of salt water

But here’s the simple explanation about why grounding can’t cure the things the proponents claim it can: your insides are, literally, inside you, but the charges affected by grounding you are exclusively on the outside.

An electron in your salt-water-bag body

To put it bluntly, your body is the electrical equivalent of a big bag of salt water. Electrical charges can move around in salt water because it’s a conductor. Imagine if I were to put an excess electron in the middle of a bag of salt water. The water itself is neutral, so the electron can move about randomly.

Electrons repelling each other in your body

Now suppose I put another electron in the water. The two charges would repel each other because, as you probably know, like charges repel, while opposites attract.

As the like charges repel, they push each other until they’re as far apart as possible. For a bag of salt water that means the charges end up on the outer surface. As I add more and more charges, they all repel and similarly end up on the outer surface.

Where two electrons end up on your salt-water-bag body

(Alternatively, if I put a positive and negative charge in there, they
would attract each other, get very close and cancel each other out,
which leaves no net charge inside.)

The end result is that no matter how many charges I put on a bag of salt water, the inside is completely neutral and all excess charges are on the outside.

A bunch of electrons on your charged body

If you were to place an organ, like a kidney in the bag of salt water, it would have no way of knowing whether or how much charge is on the outside of the bag.

Your kidney blithely unaware of the electrons on the outside of your salt-water-bag body

That means excess charge can’t affect your kidney or anything else inside you. By the same token, taking that excess charge away isn’t going to help your kidney or anything else inside your body because it doesn’t matter whether it’s there or not.

Grounding can’t help you, but at least it also can’t hurt you. So if you don’t buy my argument, you can always buy the snake oil. You’ll be a bit poorer, but otherwise none the worse for wear.

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