Currently, the frequencies for the 5G mobile communications standard are being auctioned off. It is not even clear what the actual effects of electromagnetic radiation are on humans. Studies warning of risks are hardly heeded.
More antennas, higher frequencies – the rollout of the new 5G wireless technology continues a trend that has been going on for decades: People are exposed to more and more electromagnetic radiation. Wi-Fi, home networking, wireless headphones, baby monitors, cars, cell phones… Increasing data hunger will further increase radiation exposure because the more data that is transmitted, the more the device radiates.
Eight years ago, the World Health Organization's cancer research agency identified high-frequency electromagnetic radiation, especially from cell phones, as "possibly carcinogenic" to humans classified. Electrosensitive people have been complaining for years about pain and sleep disorders that they attribute to electromagnetic radiation – and are laughed at. But recent studies provide new evidence that mobile phone radiation can cause harm even before legal limits are reached. This in turn raises the question: How do these limits actually come about – and who sets them?? "Of course, everyone is exposed to electromagnetic radiation all the time, but the point is: the higher the intensity, the greater the risks." David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, USA. The health researcher is one of the most prominent warnings about electromagnetic radiation. "There are natural electromagnetic fields, and life has evolved in their presence. But in the last decades, the electromagnetic radiation that hits us humans has increased enormously. In the past, the human sources of electromagnetic waves were radio and television. Today we have Wi-Fi everywhere; we are developing self-driving cars that use electromagnetic fields to navigate; everyone has a cell phone. And 5G will increase the amount of radiation even more."
Carpenter recently co-wrote a commentary for The Lancet, the world's second-largest medical publication with a first-rate reputation. This commentary lists quite a few studies that are said to have demonstrated harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation before applicable limits were reached. In his commentary, David Carpenter of the University of Albany concludes: "There is an urgent need to tackle so-called electrosmog. The weight of this scientific evidence refutes claims that wireless technologies pose no health risk at currently permitted, non-thermal limits."
Researchers have been warning for years
Years ago, David Carpenter published the "BioInitiative Report" together with 29 other scientists, professors and medical researchers from eleven countries. The researchers refer to 1000 scientific publications and write:
"The biological effects of mobile phone radiation prevent the body from healing damaged DNA and lead to lower resistance to disease. This can profoundly affect metabolic and reproductive functions." That was seven years ago, not much has happened. Today, David Carpenter, referring to the new generation of mobile phones, 5G, whose frequencies are currently being auctioned in Germany, says: "We want a break. We are not saying that 5G should never be introduced, but we need to at least have a debate about what the benefits are and what the risks are. And our fear is that the risks are significant, they have not been considered and the public does not even know about them."
Before we go into more detail about the studies that are causing such concern among some scientists, we need to say something about electromagnetic radiation itself, a few properties that are undisputed. Electromagnetic radiation transmits energy. When the radiation hits our body, this energy is absorbed by the cells. If the energy content of electromagnetic radiation is very high, scientists speak of ionizing radiation. This is because the energy is sufficient to change atoms and molecules, says radiation biologist Eric van Rongen: Ionizing radiation can, for example, break up the molecules of our DNA, the chromosomes. This effect can lead to health problems, for example cancer. This danger comes, for example, from X-rays, electromagnetic radiation with a lot of energy. However, power lines, computers in WLAN or even cell phones emit radiation that transports much less energy – so-called non-ionizing radiation. Even for this radiation with relatively little energy, there are limits to protect the human body from potential harm. However, it is highly controversial how this limit value is determined.
When electromagnetic radiation hits our body, this energy is absorbed by the cells. It is not known exactly what happens in the body. © imago images / Westend61 / Giorgio Fochesato
For the last 20 years, body temperature has been used as a guide
A visit to the Federal Office for Radiation Protection, the authority in Germany that recommends limits. Inge Paulini is the president. Limits for low-energy radiation, such as mobile communications, have been based on the thermal effect for more than 20 years, she says. "The thermal effect means that when we are exposed to radiation, there may be an increase in temperature in our body."
Body temperature can rise when electromagnetic radiation is absorbed by the body and converted into heat energy. However, our body is constantly changing its temperature within a certain range – due to exertion, sleep or even radiation from outside. So the body can cope with a little more heat.
"The important thing is to know that there is a value, and it is set at 1 degree of additional body temperature, from which point on we say: We have to be careful because these natural regulatory mechanisms may no longer function so well and damage can only then occur."
The limit value for electromagnetic radiation is therefore always derived from this thermal effect. For example, cell phones: A cell phone may only emit so much radiation that it heats up the tie in the head by a maximum of 1 degree from a certain distance. A limit that is rarely reached and is not a problem for telecom industry.
A powerful association writes the guidelines
Is the body warm or not – this decisive criterion is more than 20 years old and was invented by a private – and at least initially very industry-oriented – association of scientists, the "International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection", ICNIRP for short. This association has been writing guidelines for decades on what criteria should be used to set radiation limits – and most countries in the EU, Australia, Japan and some Asian countries are following them, according to ICNIRP. The head of this powerful association is the already mentioned radiation biologist Eric van Rongen. He still considers the thermal effect, introduced 20 years ago, to be scientifically robust: that is the only effect that has been proven by the scientific literature. "The criteria for the exposure limits is to prevent too much heating of the body. That is the only effect that is established from scientific literature." "This approach is not mature enough", says pharmacologist John Bucher of the National Institute of Environmental Health, a U.S. government research organization. To ame a danger for humans only when the tie heats up by an additional 1 degree is too simplistic:
"We do not know the risk
"There is always a heating of the tie. However, we don't know the risk of that heating that occurs when we use a cell phone in a typical way."
In his commentary for the medical journal The Lancet, health professor David Carpenter writes: "It is now proven that avoiding tie heating is not likely to prevent biochemical and physiological disorders."
An evaluation of more than 2200 studies had shown: The vast majority of these publications concluded that electromagnetic radiation often has a biological or even health effect on humans before the radiation warmed the tie by more than 1 degree. That is, writes David Carpenter in an email, electromagnetic radiation can cause skin damage, low life expectancy, weight loss, behavioral changes, and even molecular changes in tie even before the 1-degree warming. This evaluation is doubted by Eric van Rongen, chairman of ICNIRP, the association that introduced the heat criterion 20 years ago. But van Rongen admits: "It is absolutely true that there are also effects in the human body that have nothing to do with warming."
For example, the electrical activity of the brain could be affected. But the body can cope well with these effects below the 1-degree warming limit: "It has never been proven that these effects really have an impact on health." "Well, that's just nonsense." That's just nonsense, says University at Albany public health professor David Carpenter: "We have clear evidence of an increase in brain cancer in people who use cell phones for long periods of time, and that increase is only on the side where they use the cell phone. Take the Interphone study."
Other studies with different results
Ok. So now we come to the central studies which, in the eyes of some scientists, prove that mobile phone radiation in particular can already cause damage within the applicable limits, i.e. before the tie heats up by an additional 1 degree. The Interphone study cited by Carpenter was initiated by the UN in 2000. In 13 countries, just over 5000 cancer patients were surveyed for years about how they used their cell phones. Sweden contributed the surveys of cancer researcher Lenart Hardell. These showed: Brain tumors developed mainly on that side of the head, against which the cell phone was pressed when using the phone.
Hardell therefore considers it "proven that radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation increases the risk of brain tumors". The overall result of the Interphone study contributed to scientists at the UN's cancer research agency classifying electromagnetic radiation in 2011 as "possibly carcinogenic." classified.
The Federal Office for Radiation Protection summarizes the results of the Interphone study quite differently, headline: "INTERPHONE study finds no increased tumor risk from cell phone use" However, if one reads the evaluation of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection to the end, there is the note:
Permanent phone use could cause cancer, says Swedish study. © imago images / Westend61 / Kniel Synnatzschke
People who use their cell phones a lot have "statistically significant increased risk" to get a brain tumor as well as a tumor at the auditory nerve. And further literally:
". More likely to be in brain regions close to the ear and on the side of the head indicated as the preferred side to use the telephone." And how does the office nevertheless come to the statement that the study has "no increased tumor risk through cell phone use"? found? According to the Federal Office for Radiation Protection, the answers of the frequent users about the extent of their cell phone use are "not comprehensible" had been. That would make the "results of this part of the study questionable".
"Biological effects appear in rats"
Further evidence that electromagnetic radiation can cause damage before tie becomes warm was provided last year by a large-scale study by the National Toxicology Program, or NTP, a research program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The scientists had exposed about 7000 rats and mice to lifetime electromagnetic radiation at a frequency similar to that of older mobile phone standards. "When we started the study, one of the big questions was: Is it possible that non-ionizing radiation can cause biological effects before the tie heats up by more than 1 degree extra, before the thermal effect occurs??" Says John Bucher, one of the authors of the NTP study. The result is clear: "We have found that biological effects appear in the rats. This is a significant finding." This "biological effect of electromagnetic radiation was: cancer. The U.S. researchers found "clear evidence of tumors in the heart of male rats". "We have found tumors in different organs." The problem with the study is that the rats did not warm up by more than 1 degree, says Bucher. However, they were exposed to a radiation dose that is significantly higher than that which is to be expected from typical cell phone use today. Therefore, the results are relevant for humans, but not directly transferable. "Obviously we think the findings are relevant for humans. There are difficulties in the direct extrapolation."
This weakness of the US study, however, is filled by the research of Fiorella Belpoggi, a renowned cancer researcher from Bologna. It also irradiated rats, but with less energy, so that the rats were exposed like humans when using cell phones. Result: Even at this significantly lower level of radiation, significantly more rats developed cancer than in the comparison group that was not irradiated.
So researchers show that electromagnetic radiation can cause cancer in rats at doses that are now considered safe, some of which are comparable to what typical cell phone users absorb today. Nevertheless, ICNIRP, this powerful association that influences limit values worldwide with its recommendations, does not want to change its recommendations, says the chairman of ICNIRP, Eric van Rongen:
"ICNIRP does not consider these two studies to be evidence that this type of electromagnetic radiation has a carcinogenic effect."
Demand: Upgrading of radiation level
Van Rongen sees too many question marks: In the U.S. study, only rats exposed to the maximum dose developed cancer; in the Italian study, on the other hand, rats exposed to much less radiation also developed cancer – for ICNIRP only a contradiction, not a warning signal. In the U.S. study, rats from the control group, which were not exposed to radiation at all, died at an astonishingly early age and thus had no opportunity to develop tumors. Swedish cancer researcher Lennart Hardell calls for high-frequency electromagnetic radiation to be classified as "possibly carcinogenic" on "probably carcinogenic". The ICNIRP head van Rongen sees it quite differently: "Oh, no. This is not the conclusion that ICNIRP has drawn from these studies. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the situation is still unclear. This can only be solved with new, improved studies and more animals. The verdict is still out." Inge Paulini, the president of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection, supports this assessment of the ICNIRP head: "The limits are set in such a way that they are based on the only proven effect of electromagnetic fields on our bodies, which is the thermal effect. There are no other proven effects below the limits." The World Health Organization and the EU Commission also maintain that radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation is harmful only if it heats tie by an additional degree.
Profiteers are companies
This international unity is convenient for the industry. Because the mobile phone giants know about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation. Warn investors against stricter limits. Vodafone, for example, writes in its 2017 annual report: "Electromagnetic signals emitted by mobile devices and base stations may pose health risks, with potential impacts including: changes in national legislation, a reduction in cell phone use, or litigation." Deutsche Telekom also warns its shareholders that there is a "risk of regulatory intervention, such as lowering the limits for electromagnetic fields". Why are the EU, the German government, large parts of the UN and many other industrialized countries so unanimous that there is only a danger if the temperature rises by an additional 1 degree?? Why do research results to the contrary receive so little attention?? That's because, critics say, it advises the EU, UN and governments unilaterally; its authoritative recommendations come from opaque research circles where dissenting perspectives are not welcome.
A private organization formulates recommendations
ICNIRP at the center of criticism. This association has managed to make that thermal effect the de facto standard of international organizations and very many countries. The private association of scientists has only 13 members, which it selects itself. "ICNIRP clings to the outdated philosophy that only warming causes harm. They ignore and downplay the adverse health effects that exist even without heat generation and that have clear effects." Says Victor Leach, of OSAAR, an Australian non-governmental organization that advocates stricter radiation limits. "ICNIRP is a private organization without public accountability and formulates one of the most lax protection recommendations in the world. The ICNIRP association is recognized by the UN as a consultant. Its representatives sit on all authoritative bodies. ICNIRP has set guidelines that WHO and the EU have adopted for limits – and, to achieve harmonization, all countries should follow them. David Carpenter, a professor of environmental medicine at the University at Albany in New York State, has joined other scientists in warning WHO that ICNIRP ignores scientific literature.
"ICNIRP is a self-appointed body. Because people who want to join ICNIRP must support this erroneous concept that there are no adverse health effects unless ties warm up. Why they have such influence on governments and international institutions is beyond me."
In the EU, for example, the "Scientific Committee on Emerging Health Risks" is examining the ie the state of the science and recommends to the commission what conclusions should be drawn from any new findings. In 2015, when the committee was asked to assess the dangers of radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation, four of ICNIRP's twelve members came. Result of the investigation: no new findings. Also the World Health Organization of the UNO, the WHO, has a committee that is supposed to investigate the dangers of radiation, the EMF project. These days, the experts there are expected to look again at whether new scientific findings require that the danger of electromagnetic radiation may need to be reassessed. Six experts sit on the core group preparing the decision, four of whom are ICNIRP members or closely associated with the association and have long since reached their verdict on the research situation: before tie heats up, there are no health effects. There is no clear evidence that non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation is carcinogenic, says ICNIRP chief van Rongen: "There are no clear and consistent indications that there is a carcinogenic effect."
Scientists with ties to industry?
Eric van Rongen counters: ICNIRP members would only sit in the EMF core group, the evaluation would then be voted on by a much larger body. But also in this committee there are obviously many people who are very close to ICNIRP and its boss van Rongen. Victor Leach of the radiation-critical non-governmental organization OSAAR says he evaluated 3300 studies and looked at which ones support the ICNIRP position, i.e.: Does the study conclude that radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation has an effect on the organism before it gets warm, or does the study see NO effect before the tie gets warm?.
"We have found a very complex network. A great many scientists who evaluate the health risks of electromagnetic radiation for the UN seem to have industrial connections and belong to the camp of those who see no radiation effects before the tie becomes warm. Many of the representatives on the crucial UN body have research ties – direct or indirect – with ICNIRP chairman van Rogen or his representative." The journalist Harald Schumann, with his research network "Investigate Europe", has found out that there is only a thermal effect The following is an analysis of which scientists sit on the decisive committees of the UN and the EU: "It is astonishing that of several hundred scientists who are much more skeptical about this matter, none of them are represented on these committees. There is a camp formation going on and one camp is more or less excluded from the decision making process."
Four years ago, 220 radiation scientists appealed to the UN to appoint an independent panel to challenge the ICNIRP standard and reflect all scientific views. Researchers from countries that have adopted limits 100 times lower than those promoted by ICNIRP are underrepresented on UN panels, says Victor Leach of ORSAA: "Our analysis shows that the composition of the WHO panel is inappropriate and unacceptable because the balance of evidence is skewed. ORSAA urges WHO to re-staff the panel with experts from different disciplines, especially cell biologists and clinical physicians." But there is no sign that the panels are more balanced, that ICNIRP's power is being questioned. On the contrary.
Federal government pays 100.000 Euro to ICNIRP
The federal government is connected to ICNIRP in a strange way. The Federal Ministry for the Environment transfers 100 euros to the association every year.000 euros of taxpayers' money. The scientific coordination for the private ICNIRP association is done by the head of the department for electromagnetic fields at the Federal Office for Radiation Protection. The previous head of the authorities department was even chairman of ICNIRP. The Federal Office for Radiation Protection also provides rooms for the association in its Munich building – rent-free.
"Why does the Federal Office for Radiation Protection provide rent-free rooms to this association??" Paulini: This is a technical support that we provide. The secretariat must be somewhere. We find the international exchange very important.
The head of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection also sees no reason for a more balanced composition of ICNIRP or international committees: Banse: "It's not just a scientist who says: This thermal effect, we doubt that. And none of them sits in the ICNIRP and only a minority of them sits in the Core Group of the WHO. Is this unbalanced?" Paulini: "After really extensive, thorough research, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection comes to the conclusion that at the moment there is only the thermal effect." Banse: "Nevertheless: Shouldn't this point also be represented in ICNIRP by scientists who argue this thesis?" Paulini: "ICNIRP is an association that chooses its own members. I can't influence who is selected from the outside." But why doesn't the office set up its own commission in which all scientific viewpoints are represented and whose members are appointed transparently? Paulini: "Our impression and our experience after a long cooperation with ICNIRP is that this is a very serious association, that this is serious science that is being done there and that the recommendations are quite substantive. And the cooperation with ICNIRP is an essential part of the overall recommendation that we then put together."
At the moment, it does not look like stricter limits will be set – also because the WHO, the EU and Germany continue to believe that high-frequency electromagnetic radiation does not pose a danger until tie becomes significantly warmer. With the rollout of the new 5G mobile network, however, things are changing – at least in the long term.
Because 5G operates on different, higher frequencies than today's mobile phone standards. What this means? Again, a bit of physics:
"ICNIRP is an association that chooses its own members", says Inge Paulini, President of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection. © picture alliance/dpa/Julian Stratenschulte
Mobile phone masts on a rooftop in February 2019 on Heinrich-Heine-Strasse in Berlin, Germany. Telekom is testing 5G technology there. © imago/Dirk Sattler
Frequency means: how fast a wave oscillates per second? The higher the frequency, the more data can be transmitted, but the more the wave is damped, slowed down. From walls, for example, or from human tie. That's why 5G masts, which transmit at higher frequencies than current mobile communications systems, have a shorter range than today's cell towers. That's why 5G rays don't penetrate so deeply into our bodies, their energy is absorbed at the surface of the skin. However, the Swiss research foundation IT'IS already proved: At future 5G frequencies above ten gigahertz, tie damage can already occur at short distances at permitted transmission powers. The head of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection insists: how the body will react to these higher frequencies – especially in the long term – is unknown: "There is no broad knowledge base for these possible effects. Many years ago, in the German mobile communications research program, we had investigated the frequencies we wanted to use and bands beyond that. We have not yet investigated these high frequencies. This is now a question of completeness that we look at this."
According to the EU Treaty, citizens are to be protected
The studies should be available in two to three years. But 5G has other new features whose effects have not yet been studied. The antennas, for example, no longer radiate 360 degrees around the mast; instead, 5G antennas bundle beams into "lobes, targeted to those who are currently making phone calls or receiving data. Whether 5G will increase radiation exposure is unclear, says the head of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection: "You can't say more or less. The question is a bit more complex. It will be different. And we have to see if there will be more in some places."
"The bottom line is that there is a high level of scientific uncertainty about what health risks are associated with this mobile phone radiation." Says journalist Harald Schumann. How to deal with such uncertainty is stated in Article 191 of the current EU Treaty: "The Union's policy on the environment shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principle of preventive action." Citizens in Europe are to be protected in principle from products whose harmlessness has not yet been proven. This is also what more than 400 scientists are calling for in an appeal to the UN, EU and all countries. One of them is the physicist Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker: "I signed that one because I thought you have to use the precautionary principle. Means looking carefully at major innovations. Where are any problems?"
But this precautionary principle is not applied to high-frequency electromagnetic radiation such as mobile communications.
Switzerland shows that there is another way
The head of cabinet of the EU's acting health commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, writes in a letter to protesting scientists, quote: "The use of the precautionary principle to stop the distribution of 5G technology seems too drastic a measure."
The EU wants to wait and see how 5G technology is applied and how the scientific evidence develops. Switzerland has a different idea of the precautionary principle. The Swiss Federal Office for the Environment is also having the effects of mobile phone radiation investigated, but the Swiss government has already taken action, as a precaution, writes the Swiss environmental authority:
"The Federal Council could not wait for science to provide the answers it wanted. The precautionary principle of environmental protection law requires that exposure should always be as low as technically possible." The German Federal Office for Radiation Protection understands precaution to mean something different. Stricter limits do not automatically mean better protection, says President Paulini. Because the higher limits that apply in Germany would often not be exhausted in everyday life.
"The Federal Office for Radiation Protection always advocates that 5G be expanded prudently. This means that we do not build the whole network without checking intermediate steps. But that is also not planned." The 5G frequencies up to 3.7 gigahertz are currently being auctioned off. But 5G can also transmit at much higher frequencies, far beyond 20 gigahertz. Whether that will happen has not yet been decided, says the president of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection: "For precautionary reasons, we will go and say that we still want to do impact studies in this area. This is now also planned and partly they are still running this year."
The long-term effects are completely unclear
So people are exposed to more and more electromagnetic radiation and that is likely to increase. Whether, for example, mobile phone radiation within the applicable limits can harm people or even cause cancer is disputed. The long-term effects of electromagnetic radiation on humans, for example, are completely unclear.
And studies are piling up that question the method Germany and the EU use to set their limits. However, the critics of this thermal effect are underrepresented in the decisive bodies. These important expert commissions need to be more transparent, democratic and balanced.