In 2020, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) published updated safety guidelines for exposures to radio-frequency radiation (RF-EMF) emitted by wireless communication devices and networks, such as mobile phones or mobile phone base stations. This publication replaced the ICNIRP 1998 RF-EMF guidelines.
These guidelines, recommended by the World Health Organization, have been adopted by a majority of countries around the world, becoming part of their wireless regulatory framework. US uses IEEE/ICES and FCC guidelines, but seeks to “harmonize” with the ICNIRP guidelines.
Safety according to ICNIRP
The basic principle underlying these safety guidelines is that, according to ICNIRP, the only proven health-related effects induced by this kind of radiation exposure are those that occur when the temperature of human tissue is increased by more than 1 degree Celsius — the so-called thermal effects.
When the temperature of human tissue does not increase by more than 1 degree Celsius, the radiation is considered by ICNIRP to be harmless to human health. In their opinion, the level of radiation emitted by wireless devices meeting ICNIRP safety guidelines is insufficient to cause a health-affecting increase in temperature in human tissue. Furthermore, according to ICNIRP’s review of science, there are no proven effects occurring without such a temperature increase.
Given that ICNIRP considers that only thermal effects of radiation exposure can cause health effects, ICNIRP has designed safety guidelines to protect users from any thermal effects that could affect health. In ICNIRP’s opinion, prevention of thermal effects by the currently used safety limits is sufficient to protect the health of all users.
However, there is a long list of experimentally-observed biological effects in animals or in cells grown in the laboratory, that have been induced by exposures to wireless radiation at levels well below the current exposure limits set by ICNIRP. Scientists are concerned that if such non-thermal effects were to occur in users, they might lead to health effects.
According to ICNIRP’s understanding of science, these non-thermal effects should not be happening. However, unless all scientists observing non-thermal effects are hallucinating, there is something wrong with ICNIRP’s evaluation of the scientific evidence.
ICNIRP’s guidelines, in addition to being set to prevent only thermal effects, are also based only on short-term, acute exposures (from minutes to hours). The guidelines do not provide information on whether they will be protective for continuous and long-term exposures, those lasting from months to decades. Thus, while there is available published research on the acute effects, those that occur during or shortly after exposure, there is very little research on long-term chronic exposures. This suggests that applying ICNIRP guidelines to long-term exposures is based on an assumption of safety and not on the scientific evidence.
The ICNIRP guidelines are also being promoted as protective for all users, no matter their age or health status. ICNIRP claims that whether it be the growing and developing body of a small child, the ailing body of an old person with chronic or potentially lethal diseases, or the robust body of a young and healthy adult — all are equally protected.
Since experimenting on humans is limited, for obvious ethical reasons, we must look to epidemiological studies to examine the long-term effects of exposures in people. These studies on long-term biological effects and health can take many years to complete, and often present real-world limitations, thus there are few such studies completed from which to draw. This means that there is not much scientific evidence assuring that the ICNIRP’s safety guidelines apply to all persons, no matter their age or health status, and no matter how long they have used wireless devices. It suggests, again, that the application of ICNIRP guidelines equally to young and old, healthy and sick, is based solely on the assumption of safety and not on the available scientific evidence.
The workings of ICNIRP
Looking at the membership of ICNIRP, it is easy to notice that all members have very similar opinions on the issue of RF-EMF and health. All ICNIRP members have expressed nearly the same opinion, that RF-EMF is absolutely and completely safe for use by everyone, as long as its levels are within the safety limits advised by ICNIRP.
It is interesting to note that science evaluations by ICNIRP experts are frequently contradicted by researchers not involved in ICNIRP activities. Even more interestingly, ICNIRP members, when placed on various national scientific committees in the company of other, non-ICNIRP, scientists, sometimes arrive at conclusions that contradict ICNIRP opinions.
Recently, these disagreeing opinions were published by:
For the majority of users of wireless technology, ICNIRP is merely an acronym. They hear that ICNIRP claims to be about science only, void of any influences, be it from the industry or from government radiation regulatory bodies. However, not many users are aware of how ICNIRP operates in practice. Consider:
1. ICNIRP is a group of about a dozen scientists who claim not to represent anyone else but themselves.
2. ICNIRP claims to be void of any lobbying influence from the industry and from the national radiation protection organizations.
3. Retiring members of ICNIRP are replaced by new members who are selected by current members.
4. ICNIRP’s selection criteria, and their justifications for selecting particular new members, are not publicly available. Only ICNIRP members know why a person has been selected to join their group.
5. ICNIRP is not responsible to any entity for the scientific decisions they make.
6. No one has controls over how ICNIRP arrives at their recommended safety guidelines.
7. There is no oversight of ICNIRP’s activities by anyone.
8. ICNIRP has no legal responsibility for their scientific opinions.
The legal responsibility
ICNIRP safety guidelines are what they say, just guidelines. No one is legally bound to use them. This means that even if the guidelines were proven to be in error, nobody could legally sue ICNIRP for this error.
The telecom industry and the national radiation protection organizations, however, in choosing to use ICNIRP safety guidelines, becomes legally responsible for any health hazard caused by the radiation-emitting devices they produce, even if they comply with the ICNIRP guidelines. Once the telecom and the national radiation protection organizations accept and use ICNIRP safety guidelines, it is they, and not ICNIRP, that has legal responsibility should the devices ever be shown to cause health harm.
In short, ICNIRP members are responsible only before ‘God and History’ for whatever right or wrong decisions ICNIRP may make.
To understand the significance of this complete lack of oversight or control of ICNIRP activities, it is necessary to remember that the safety guidelines developed by ICNIRP are the sole guidance used by the industry that manufactures and operates wireless communication hardware and infrastructure throughout most of the world.
In essence, ICNIRP safety guidelines justify the workings of the telecom industry, which, in 2019, had an annual worth, globally, of about 1.74 trillion US$ - ICNIRP, the organization that claims total independence from any outside interests, that acts without any external control or oversight, and that is not responsible to anyone for their scientific decisions.
ICNIRP and 5G safety
The currently ongoing deployment of the new 5th generation of wireless communication, 5G, has further stimulated debate on the validity of ICNIRP’s safety guidelines.
What will be new in 5G wireless communications is the use of millimeter-waves, with frequencies from over 20 GHz up to 300 GHz. While millimeter-waves can transfer large amounts of data, they have a problem with how far they can be transmitted, and with the limits of their penetration ability. This will cause a very dense deployment of base stations (cell antennas) throughout neighborhoods (roughly, one small base station on every second lamppost), and will require base stations inside buildings. This means that in a few years, when 5G is fully deployed, city environments will be virtually saturated with the millimeter-wave radiation.
ICNIRP, in its 2020 safety guidelines, assures us that the health of users will be completely protected. However, how does ICNIRP know that?
The research on millimeter-waves and health is extremely limited. Several recently published science reviews have searched various data-bases, and have found only a very limited number of studies dealing with the health effects of millimeter-waves. The vast majority of science published on 5G millimeter-waves deals with radiation measurements and dosimetry, not with the biological and health effects.
- In 2019, Simkó and Mattsson published a review of just 97 experimental studies.
- In 2020, Leszczynski published a review of just 99 experimental studies.
- In 2021, Karipidis et al. published a review of just 107 experimental studies.
Most of this millimeter wave research consists of small, in vitro or animal studies that are of low practical value when developing public health protection guidelines. This lack of research studies causes confusion and problems within communities. When users ask for the scientific evidence of the effects of 5G millimeter-waves on health, they do not get answers because the research has not been done. It is not possible to prove that 5G is safe. However, it would be possible to perform a sufficient number of research studies on 5G and health to show whether the health effects are minimal or even negligible. At this point in time such scientific evidence does not exist.
However, interestingly and worryingly, ICNIRP Chairman Rodney Croft, Professor of Psychology at the University of Wollongong in Australia, has recently stated in an interview with “The Feed” on Australian TV on June 16, 2020:
“There is no harm associated with 5G”
“Look, it’s very true that the amount of studies that specifically look at 5G are very limited, but from a science perspective that just isn’t relevant”
· ICNIRP is an organization that functions without any control or oversight, either scientific or legal.
· There is no control over whether or not telecom industry or national radiation protection organizations are actively lobbying ICNIRP.
· ICNIRP trivializes the lack of research on 5G millimeter-waves and health, as expressed by the ICNIRP Chairman.
· The opinions expressed and decisions made by ICNIRP members are considered not sufficiently science-based by national science groups in several countries, as well as a number of prominent scientists.
· While members of ICNIRP do not have any legal responsibility for their scientific opinions, the telecom industry that uses ICNIRP safety guidelines for their products does have legal responsibility should their devices cause health harm.
In this scientifically and legally complex situation, there is an urgent need to perform an independent validation of the results of ICNIRP’s review of science and of the validity of the ICNIRP safety guidelines.
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to M.M. Glaser for English editing.