Is the new mobile telecommunications standard damaging to health? Since 2002 Germany has invested around 20 million euros in investigating the potential health consequences of electromagnetic fields. For this year and the next few years, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety and the Federal Office for Radiation Protection have extensive research projects planned – with a particular focus on the new 5G mobile telecommunications standard.
Lots of people always keep their mobile close – in their hand, near their head or in their trouser pocket. In order to transmit data, mobiles use electromagnetic fields, or EMFs for short. These release energy into their surroundings. Is that a problem? Maybe even a health issue? This is the key question in a number of completed, ongoing and upcoming scientific research projects. Recognised research institutes and universities have been conducting investigations into the health implications of mobile communications since the end of the 20th century, on both a national and an international level. Based on the currently available evidence, all the bodies of experts have come to the conclusion that the limits protect us.
In Germany, studies were already being conducted between 2002 and 2008 within the framework of the German Mobile Telecommunication Research Programme (DMF). Over a total of 54 research projects, the programme investigated the health effects of electromagnetic fields on the human body. Studies already completed relate mostly to previously used standards, namely GSM and UMTS.
The frequencies used for 5G during the initial stage have already been in use – or are very close to frequencies that have been used – for years and are well researched. The limits protect us. With regards to the expansion of 5G, it is expected that mobile signals will be transmitted on even higher frequency bands, although these will not, in all probability, be used on a nationwide basis. Known effects of the higher frequency ranges are heat effects on the skin and eyes. They are unlikely to have any effect on inner organs. To improve the available data, research projects concerning these higher 5G frequency ranges are under way. However, it is already clear that according to the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS), based on current findings, even the higher frequency bands to be used for transmissions on the new 5G mobile telecommunications standard do not pose any risk, provided the established limits are adhered to. These limits are in general a good hundred times higher than the actual exposure that we human beings experience as a result of mobile radiation from stationary transmission installations.
Researchers are currently conducting a large number of studies focusing on the long-term effects of EMFs on adults and children. They include studies such as the COSMOS study ("Cohort Study of Mobile Phone Use and Health"), which an international consortium of six European countries has been conducted since 2007 and which investigates the general health of 290,000 participants aged between 20 and 30 over a 15-year period. The study will run until 2037. The MOBI-KIDS study investigated the long-term effects of mobile phone use on children and young people in 14 countries, starting in 2010. Evaluation is still under way and the results are expected shortly.
The interdisciplinary GERoNiMO project was started in 2014. It is supported by the European Union and aims to expand what is known about the potential effects of electromagnetic fields. The scientists from 13 different countries are also developing measures for reducing the effects of EMFs.
Additionally, since 2019 the WHO has commissioned a total of 10 systematic reviews compiling, analysing and evaluating existing scientific evidence.
The Federal Government is currently promoting research projects investigating the effects and risks of mobile radiation – particularly in areas in which there are not yet sufficient scientific findings. The current research plans of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety and the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) can be viewed in the BMUV’s departmental research plans for 2019 and 2020. Among other things, scientists have been researching the influence of EMFs on brain activity, sleep and cognitive performance, also taking parameters such as age and gender into consideration.
The Federal Government’s mobile communications strategy also envisages the establishment of ongoing research funding in order to further intensify accompanying research on the effects on people and the environment.
Research never ends. There can never, for any material or technology, be any such thing as proof of harmlessness. Some uncertainty will always remain, since it can never be possible to research every possible effect, scenario and combination. In the case of mobile communications, this uncertainty is already very small – smaller than with many other forms of environmental impact – and it will become smaller still as research continues. If a large number of scientific investigations have been unable to demonstrate any effects and the majority of the experts involved in this evaluation are in agreement, then the conclusion reached by committees of scientific experts is that the evaluation is reliable: based on current scientific knowledge, there is no reason to expect any harmful effects.
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