When we speak on our mobile or receive an SMS, information passes between the mobile and the radio mast. This takes place within electromagnetic fields (EMFs). These fields belong to the category known as non-ionising radiation, which is the only type of radiation involved in respect of mobile communications. Please read here if you like to learn more about the different categories of radiation.
Non-ionising radiation has a single scientifically established effect: the human body converts it into heat, which is generated by the motion and friction of electrically charged or polar particles. The resulting slight increase in core body temperature is no cause for concern. Studies with animals have shown that any potential health effects would require the temperature of the body to have risen by considerably more than 1 degree Celsius. The rise in body temperature caused by radiation caused by mobile networks is a long way away from this, even when a mobile is used frequently.
What happens in a biological sense when radio frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs) interact with the human body? The key is the energy taken in (absorbed) by the body. The amount of energy absorbed by the body when using a mobile, for example, is called the specific absorption rate (SAR). The SAR value indicates how much power (watts, i.e. energy per time unit) is absorbed per kilogram of tissue. Mobile phones on the market are not permitted to exceed an SAR value of 2 watts per kilogram. In this respect, the SAR limit for mobile phones is aligning itself with the guidelines of the International Commission On Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), the German Commission on Radiological Protection (SSK) and the European Commission.
If this limit is followed, no health effects are to be expected as the thermal effect is extremely low. As a point of comparison, our core body temperature also changes during sporting activity. Normal muscle activity corresponds to 3 to 5 watts of power per kilogram, which is significantly higher than the statutory SAR limits for mobile phones.
Fixed mobile communications installations are subject to different limits than mobile phones. The distance between the radiation source and people is considerably higher here than when using a mobile – and as the distance increases, the strength decreases and with it any potential heating effects. The limits are defined in the Ordinance on Electromagnetic Fields – an ordinance of the Federal Immission Control Act (the 26th Ordinance Implementing the Federal Immission Control Act). They protect the population from all currently known health risks. Public mobile networks offer differing services, such as LTE or indeed 5G. These services use different frequencies. The limits set out in the above ordinance also depend on frequency, since the effects also differ slightly according to this. The limits for transmission installations can be retrieved here on the website of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS).
Some critics of 5G technology associate it with a risk of cancer. This is based on an assessment by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2011, classifying mobile phone use as “possibly carcinogenic”. How did this come about? A few observational studies, such as the INTERPHONE study described below, had associated intensive use of a mobile for phone calls with an increased risk of developing brain tumours. However, even this study has not been able to establish a definite connection. Overall, the majority of studies argue against a connection, suggesting that mobile communications do not promote the development of cancer.
All in all, a more precise classification is needed here than that used by the IARC for cancer risks. After all, the IARC also categorises pickled vegetables as “possibly carcinogenic”. In short, the consideration of risks covers a lot of ground. In many instances, we are aware of the risks and choose to accept them – smoking, meat eating and air travel, for example, all of which are classified in a higher risk category than mobile phones and pickled vegetables, namely “probably carcinogenic”. We accept all these risks either voluntarily or because they occur naturally, as with solar radiation. A transmission mast does not occur naturally, but it does enable us to make phone calls and allow high-speed communication between devices. And research institutes and authorities worldwide agree with the IARC in proceeding on the assumption that electromagnetic fields from cell towers cause less exposure than mobiles themselves.
The IARC’s INTERPHONE study is one of the best-known investigations into the possible long-term consequences of mobile phone use. The first results were published in 2010 and 2011. INTERPHONE did not provide definitive answers to every question, though it also found no reliable indications of an increased risk of brain tumours or tumours of the auditory nerve resulting from mobile phone use.
INTERPHONE also established the need for further research in some areas. For example, there are gaps in our knowledge of the long-term effects of mobile phone use on children and young people. Further international research projects aimed at closing these gaps are currently under way. These include, among others, the MOBI-KIDS study and COSMOS. Further information about these and other research projects looking at the long-term effects of radiation caused by mobile networks can be found here.
Contrary to popular opinion, the biggest radiation source for human beings is ordinarily their own mobiles. Mobiles have to adhere to internationally harmonised standards that ensure compliance with the recommended maximum SAR value. Users wishing to reduce their radiation exposure still further can take action themselves by looking for a low SAR value when purchasing a new device as a precaution. The Federal Office for Radiation Protection compiles the SAR values of devices currently available on the market, publishing them here. In general, the Federal Office recommends exercising a level of awareness and caution. We have put together further useful tips for you in this article.
Looking at the diverse studies available, it becomes clear above all that there is no reason to panic. No study matching the scientific quality criteria has found a conclusive reliable link between mobile communications and an increased risk of cancer. However, with more and more devices and technologies being used and with 5G now being added to the mix, the research continues.
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