The Year Ahead in Digital Policy: Policy for Electromagnetic Fields and Health

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced the membership of a task group to review radiofrequency fields electromagnetic field (RF-EMF) exposure and health risks. The work of the task group is expected to be completed by the end of 2023. Inputs to the task group will include a technical report that provides a scoping review of RF-EMF scientific literature, which the WHO has said will be published in early 2023, and ten specially commissioned systematic reviews on priority health outcomes that will be published in the journal Environment International.

The 21 proposed task group members represent a broad geography, and their tasks include formulating an overall risk assessment for each health outcome, compiling national good practice policy interventions, and identifying research gaps.

Why does it matter?

The last time the WHO undertook such a comprehensive review was in 1993 when the main sources of radio signals were broadcast transmitters and microwave ovens. There is no mention of mobile communication technologies in the 1993 report. Given the many and varied RF-EMF sources today, and the continued evolution of mobile technology, the WHO task group will produce an authoritative assessment of the scientific evidence.

No mobile technology specific health concerns have been identified so there is an opportunity for the WHO task group to make a forward-looking statement about future technologies such as 6G and other new communications applications of radio waves.

What are the policy considerations?

The WHO is widely recognized and trusted by policymakers and the public as the global authority on health matters. So, a clear WHO statement on RF-EMF exposures and health is significant for addressing public concern. National RF-EMF policy should be harmonized with the RF-EMF exposure guidelines developed by the International Commission for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which works closely with the WHO. The consensus of expert reviews is that there are no established health risks for mobile devices or base stations that comply with the limits in the ICNIRP guidelines.

The WHO encourages countries to adopt international RF-EMF exposure guidelines. It warns that large differences between national limits and international guidelines can foster confusion for regulators and policy makers and increase public anxiety.

Some countries have in place EMF policies that are more restrictive than the international guidelines. Real-world measurements show higher quality mobile reception, fewer base stations and fewer coverage holes in countries with ICNIRP limits than a country with restrictive limits. Restrictions can also delay deployment of new technologies like 5G.

The new WHO review is an opportunity for policymakers to harmonize RF-EMF limits and assessment methods with the latest scientific advice and global best practice.

Assessment of base station compliance with the ICNIRP limits should be based on methods provided in international technical standards produced by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). This includes the need to update the procedures for the active antennas increasingly used in mobile networks.

What we expect to see in the year ahead

A European Commission scientific committee will soon deliver a final opinion on updating the EMF limit values for public and workers. The current EU limits are based on the ICNIRP (1998) guidelines, and the scientific committee is expected to recommend harmonization with the ICNIRP (2020) guidelines. Globally, Australia, Ireland, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and the UK have already made this move and other countries, such as Brazil, are expected to follow.

In 2022, the IEC updated the EMF assessment methods for base stations, including new methods that provide better accuracy for 5G antennas and are valid for the latest ICNIRP guidelines. As 5G deployments gather momentum, it is timely for countries to update their EMF compliance rules.

Four European led research consortiums are underway with €29 million of EU funding. They will examine exposures from 5G networks, undertake studies on health and environmental impacts of RF-EMF and provide advice on how policymakers can respond to EMF concerns and misinformation. A 290,000-person international study of the possible health effects of long-term use of mobile phones, known as COSMOS, is also expected to publish results in 2023.

A WHO task group is expected to review RF-EMF exposure and health risks by the end of 2023. They will also identify national good practice EMF policies and research gaps. It is possible, but uncertain, that the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a specialist agency of the WHO, will announce the timing for a working group to determine if the classification of RF-EMF as a possible human carcinogen made in 2011 should be changed. Recent epidemiological studies generally do not support a link between mobile phone use and brain cancer, however, some animal studies are less clear and replications are underway jointly in Japan and South Korea.

Policy Good Practice: United Kingdom’s EMF policy

From 18 November 2021, the UK telecommunications regulator Ofcom made compliance with the ICNIRP public exposure limits a mandatory spectrum licence condition for transmitter powers higher than 10 Watts EIRP. Key points from the Ofcom EMG policy:

1. Operators can select to declare compliance with either ICNIRP (1998) or ICNIRP (2020).
2. Compliance is by operator self-assessment and records must be kept.
3. Each year Ofcom measures a sample of mobile sites and the results confirm that all technologies, including 5G are well below the ICNIRP limits.
4. Ofcom and the UK government produced a guide to 5G mobile technology to deal with queries from the public and to combat online disinformation.