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Radiofrequency - RF EMF

Background to mobile telecommunications technologies

Mobile telecommunication technologies (e.g. mobile phones) transmit and receive radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF EMFs) in defined ways that allow communication to occur. The specific method of utilising the RF EMFs is referred to as a “wireless standard”. For example, the wireless standard used for the First Generation of mobile telecommunication is referred to as “1G”. As technology develops, these standards are updated, and there can be a family of different wireless protocols that are collectively referred to as “1G”. For example, “UMTS” is a well-known protocol within the 3G family, and “LTE” is a well-known protocol within the 4G family. However, where a particularly large or important change is introduced to the standard, the overarching label for the wireless standard is updated accordingly. For example, where large changes were made to the 1G wireless standard, the new standard was then referred to as the second generation wireless standard, or “2G”. Similarly, “2G” was replaced with “3G”, “3G” with “4G”, and now that substantial developments are being implemented relative to 4G, a fifth generation of wireless standard has emerged that is known as “5G”.

Characteristics of the application and its use

There are a number of differences between 5G and previous wireless standards. One of these is that, in addition to the EMF frequencies that are used for 3G and 4G standards, some 5G communication technologies utilise higher EMF frequencies (e.g. 28 GHz is currently used in the USA). EMFs at higher frequencies produce relatively superficial exposure, with less power penetrating deep into the body; the restrictions in the ICNIRP guidelines account for this to ensure that exposure does not cause any harm. Different EMF frequencies also behave differently in the environment, and as a result additional antennas are required to utilise the higher frequencies. These are not expected to affect the exposure scenario appreciably, and initial measurement studies suggest that exposure from 5G antennas will be approximately similar to that from 3G and 4G antennas.

A key feature of the 5G wireless standard is that it will use beam-forming technology, which allows for the RF EMFs to be focused to the region where it is needed (e.g. to a person using a mobile phone), rather than being spread out over a large area. This will allow, for example, the same RF EMF frequencies to be sent to different users concurrently without interfering with one another, which increases communication rates because the frequency band does not need to be ‚shared‘ between the users. This also reduces exposure in regions where communication is not needed.

RF effects on the body and health implications

RF EMFs have the ability to penetrate the human body, with the main effect of this being a rise in temperature in the exposed tissue. 

The human body can adjust to small temperature increases in the same way as it does when undertaking exercise and performing sporting activities. This is because the body can regulate its internal temperature. However, above a certain level (referred to as the threshold), RF exposure and the accompanying temperature rise can provoke serious health effects, such as heatstroke and tissue damage (burns).

Another general characteristic of RF EMFs is that the higher the frequency, the lower the depth of penetration of the EMFs into the body. As 5G technologies can utilise higher EMF frequencies (>24 GHz) in addition to those currently used (<4 GHz), power from those higher frequencies will be primarily absorbed more superficially than that from previous mobile telecommunications technologies. However, although the proportion of power that is absorbed superficially (as opposed to deeper in the body) is larger for the higher frequencies, the ICNIRP (2020) restrictions have been set to ensure that the resultant peak spatial power will remain far lower than that required to adversely affect health. Accordingly, 5G exposures will not cause any harm providing that they adhere to the ICNIRP (2020) guidelines.


The ICNIRP RF EMF guidelines have taken the above considerations into account and protect against all potential adverse health effects relating to exposure to RF EMFs from 5G technologies. This includes potential differences in the effect of RF EMFs as a function of age, health status, and depth of penetration, the effect of both acute and chronic exposures, and it includes all substantiated effects regardless of mechanism.

It is important to note that, in terms of the 5G exposure levels measured so far, the ICNIRP (1998) guidelines would also provide protection for 5G technologies. However, as it is difficult to predict how new technologies will develop, ICNIRP (2020) has made a number of changes to ensure that new technologies such as 5G will not be able to cause harm, regardless of our current expectations. These changes include the addition of whole body average restrictions for frequencies >6 GHz, restrictions for brief (<6 minutes) exposures for frequencies >6 GHz, and the reduction of the averaging area for frequencies >6 GHz.

ICNIRP closely follows the RF EMF related scientific research and any new outcomes relevant to health will inform the evolution of the guidelines.

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