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Frequently Asked Questions related to the ICNIRP RF EMF Guidelines 2020

Translations available in Italian, Japanese and Portuguese.

What scientific literature did you use to set the guidelines?

All scientific literature of good scientific quality was used to set the guidelines. This was based on major reviews by the World Health Organization (2014), the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (2015, 2016, 2018), the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (2015), as well as individual studies identified following those reviews.

The literature included research searching for effects of both brief and long-term exposures to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF EMF), on both immediate (e.g. pain) and delayed (e.g. cancer) health outcomes. This included evaluation of self-reported hypersensitivity to RF EMF exposure. Importantly, the research that focused on potential adverse health effects of RF EMF exposure did not make any assumptions about the mechanisms of action of the RF EMF (e.g. thermal versus non-thermal), but merely looked for any verified (substantiated) adverse health effect, and where identified, instigated protective measures regardless of mechanism.

Is electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) accounted for in the guidelines?

Although there are a number of people who experience substantial suffering that they believe is caused by exposure to RF EMFs, there is no evidence that this is actually related to the RF EMF exposure. Conversely, the research points to the symptoms being caused by the belief that there is RF EMF exposure, which is referred to as the nocebo effect. For example, although people report symptoms when they know that they are exposed to RF EMFs, once appropriate blinding is used to ensure that both the experimenter and the sufferer do not know whether there is RF EMF exposure, the effect disappears. As there is no evidence that symptoms in EHS individuals are related to RF EMF exposure, there would be no benefit of applying RF EMF restrictions specifically to account for EHS. Accordingly, restrictions have not been set to separately account for EHS, and individuals who believe that they are adversely affected by RF EMF are treated as part of the general public in terms of RF EMF restrictions.

How was the scientific literature assessed in the guidelines?

ICNIRP first assessed the scientific literature to determine whether there were reports that RF EMF exposure caused biological effects, and from those, it identified the biological effects that may cause adverse health effects. Important to that consideration was whether the reports had been substantiated, which is to say that the science was of sufficient quality and the results consistent with the overall scientific literature for ICNIRP to be confident that the reported effects were real (and not merely due to experimental limitations or chance). This verification step is particularly important because it is not always easy to identify methodological limitations, and because the scientific method itself is probabilistic. This latter point is important because science is designed so that a percentage (generally 5%) of the tests conducted will falsely conclude that an effect has been found. It follows that conclusions cannot be drawn from one study in isolation.

Accordingly, ICNIRP’s assessment incorporated many types of study and research domains, ranging from dosimetric, mechanistic, in vitro and in vivo research, to epidemiological studies. Further, where the mechanism of effect of RF EMF exposure on the body was known, non-RF EMF research relevant to the guidelines was also considered. For example, as RF EMF can induce heating in the body, and as there is limited research at exposure levels far higher than are permissible according to the ICNIRP (1998) guidelines, human thermal physiology literature was also considered. This ‘non-RF’ literature was only used for setting restrictions where it was more conservative than the RF literature.

What do you recommend for countries that have the ICNIRP (1998) RF EMF guidelines in place?

The ICNIRP (1998) guidelines are protective for current commercial applications of RF EMFs. However, the new guidelines have incorporated a number of important additions and changes, particularly for EMF frequencies above 6 GHz where future 5G technologies will operate, which have the result of reducing the maximum magnitude of localized exposure that a person can receive. This is particularly important given that we do not know how 5G technologies will develop in the future, and so a more robust system is required to ensure that harm cannot occur. 

As the ICNIRP (2020) guidelines now provide protection for whole body exposures above 6 GHz, ensure that brief exposures are not sufficient to cause harm, and, by reducing the averaging area for local exposures above 6 GHz, reduce the maximum local exposure, the new guidelines provide a far more complete and precise system of protection. Accordingly, and particularly in relation to current and future technological development such as 5G, it is strongly recommended that countries update to the new ICNIRP (2020) guidelines.

What are the main differences between the new (2020) ICNIRP RF Guidelines and previous (1998) ICNIRP RF EMF guidelines?

There is a range of differences between the new and old guidelines. The main changes relate to EMF exposures above 6 GHz, and account for technological developments of RF EMF, such as 5G. These include additional restrictions to ensure that whole body and brief (< 6 minutes) local RF EMF exposures will not result in excessive exposures. Within this >6 GHz EMF frequency range, the averaging area for local exposure has also been reduced, by a factor of 5. This reduces the maximum exposure of a person relative to the ICNIRP (1998) restrictions. Other minor changes to the guidelines include additional means of assessing compliance with the guidelines; and greater specification of how to assess complicated exposure scenarios.

Do the new guidelines cover exposures from 5th Generation (5G) mobile telecommunications?

Yes, the new guidelines protect against all potential adverse health effects relating to exposure to RF EMF from 5G technologies. It is important to note that the ICNIRP (1998) guidelines will also provide protection for 5G technologies if they produce the exposure levels that are so far predicted; these are predicted to be approximately similar to the exposures from previous mobile telecommunications technologies (e.g. 4G). However, ICNIRP (2020) has made a number of changes that do not rely on such predictions, and that will ensure that 5G is not able to cause harm. These include the addition of whole body average restrictions for frequencies >6 GHz, restrictions for brief (<6 minutes) exposures for frequencies >400 MHz, the reduction of the averaging area for frequencies >6 GHz (which reduces the maximum exposure that a person can have).

Is there a single study that proves that RF EMF exposure within the ICNIRP guidelines is safe?

It is important to note that the guidelines are based on knowledge that has been developed over many years of scientific research, and that no single study can provide proof that exposure below the guidelines levels is or is not harmful; although people often ask for such a study, this is not how science operates. Indeed thousands of studies have been conducted, and it requires the evaluation of the whole literature database to understand how RF EMF affects people, the degree to which these effects are related to different RF EMF frequencies, magnitudes, exposure durations and physical quantities, and whether there are differences in these effects as a function of age, body shape, degree of infirmity, and so on. The above is also relevant to the consideration of different technologies: once the science has provided the above knowledge, we can determine whether a new technology will cause harm, and if so, the exposure required to cause such harm. For example, as we know what the relation between RF EMF and harm is as a function of RF EMF frequency and exposure level, when a new technology such as 5G is developed, we can determine whether it will cause harm by considering the RF EMF frequency that it will use and the magnitude of the resultant exposure.

Does ICNIRP consider non-thermal effects of RF EMF on health?

Yes, ICNIRP considers all potential adverse health effects, and sets restrictions to ensure that none occur, regardless of the mechanism of interaction between the exposure and the body. The lowest exposure levels that can cause adverse health effects are due to thermal mechanisms, and so restrictions have been set based on the thermal effects, as these will protect against any other effects that could occur at higher exposure levels.

How are health effects that take a long time to develop considered?

ICNIRP protects against all adverse health effects, regardless of whether they occur immediately after exposure, or take a long time to develop. Long-term effects are typically more difficult to assess than immediate effects, and a combination of different types of studies is generally needed to arrive at conclusions concerning them. For example, to determine whether RF EMF exposure can initiate or promote cancer, whole of life animal studies have been used as they are able to demonstrate causation, but as humans differ importantly from non-humans, generalizing to humans can be difficult. Conversely, although ascertaining causation can be challenging in epidemiological research, given that the subject of the study is the population (humans) that we are interested in, case-control and prospective cohort designs have been very useful in ascertaining relations between cancer outcomes and the use of devices that would expose people to RF EMF. Cancer incidence studies have also proven useful in terms of both cancer rate surveillance and for testing whether claims that RF EMF causes cancer are consistent with what is seen in the real world. So although a particular type of study is not sufficient to determine whether long-term exposure to RF EMF results in adverse health effects, by utilizing multiple study types to overcome what would be limitations individually, science has learnt a great deal about long term RF EMF exposure.

Is the evaluation of recent NTP studies and other such studies used for setting guidelines and how?

In addition to the international scientific reviews considered in developing the guidelines, more recent research was also considered. This includes recent studies by the US National Toxicology Program, and by the Ramazzini Institute in Italy, which addressed a range of possible health effects including carcinogenicity. A detailed assessment of those studies is provided in a recent ICNIRP Note. As described in that ICNIRP Note, although claims about carcinogenicity were made in the NTP and Ramazzini publications, those studies did not show that RF EMF exposure initiated or promoted cancer in rodents, and as such they are consistent with the scientific literature more generally. As RF EMF has not been shown to cause cancer (in rodents or humans), specific restrictions were not needed in the guidelines to protect against cancer initiation or promotion. However, by protecting against the adverse health effects that occur with the lowest exposure levels, if any additional adverse health effects were found at higher exposure levels (such as those used in the NTP studies), then the new ICNIRP guidelines would also protect against those hypothetical effects.

How are specific populations, such as children, pregnant women, sick and elderly people, protected in the RF EMF guidelines?

 The guidelines use a range of mechanisms to ensure that all people are protected from RF EMF exposure. One of these is the use of reduction factors, that ensure that the restrictions are far lower than are required to cause adverse health effects for all people. For example, the main type of exposure that would be relevant to physiological differences between people is whole body exposure, which, at high levels, can increase body core temperature to a point where the cardiovascular system becomes stressed. For this effect, a reduction factor of 50 has been used for the general public, which results in an exposure that is too low to cause a detectable increase in body core temperature, and so would be protective for all groups. In addition, when determining the exposure magnitude needed to cause a potentially harmful increase in body core temperature, different body shapes are evaluated as this is the main determinant of body core temperature rise, and the most conservative value is used for all groups. In this case it has been shown that the body core temperature in response to whole body exposure increases more in adults than in children, and so the exposure values from adults have been used to set the restrictions (which makes the guidelines even more conservative for children compared to adults).

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