ICNIRP is a private scientific association, registered in Germany. In spite of its non-official status, it is the actual scientific authority on safety guidelines for exposure to electromagnetic radiation for most European states. Eric Van Rongen joined ICNIRP in 2001, was its chair from 2010 through 2019 and is now the vice-chair.
He is a senior scientific staff member of the Health Council of the Netherlands, involved there primarily with non-ionising radiation. He is also a member of the World Health Organisation’s electromagnetic field project.
As scientific secretary of several expert committees, he has written many advisory reports on health effects of low and high frequency electromagnetic fields and ionizing radiation, among others.
ICNIRP defines its mission as providing „scientific advice and guidance on the health and environmental effects of non-ionizing radiation (NIR) to protect people and the environment from detrimental NIR exposure. NIR refers to electromagnetic radiation such as ultraviolet, light, infrared, and radiowaves, and mechanical waves such as infra- and ultrasound. In daily life, common sources of NIR include the sun, household electrical appliances, mobile phones, Wi-Fi, and microwave ovens.“
Investigate Europe began its interview with Dr Van Rongen by asking him to explain more of the role and function of ICNIRP, as it relates to cellular wireless technology.
Assesses the science
Van Rongen: “ICNIRP evaluates the scientific literature. On the basis of that it establishes the effects of exposure to electromagnetic fields. Those established effects serve as the basis for the exposure limits that ICNIRP sets.
“Our evaluation is purely based on existing scientific literaturethat has to comply with quality criteria. There are a lot of publications that are of insufficient quality. These are not taken into account in our review.
“As an example, in some studies with animals there is not enough information on the type of exposure and exposure levels. Such studies also need a “sham” exposure group that is submitted to exactly the same conditions as the exposure group, except for the actual exposure. That allows for a correct comparison of the effects of only the exposure. Similar and other requirements apply to other types of studies.”
Advises exposure limits
The ICNIRP’s limit guidelines were last issued in 1998. Over the past years the organisation has been reviewing its guidance on limits. In July 2018 it published draft guidelines for a 90-day public consultation.
Van Rongen: “We discussed the 120 submissions and more than 1,000 individual comments received during the public consultation of our draft guidelines for exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic fields. The previous guidelines date from 1998 and a lot of new studies have been published since. At the same time, the WHO is working on an extensive review of all the literature on the exposure of electromagnetic fields. We can use the information of that review. ICNIRP can’t do such a huge review itself due to lack of resources.” The new guidelines have been published in March 2020. They are based upon the draft WHO review, a 2015 review of SCENHIR and several reviews of the Swedish radiation protection authority SSM (as indicated in the new guidelines)
Did the new guidelines set the safety values higher?
Van Rongen: ”In principle the 2020 guidelines have the same level of protection as the 1998 ones, which in retrospect were already quite conservative. The main changes are that for several frequency ranges we now use other parameters than in 1998, and we provide much more detailed recommendations. Please refer to the document on our website that describes the differences between the old and new guidelines.
ICNIRP states there is less uncertainty on possible health effects, while some might argue there is more uncertainty.
Van Rongen: “The only established effect of radio frequency fields is the induction of heat in tissue. That is the limiting factor and the basis for our exposure guidelines. There are other effects that have been considered, like the possible carcinogenic effect of radio frequency exposure. There is however a lot of uncertainty about this. Too much to consider it an established effect and use it as basis for exposure limits.”
Here, Dr Van Rongen gives his response to questions about an apparent relaxation of safety limits for exposure from radiation from the higher frequencies, 6 GHz and beyond.
Investigate Europe, “The researchers of IT’IS in Zürich [The Foundation for Research on Information Technologies in Society]have raised serious concerns regarding the new standards proposed by ICNIRP.
“According to their recently published studies, the ICNIRP standards are much too high because they are based on false assumptions of how the absorbed energy intensity can be averaged over time and the area of affected skin.
“This ‘may lead to permanent tissue damage after even short exposures, highlighting the importance of revisiting existing exposure guidelines’, they wrote.
Investigate Europe: Do you agree, and will ICNIRP follow their demand/suggestion?
Eric Van Rongen: “We are familiar with that paper and have discussed it within ICNIRP. We don’t feel it proves that indeed with the higher frequencies there could be a problem with the current proposed limits. The […] parametre they use in their analysis is not suitable, in our view, for practical purposes in exposure limitation. So, as it stands now, the paper will not lead to changes in the proposals for exposure limits.”
Dismisses high-profile studies with cancer findings
What is your view of the US National Toxicology Program (NTP) study?
Van Rongen: “They only found an increase of a specific type of tumour in the heart of male rats. The Americans concluded on the basis of this that there is a clear carcinogenic effect of radio frequency exposure.
ICNIRP doesn’t share that conclusion. Most likely, the heating effect of the large male rats contributed to the increased risk of that heart tumour.”
On a separate question relating to the NTP study and studies carried out at the Ramazzini Institute in Italy and by Henry Lai, Eric Van Rongen said, “According to ICNIRP, these studies do not provide sufficient and consistent information to conclude there is a carcinogenic effect of electromagnetic field exposure. Some epidemiological studies may cast some doubts on whether there is no effect at all, but the information in these studies is not strong enough to consider that indeed there is an effect.We published a note (*available at our website) with detailed critique on the analysis and conclusions of the NTP study. WE do not agree with the conclusion that the study show a carcinogenic effect of RF EMF. The study was not used a basis for setting guidelines.
Is ICNIRP convinced that there are no non-thermal effects?
Van Rongen: “We know that there are non-thermal effects. But we’re not convinced that these have been established as adverse health effects. Not every change in a biological system is considered an adverse health effect. Many biological effects can be induced by electromagnetic field exposure, but they don’t necessarily count as adverse health effects. You need to know for sure that health will be compromised by exposure. That is the only relevant basis to use for establishing exposure guidelines.”
How is the uncertainty around health effects of electromagnetic fieldexposure compatible with the precautionary principle?
Van Rongen: “The uncertainty could be a reason to apply precautionary measures, but it is not ICNIRP’s task to decide that. ICNIRP establishes whether health effects have been found, and on the basis of that sets the limits. That is done with a large degree of conservatism, taking into account uncertainties. Therefore, precaution is already applied in the limits. We can also indicate what uncertainty exists on other effects that are not considered established. National authorities could consider those uncertainties large enough, and the possible effects serious enough, to take further precautionary measures. [These] do not necessarily have to mean lowering exposure limits.”
Do you agree that there is not enough research on health risks of the higher frequencies?
Eric Van Rongen, “Yes absolutely. There are still a number ofuncertainties. For instance, the long term effects of mobile phone use on brain tumors are insufficiently known to draw conclusions. Most of the ongoing research now focuses on long-term effects. That is the information that we need. For the time being we have to deal with the information we have. But we definitely need more. We also need more studies on effects of exposure to the very high frequencies in the range of tens of GHz (like the 26 GHz that 5G will use).
5G: Focus on long-term research
If you were to decide on 5G roll out?
Eric Van Rongen, “I would focus on long term research and to provide money to ongoing studies. Personally, I would not hesitate on rolling out 5G. Undoubtedly the type and pattern of exposure will be different from what we have now. It is even possible that in some cases the level of exposure will decrease with 5G. Now, the exposure comes from large antennas. With 5G there will be more but much smaller and less powerful antennas.”
Conflicts of interest
Investigate Europe then moved the discussion on to wider issues, including concerns that conflicts of interest exist within ICNIRP and with some of its members through past or present connections to industry.
Van Rongen: “There is no conflict of interest at all. For instance, members of the ICNIRP main commission should not have had connections with the industry in the past three years. There are no connections between our commission members and the industry now. There may have been in the past, but that is not relevant in their current function. ICNIRP is very transparent in this. We have Declarations of Interest of all members of the Commission and the Scientific Expert Group on our website, and these are updated every year.”
“Do you think of inviting dissenting scientists in order to gain more credibility?”
Van Rongen, “ICNIRP is broadly composed and already has internal differences of opinion, although they are not always as large as with dissenting outside scientists. We’re not opposed to including such people, but they should fit the profile for a specific vacancy and not just be included for their dissenting opinion. We try to be as open and transparent as possible in order to gain [the] trust of society in general. Obviously, a lot of countries trust us enough to adopt our guidelines.”
ICNIRP is so important, every big government institution relies on you. […] They trust you because it fits the economic interest.
Van Rongen: “That is never a reason for ICNIRP to provide specific information. We do not consider economic issues at all.”
What is your response to being described as a small and closed club with narrow ties to other relevant bodies treating the same issues?
Van Rongen, “There are people like me who happen to be members of several expert groups. But each group has more people that are only members of that specific group and they have as much influence as any other member. Each of these groups generates a collective opinion.”
ICNIRP is a small German not-for-profit. How has it become so influential?
Van Rongen: “Governments and institutions consider that what we do is good enough to adopt our guidelines.”