→ How much is safe?

Alexia Barakou

The following graphic shows just how close-knit this circle is:

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The research

Is radiation from mobile technology dangerous? As the world is about
to enter the 5G era, engineers, physicists, biologists and cancer
doctors can look back at thousands of studies and calculations on health
effects from radio frequency electromagnetic fields in the previous 2G
and 3G technologies. But there is strong disagreement as to how to
interpret the findings – and the implications for 5G, for which there is
a lack of studies.

Curiously, one group of scientists dominates the entities that are to
provide professional advice on radiation risk. This means research by
others fall under the radar of politicians who must use science to make
laws and regulations.

This constitutes monopoly of opinion, says Einar Flydal. The former
social scientist at Telenor in Norway has authored the book “Smart
meters, the law and health”. He criticises the scientific base for the
radiation safety limits that apply in most countries.

“The majority of researchers are defined as dissenters and are simply
shut out through a process that is not ethically justifiable. This
cannot be understood from scientific results. It must be understood
politically, as the result of a battle for interests where radiation
protection authorities often become pawns with lacking resources”,
claims Flydal.

His perspective is countered by Gunnhild Oftedal, associate professor
at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, specialised on
effects of electromagnetic fields on humans. She is part of a small
international network that determines what science to trust. Oftedal
doesn’t like the research field described as consisting of two competing
camps.

“Issues that may have far-reaching consequences for individuals and
society easily get polarised, just look at the climate debate. In our
field it is easy to put people in two camps, but the landscape is much
more nuanced”, according to Oftedal.

Authorities don’t do research

In Norway, everyone looks to the Directorate for Radiation Protection
and Nuclear Safety (NRPA) for radiation advice. This is the highest
professional authority on radiation and health hazards.

The NRPA does not itself conduct research on radiation from
electromagnetic fields, EMF, according to physicist and director
Tone-Mette Sjømoen. “We lean on reviews made by international expert
groups. These consider all available science, evaluate it and draw
conclusions based on the overall scientific picture”.

This state of affairs is quite typical among radiation safety
authorities in Europe, most of which take or have been taking their
advise from some or all of these scientific bodies:

  • The international commission on non-ionizing radiation protection, ICNIRP.
  • The EU Scientific Committee on Health, Environment and Emerging Risk, SCENIHR / SCHEER.
  • The World Health Organization WHO’s EMF Group.
  • The WHO Cancer Unit IARC, International Agency for Research on Cancer.
  • The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority’s Scientific council on electromagnetic fields.
  • Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation, AGNIR, a public UK committee that existed until 2017.

The standard-setter

This number of groups should guarantee a wide range of scientific opinion. However, that is not the case.

ICNIRP is a particularly
influential group, as it not only evaluates radiation and health risk
research, but also provides guidelines for radiation safety limits that
most countries use. It is a private, German-registered organisation
located outside Munich, behind a yellow door on the premises of the
German Federal office for radiation protection. Decisions on who to
invite in, are taken by ICNIRP itself.

“ICNIRP does not have an open process for the election of its new
members. It is a self-perpetuating group with no dissent allowed. Why is
this not problematic?” asks Louis Slesin, editor of the publication
Microwave News in New York. He has followed the scientific debate on
radiation and health for decades.

There are not enough highly qualified scientists, explains Mike
Repacholi, an EMF research pioneer who founded ICNIRP in 1992, to
Investigate Europe. The excluded research often does not meet high
standards, adds Eric van Rongen, head of ICNIRP. “We are not against
including scientists who think differently. But they must fill the
profile in a specific vacant position and cannot just be taken in for
their dissident views”, says van Rongen.

Major overlap of scientists

ICNIRP is the de facto standard-setter of radiation safety limits in
much of Europe. Still, it is  just one out of several scientific groups.
The groups, however, are to a remarkable degree staffed by the same
experts.

Of 13 ICNIRP scientists, six are members of at least one other
committee. In the WHO group, this applies for six out of seven. Every
third researcher in the EU commission that gave radiation advice in 2015
was represented in other groups.

This is not so strange, according to Gunnhild Oftedal. She is a
member of both the ICNIRP commission and WHO’s research group. “People
who demonstrate that they are skilled are asked to contribute. Look at
who sits on boards and councils in general, this is what it is like
everywhere in society”, she says.

The committees agree on a basic premise between themselves: The only
documented health risk from mobile radiation is the heating of body
tissue. The radiation safety limits are set to prevent this from
happening. As long as one adheres to these, there is no health risk,
according to all but one committee.

For most mobile users it is easy to stay safe in relation to these
limits: They are only reached or exceeded by standing directly in front
of a base station at a shorter distance than 10 meters.

Are not nearly five billion mobile users worldwide proof that this works well?

Many studies find risk

No, argue a significant number of scientists who believe that people
may be harmed by being exposed to mobile radiation far below these
limits, especially in the course of many years of use. Oceania
Radiofrequency Scientific Advisory Organisation, an Australian entity,
examined 2266 studies and found “significant biological effects or health effects” in 68 percent of them. Another, the “Bioinitiative Group“,
referred to up to 1800 studies when they concluded that many such
bio-effects probably cause health damage if people are exposed for a
long time. This is because the radiation interferes with normal
processes in the body, preventing them from repairing damaged DNA and
creating an imbalance in the immune system, say these scientists.

According to the report produced by the Bioinitiative Group, the list
of possible damage is frightening: Poor sperm quality, autism,
alzheimers, brain cancer and childhood leukemia.

The standard setter “serves industry”

ICNIRP is at the centre of the clash of opinions between scientists.
 Dutch biologist Eric van Rongen does not dismiss that mobile radiation
has effects below the recommended radiation safety guidelines. “But we
are not convinced that these effects are harmful to health,” he tells
Investigate Europe.

ICNIRP is in the process of publishing updated EMF radiation limits.
The old ones are from 1998. Little indicates that scientists who sound
the alarm have influenced the new guidelines.

The conflicts in EMF research have long roots. Historically, science
in this field has been associated with the telecom sector and the
military. ICNIRP’s safety limits primarily take into account the needs
of the telecom industry, claims Dariusz Leszczynski, former long-time
researcher at the Finnish radiation protection agency. In 2011, he sat
on the committee of IARC, the cancer body of the World Health
Organisation, when it decided that EMF is “possibly carcinogenic” to humans. Leszczynski is not represented in ICNIRP nor in other leading expert groups.

“ICNIRP’s goal is to set safety limits that do not kill people, while
technology works – so something in between”, says Leszczynski.

He is echoed by Louis Slesin, the editor of Microwave News. “There is
a lot of politics in deciding what goes into a study and what is left
out. For instance, excluding people over the age of 60
from a brain tumour study in Australia that was recently published,
does not make any sense”, says Slesin, pointing out that most brain
tumours appear in older age groups.

This particular study,
co-authored by two scientists also represented in ICNIRP, concluded
that there can be no link between mobile phones and brain tumours
because the incidence of brain cancer in the general population has been
stable for years. It sharply contrasts a paper
published in England last year that showed more than a doubling of
glioblastoma, the most aggressive type of brain tumour, between 1995 and
2015.

Source of finance may affect result

At least three studies over the years have documented that there is
often a link between conclusions of studies and the source of the money
that paid for the research. Science funded by industry is less likely to
find health risks than studies paid for by institutions or authorities.

Research money often goes to universities and has “firewalls” between
the individual scientist and the money, says Lennart Hardell, cancer
doctor and scientist at the University hospital in Örebro in Sweden.
“The problem is, however, that one becomes dependent on this money. Most
people do not bite the hand that feeds them”, believes the Swedish
researcher.

Hardell studies connections between long-term mobile use and brain cancer and has concluded
that one can cause the other. He sat on the IARC committee in 2011, but
is not represented on other committees. According to Hardell, his
research is funded through his salary from the hospital as well as by
funds raised by local cancer foundations and national organisations. “Of
course I have also worked a lot on my free time”, he says.

Martin Röösli co-authored one of the studies that documented the link
between financing source and results. The associate professor at the
Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute is a member of ICNIRP and
other advisory bodies.  “Studies which are solely financed by industry
are likely to be biased”, Röösli confirms to Investigate Europe. But in his study,
mixed financial models with proper firewalls did not result in biased
research outcomes – and it had a higher quality. There might also be
preferred outcomes in any camp, Röösli asserts: “Researchers may create
uncertainties to raise funding for their research”.

Some studies can go on for 15 to 20 years. Such projects are bread
and butter for researchers, argues Louis Slesin. Some studies are
industry-funded. “Does this constitute a conflict of interest for the
scientists involved?” Slesin asks – and answers: “Of course it does”.

Gunnhild Oftedal does not dismiss that the source of funding can
affect conclusions – just as “a strong belief that one will find
something” can. Such mechanisms were not much considered before. “But
today we are concerned about it. I have the impression that scientists
are much more cautious about receiving support from the industry – at
least direct support”, says Oftedal.

“Industry should pay”

Not everyone wants to denounce money from business. Industry should
definitely pay for research into potential dangers of their products;
but it should only be conducted independently of the funders, thinks
Zenon Sienkiewicz, a UK physiologist, He is part of the ICNIRP
commission and has previously been on other advisory bodies.

Research is critically dependent on external funding, adds former
ICNIRP scientist Norbert Leitgeb, professor at the Institute of Health
Care Engineering at the Graz University of Technology in Austria. “The
question is not whether industry has provided money, which it should do
if the products are the reason of concern. The important issue is
whether there are efficient firewalls established assuring that
stakeholders cannot interfere with researchers and influence scientific
outcome or conclusions”, he says.

New, stricter rules

The debate of a potential industry bias ignores potential bias from
NGOs and private pressure groups, asserts Leitgeb. “Groups such as
people with self-declared electromagnetic hypersensitivity would merit
the same attention”.

Mike Repacholi founded ICNIRP as well as the WHO EMF project. In the beginning, the WHO project received substantial funding from industry. Upon leaving WHO, Repacholi became an industry consultant.

“There has been such criticism of industry-funded research that the
industry now doesn’t fund research. Yet they are the ones causing the
concerns about health. Who has lost from this situation?” Repacholi
asks.

Nevertheless, both ICNIRP and WHO now exclude researchers who have received support from industry over the past three years.

WHO and the tobacco heritage

Both Eric van Rongen and Gunnhild Oftedal are also deeply into the
work of the World Health Organization to update this entity’s knowledge
of radiation and health.

The WHO “core” group of scientist has been working since 2012, and
the work was initially expected to be completed a long time ago. But allegations
of one-sidedness have also ravaged this committee. Now the WHO will put
together a larger research group that will evaluate the work of the
core group. Participants are not yet appointed, but will include “a
broad spectrum of opinions and expertise,” a WHO spokesperson assures
Investigate Europe.

Many critics of the dominant EMF research bodies and its historical
ties to industry compare the situation with the way tobacco
manufacturers were able to maintain doubt about whether smoking was
dangerous. “I don’t like that comparison, because there, the harmful
effects are clear, whereas with EMF we are still guessing how big or
small the problem is”, says Louis Slesin.

The lesson to be learned from the tobacco issue, he thinks, is to be
careful not to give too much access and influence to industry. “In 2000,
WHO published a major mea culpa report on
how it allowed the tobacco industry to influence its thinking. But then
they repeated that with EMF. They have never given me an answer to
why”, says Slesin.

ICNIRP: Still uncertainty

Most of the research on mobile technology radiation and health has
been done on 2G and 3G technology. In the coming years the super fast 5G
will be rolled out, and it will partly use very much higher frequencies
than what have been used before. The scientific knowledge on what this
can mean for public health is minimal. Individual projections have warned that there is danger that such high frequencies may heat body tissue. ICNIRP says it does not agree.

The ICNIRP head agrees with critics on one issue, though: More research is needed.

“Absolutely. There is still much uncertainty. For example, we know too little about the long-term effects of mobile use for brain cancer to draw conclusions. We absolutely need more information”, says Eric van Rongen.