How much is safe?

How much is safe?2019-04-03T15:21:15+00:00

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March 14th, 2019

Radiation authorities rely on controversial group for safety advice

Some scientists are sounding the alarm about potential health risks caused by radiation from mobile technology. Completely unfounded, assure most radiation safety authorities. They take advise from a small circle of insiders who reject alarming research – and who set safety limits.

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

Click on one of the circles to find out more about the person or the organisation.

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.

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