Radiofrequency identification systems (RFID)

Effects on health

Radiofrequency identification (RFID) technologies aim to identify any broadly defined “object” fitted with an “RFID tag” using data transmission by radio waves, without the need for contact with a “reader”. The use of radio frequencies for the identification of tags enables blind communication, at varying distances, and sometimes with hundreds of objects almost simultaneously. In 2009, the Agency assessed the potential impacts of these technologies on the environment and human health, especially with regard to the electromagnetic fields emitted by these systems, and issued a number of recommendations.

Radiofrequency identification technologies - Radio Frequency IDentification or “RFID” -identify, remotely through the use of radio waves, any object fitted with an RFID tag. This tag can be decrypted by an external reader that collects and transmits the information contained in the tag.

This mode of identification, which does not require any contact between the tags and the reader, can address a variety of needs. RFID technologies are currently flourishing, and have widespread applications. These applications cover areas ranging from remote sensing to everyday transactions (public transport passes, electronic road tolls, packaging barcodes, etc.) and help to improve the traceability of products and goods.

In November 2005, the Natural France Environment (France nature Environnement or FNE) association made a formal request to the Agency to assess the potential impact of RFID technologies on the environment and human health, especially with regard to the electromagnetic fields emitted by these systems.

The Agency was thus asked to produce:

  • a report on the national and international regulatory status of RFID technology;
  • a scientific review of studies on the potential health risks associated with their use;
  • a comprehensive health risk assessment with respect to the general population.

Aspects of the question posed by the FNE association relating to privacy, and not falling within the competence of the Agency, were not addressed in the expert report. A section in the report nevertheless outlines the position of the French Data Protection Authority (Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés or CNIL) on this topic, at the time the report was written.

The work of the Agency

The collective expert appraisal conducted by the Agency focused on:

  • assessing the levels of electromagnetic fields generated by common RFID systems (collection of technical information, measurement campaigns);
  • searching for data on the assessment of environmental impacts;
  • assessing human exposure (in the general and occupational population);
  • referencing potential biological effects identified in the literature;
  • assessing impacts on health.

Risks to the general population, as well as those exposed in the course of their occupational activities, were examined.

To carry out its expert appraisal, the Agency conducted a review of the international literature along with hearings with experts and manufacturers working in the field of RFID, to obtain an overview of the features and uses of RFID, dedicated regulations and standards, and technologies used. The expert appraisal also required the implementation of measurement campaigns aimed at assessing the exposure of the general as well as the occupational population to RFID systems.

The results of the expert appraisal failed to establish the existence of a health risk associated with exposure to the electromagnetic fields emitted by RFID systems. However, it should be noted that occupational exposure may be higher than that of the general population.

Recommendations of the Agency

On this basis, the Agency issued a collective expert appraisal report and an Opinion in January 2009 recommending in particular that:

  • scientific monitoring should be continued on research concerning the biological effects of radiation at specific RFID frequencies, including the physical and technical characteristics of these signals;
  • existing and future regulations require manufacturers, integrators, and businesses using RFID systems to guarantee personal health and safety of the general as well as worker populations, including exposure to electromagnetic fields. It is therefore necessary to meet these requirements through various checks and measures, and to anticipate future provisions to ensure that compliance with regulatory limits be enacted a priori, starting from the design of the devices;
  • the methods for measuring electromagnetic fields emitted by RFID devices mainly refer to full body exposure. RFID systems, especially in the low frequencies, generally induce highly localised exposure. The standardisation of simpler measurement procedures should be enhanced in order to take this specific situation into account, and make it possible for exposure to be assessed by certification laboratories;
  • the “Radiofrequencies and health” Working Group report highlights the significant growth of the RFID technologies sector. RFID tags, which can take many forms currently, in a very large number of media, all contain a metal antenna. Even though these tags can be extremely small in size, the issue arises of sustainable development and thus the recycling of these tags, that are often intended to be destroyed along with their carrier. The marketing of less polluting tags should therefore be promoted.