Health effects of wireless communication technologies and other radiofrequency wave applications
Updated on 16/04/2018
Radiofrequencies, Mobile telephones, Electromagnetic fields, Electromagnetic waves, Relay antennas, Electrohypersensitivity
Radiofrequency technologies and related applications have developed considerably over the past twenty years. These new technologies are likely to increase radiofrequency exposure of the general population and of users, and give rise to a wide range of questions concerning use, measurement, biological and clinical effects, epidemiology and regulations, etc. as well as a variety of concerns, mainly regarding their possible impact on health. In this context, radiofrequency waves are a major topic of interest for the Agency. To respond to the questions raised concerning use of this technology, ANSES has undertaken several expert appraisals in the area of health effects related to radiofrequency energy.
Radiofrequency technologies and related applications that use electromagnetic fields in the 10 kHz to 300 GHz frequency range have developed considerably over the past twenty years, with the advent of new functionalities for mobile telecommunications, the rise in Bluetooth standards, Wi-Fi, new-generation mobile telephones, etc.
These new technologies could increase radiofrequency exposure of the general population (via new fixed transmitters), and exposure of users (via new mobile equipment or because of the new ways in which this equipment is used). On the one hand, these new products are highly appreciated by the public, and on the other hand they elicit mistrust, due in particular to the electromagnetic waves they use to function. This mistrust is heightened when the exposure is imposed, as is the case with relay antennas. In this context, radiofrequency waves are a major topic of interest for the Agency.
To respond to the questions raised by use of radiofrequency technology, ANSES has carried out several expert appraisals in the area of its potential health effects, and published opinions and collective expert appraisal reports in 2003 and 2005 on mobile telecommunications, and in 2009, 2013 and 2016 on all technologies using radiofrequencies.
In 2011 ANSES created a working group on radiofrequencies and health whose expert assessment activities rely on its close ties with research partners (recommendations for the call for research projects on radiofrequencies), and with other stakeholders (reporting of results to the dialogue committee on radiofrequencies and health).
This working group regularly updates expert appraisals on the potential risks associated with radiofrequencies, in conjunction with the Expert Committee on "Physical agents". In this context and following an internal request issued by the Agency, the results of an expert appraisal were published in 2013 on the updating of the Opinion of 2009 on radiofrequencies and health. Subsequently, in July 2016, in response to a formal request from its supervisory ministries, the Agency published the results of an expert appraisal on the impact of radiofrequency waves on children.
Along with this working group, the dialogue committee on radiofrequencies and health, established in 2011, serves as an interface between the representatives of associations, industry and labour unions, while respecting the roles of all those involved. In this way, the questions raised by civil society can be integrated into expert appraisal activities and results can be communicated to the committee. The participation of the committee in setting up the specifications for certain studies is also an innovative approach to dialogue between scientific experts and the public.
With regard to research, since 2011 the Agency has dedicated funding to this topic within the framework of the National Research Programme for Environmental and Occupational Health (PNR EST) for which it is coordinator. Since 2013, the topic of "Radiofrequencies and health" has been the subject of a specific call for projects, in order to better take into account the specific characteristics of this field. The goal of the PNR EST is to bring research and expert assessment closer together, as well as to expand the research community with regard to the "Radiofrequencies and health" topic. Since 2011 therefore, 45 dossiers have been selected involving 133 research teams, including 67 dedicated teams, and receiving €9.1M of funding. The scientific topics dealt with mainly involve the characterisation of exposures, the study of effects and hypersensitivity. The initial results of these projects were presented at the Scientific Conferences event in May 2017.
Chronology of work conducted by the Agency
In 2002, the Agency received an initial request from the French Ministries of Health and the Environment on the subject of mobile telephone technology. The objective was to review scientific knowledge based on international publications concerning the possible health risks related to mobile telecommunications and mobile telephone base station equipment. The opinion of the Agency issued in 2003 stated that it was important to differentiate between base station relay antennas and mobile telephones with regard to risk assessment and management.
A second formal request received in 2004 led the Agency to publish a new report on the subject in 2005, specifically taking into account the new technologies developed since the first review. The Agency was asked to evaluate the health risk consequences that could be drawn from data published in a Dutch study carried out by the TNO institute on the relay antennas of universal mobile telephone systems (UMTS) (3G).
In this report, the experts provided new insight into the technologies being deployed at that time such as UMTS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, etc. and those in development such as 4th generation (4G) systems. On the basis of this report, the Agency issued an opinion in June 2005.
The Agency then issued a new opinion in 2009 in answer to the formal request from the Ministries of Health and the Environment in August 2007, asking for an update on the ANSES opinion on the biological and health effects of mobile telecommunications technology and its extension to the entire area of radiofrequencies. It was considered very important to identify the specific concerns of civil society, and thus to contribute to public debate on this subject.
This collective expert appraisal had the following unique features:
All radiofrequencies were taken into account, in addition to those related to mobile telecommunications;
The assessment also dealt with the question of electromagnetic hypersensitivity;
The working group was comprised of experts from various disciplines, and specifically included experts in the human and social sciences;
One of the members of the group was an observer from civil society.
In keeping with all this, ANSES issued an internal request on the topic on 14 June 2011 and set up a comprehensive expert appraisal scheme in order to pursue both scientific monitoring work on these technologies and risk assessment. This internal request led to the publication in October 2013 of the “Radiofrequencies and health” expert assessment.
Recommendations of the Agency
All of the potential health effects of radiofrequency waves, both carcinogenic and otherwise, were studied and their levels of proof classified using a method based on that used by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO).
The conclusions of the risk assessment published in 2013 do not show any proven health effects. Certain publications do however show a possible increase in the long-term risk of brain tumours for intensive users of mobile telephones. The conclusions of the risk assessment therefore coincide with the suggested classification of radiofrequency waves by the IARC as a "possible carcinogen" for intensive users of mobile phones. The assessment also highlighted, with limited levels of proof, various biological effects in humans and in animals, some of which had already been reported in 2009, concerning sleep, male animal fertility and cognitive performance. Indeed, biological effects corresponding to generally reversible alterations in internal bodily function were observed, as in the case of exposure to various everyday stimuli. However, the Agency's experts were not able to establish a causal link between the biological effects described in cell models, animals or humans and any possible resulting health effects. Because of this, it would appear unfounded to propose new exposure limit values for the general public with regard to health.
However, the Agency emphasises that risk assessment cannot be made on the different potential effects without data for humans or animals, and that the potential impact of the communication technology implemented (2G, 3G, 4G) appears to be insufficiently documented. The Agency also emphasises the massive development of radiofrequency wave use in outdoor and indoor environments, leading to an increase in population exposure.
In addition, while recent studies conducted nationally have revealed low overall exposure levels as compared to the exposure limits currently set for the geographical areas under investigation, they also demonstrate that the exposure areas have expanded greatly. These areas could be reduced through technological means. In this context, while mobile phones are the main source of exposure for users, environmental exposure of the general population and its variations over time need to be better documented.
Therefore, to limit exposure to radiofrequency waves, especially by the most vulnerable population groups, the Agency recommends:
that in “talk” mode, adult intensive users of mobile telephones use hands-free accessories more systematically, and more generally that all users choose telephones with the lowest SAR values;
reducing exposure in children by encouraging moderate mobile telephone use;
continuing to improve exposure characterisation of the public in outdoor and indoor environments through the implementation of measurements campaigns;
that studies be conducted prior to the development of new mobile telephone network infrastructures in order to characterise exposure, and that the consequences of the installation of additional relay antennas in order to reduce environmental exposure levels be examined in depth;
documenting the existing installation set-ups that cause the highest exposure in the public and studying to what extent this exposure could be reduced by technical means.
that maximum exposure levels (the SAR, for example) be displayed on all common devices emitting electromagnetic fields designed to be used close to the body (DECT telephones, touch-screen tablets, baby monitors, etc.), as is already the case for mobile phones.
The Agency has also issued a series of research recommendations in order to dispel the uncertainties that were identified during this work, and in addition to the research projects already under way in the framework of the National Research Programme for Environmental and Occupational Health.
The full recommendations are available in our opinion here (pdf) (French only)
Specific absorption rate
Hypersensitivity to electromagnetic waves: a specific expert appraisal
Despite the measures taken to regulate and monitor the levels of exposure to electromagnetic fields, for several decades the scientific literature has regularly reported cases of people suffering from various disorders attributed to exposure to fields emitted by household appliances, electrical facilities and communicating devices.
In this context, the Agency wished to pay due attention to the issue of electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), by devoting a specific in-depth expert appraisal to this subject. This expert appraisal, whose results were published in March 2018, was based on an analysis of the scientific literature and on numerous hearings (with hospital and general practitioners, researchers, associations and the people concerned). It was also supplemented with data from more than 500 additional comments from scientists and stakeholders, in the framework of the open public consultation that ran from 27 July to 15 October 2016, based on a preliminary expert appraisal report.
The expert appraisal revealed the great complexity of the issue of EHS, while concluding that the current state of knowledge meant that it was not possible to establish any cause and effect relationship between exposure to electromagnetic fields and the symptoms described by the people declaring themselves as electrohypersensitive. The Agency also emphasised that the suffering and pain expressed by the people declaring themselves as electrohypersensitive is a reality of life, requiring them to adapt their daily lives to cope with it.
In this context, the Agency recommended providing suitable care for the people concerned, developing training for health professionals on the issue of electrohypersensitivity and training for social service professionals in supporting and counselling people declaring themselves as electrohypersensitive, as well as in taking their questions and expectations into account in their practices. It recommends fostering greater coordination between the players involved in their care.
The Agency also recommended pursuing research work, in particular by setting up studies whose experimental conditions take into account the circumstances of people declaring themselves as electrohypersensitive.
Exposure of children to radiofrequencies
Following a request by the Ministries of Health, Ecology and Consumer Affairs, ANSES conducted an expert assessment on the specific impact of radiofrequency waves on children. The conclusions of this assessment were published in July 2016.
In its conclusions, the Agency emphasises that children can be more exposed than adults because of their morphological and anatomical features, in particular their small size, as well as the characteristics of some of their tissues. It is issuing a series of recommendations aimed at adapting the regulatory limit values in order to reduce the exposure of children to electromagnetic fields, which starts from a very early age due to the expansion of the use of new technologies. In this context, ANSES recommends moderate and supervised use of wireless communication technologies by children.
Specifically concerning mobile telephones, ANSES reiterates the recommendation it had already formulated, calling for a reduction in exposure of children, by advocating moderate use and favouring the use of hands-free kits.
Lastly, the expert appraisal identified several studies highlighting an association between intensive and inadequate use of mobile telephones by young people and mental health problems (risk behaviour, depression, suicidal thoughts, etc.). However, it was not possible to use these studies to explore the causality of the observed associations.
ANSES recommends that additional studies assess the health and psychosocial impact (school learning, social and family relationships, etc.) in children associated with the use of mobile communication technologies, especially because of addictive phenomena, circadian rhythm disorders, etc. Pending these results, the Agency recommends that parents encourage their children to adopt reasonable use of mobile telephones, avoiding night-time communications and limiting the frequency and duration of calls.
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