Mobile and wireless telecommunications are now central to modern life. Whether it’s 4G or Wi-Fi, these wireless technologies enable us to stay in touch with events, access information on the move and work remotely. They also provide the connectivity needed for many industrial and commercial applications.
5G technology raises the prospect of significant social, economic and environmental benefits. However the Scottish Government recognises public concerns relating to the potential health effects of this new technology and more widely about exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs).
This note states the current advice that the Scottish Government has on 5G in relation to public health. However, we continue to monitor developments closely and our advice remains under review.
Telecommunications policy (which includes broadband, mobile communications and other technologies) is reserved to the UK Government under the Scotland Act 1998 and subsequent amendments. Regulation of telecoms is the responsibility of Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator. As with 4G, the deployment of 5G mobile networks are being commercially led and funded.
In the UK, Public Health England (PHE) takes the lead on public health matters associated with radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, or radio waves, used in telecommunications. Central to PHE advice is that exposures to radio waves should comply with the ICNIRP guidelines.
ICNIRP is the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, which is formally recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO). Like the UK Government and other Devolved Administrations, the Scottish Government receives evidence-based advice on this subject from PHE, who have the scientific expertise to assess the available literature on this topic. PHE maintain a continuous review of literature and international standards as they develop.
Research into radio spectrum and health
Radio waves have been transmitted into the environment for many years. They deliver broadcast radio and television signals and support radio communications for the emergency services and others. There are also applications in industry and medicine, where the heating properties of radio waves are used.
Against this longstanding use of radio waves, the health effects of exposure have been researched extensively over several decades. This significant breadth of evidence-based research has been published in leading scientific journals and elsewhere. Since around 2000, coordinated research around the world has addressed concerns about the rapid growth in mobile communications technologies.
In the UK and internationally, independent expert groups have examined the accumulated research evidence. The conclusions of these groups supports the view that there is no convincing evidence that radiofrequency field exposures below international guideline levels cause health effects in either adults or children.
PHE’s primary advice on radio waves from base stations is that the guidelines of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) should be adopted for limiting exposures. The ICNIRP is formally recognised as an official collaborating non-governmental organisation by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO). ICNIRP is also consulted by the European Commission.
Following a review of the available evidence, ICNIRP established guidelines to avoid excessive heating of the body, an established impact of exposure which can have detrimental effects. The ICNIRP guidelines apply to radio frequencies up to 300 gigahertz, which means they cover exposures arising from future 5G technologies. This includes sub-100 gigahertz frequencies within the so-called mmWave (or millimeter wave) spectrum bands, as well as from previous technologies. The bands that will be used for 5G technologies are under 100GHz. Although ICNIRP’s radiofrequency guidelines were published in 1998, they restated these in 2009 following its own updated review of the scientific evidence.
Crucially, ICNIRP concluded that the scientific literature published since the 1998 guidelines provided no evidence of any adverse health effects below the restrictions in the guidelines and did not necessitate an immediate revision of its guidelines.
In tandem, the World Health Organization states that the main conclusion from its own reviews is that EMF exposures below the limits recommended in the ICNIRP international guidelines do not appear to have any known consequence on health.
The Scottish Government understands that the WHO is currently drafting an Environmental Health Criteria (EHC) monograph covering the evidence in relation to radiofrequency exposures and health. This follows earlier EHCs published in 2006 on static fields and in 2007 on low frequency fields.
Crucially, ICNIRP standards have been tested across the UK. Many exposure measurements have been made at publicly accessible locations near to base stations. It is important to note that these measurements have consistently been well within guidelines. The UK’s mobile industry has voluntarily committed to comply with international guidelines and to provide certificates of compliance with planning applications for base stations.
On the basis of sustained evidence-based research from around the world, ICNIRP concludes that exposure to EMF below the recommended threshold is unlikely to be associated with adverse health effects in either adults or children. This view is fully supported by PHE.
However PHE continues to monitor the full breadth of health-related evidence applicable to radio waves, including in relation to base stations, and is committed to updating its advice as required. The advice provided by PHE is fully endorsed by the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland.
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