Telecom tower

5G: more science, same safety

The Australian guidelines for radio wave safety have been updated for the first time in nearly 20 years. The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) released new safety standards for radio waves overnight.

Radio waves – electro-magnetic wavelengths that are longer than infrared light – drive most of our communications technology, including Wi-Fi, 5G, television and radio.

Australians have been exposed to these radio waves for over a century, but the last major update to exposure limits was in 2002. As our use of these technologies has grown, so too the level of our exposure.

Ken Karipidis, an assistant director at ARPANSA, says the new standards have not changed dramatically. The new guidelines reflect both a change in international guidelines and the volume of research done on radio waves since 2002.

“During that time, there’s been more than 8000 new studies on radio waves,” he says.

Changes include additional restrictions on radio wave exposure at higher frequencies, and refinements in exposure limits.

The standards will encompass the ongoing 5G rollout, which has attracted opposition in recent years from community members who believe it poses a risk to human health. There’s no evidence to support this belief.

While much misinformation about 5G abounds, perhaps the least known but most important is that currently, there’s very little difference between it and 4G.

“It’s important to remember that 1G, 2G, 5G, they’re brand names – they’re not quantities,” says Karipidis.

Over the next decade, he says, 5G transmission will start to use higher wave frequencies than 4G, but they will also be subject to ARPANSA’s standards.

“Those radio waves will not penetrate skin.”

Sarah Loughran, principal researcher and EME program manager at ARPANSA, says the opposition is part of a long history of suspicion around radio waves.

“I think it’s fair to say there was hysteria around previous technologies as well,” she says. The difference now? “There are a lot of different avenues for people to express their concerns about this technology.”

While the focus of popular concern is telecommunications towers, distance is key. The main exposure to radio waves for people comes from their personal and household devices: computers, phones and radios. 

At very high volumes, these radio waves could affect human health, mainly by producing heat in the body – similar to the way a microwave heats food. But ARPANSA’s standard for public exposure is 50 times lower than the lowest limit recognised to have health effects.

“It is important to note that the standard is set conservatively,” says Karipidis.

The standard is based on a body of scientific research, encompassing studies on cell cultures, animals, and human populations.

“We don’t ignore any evidence – we do look at all the evidence that’s available,” says Karipidis. “But there are a number of considerations when assessing all of the evidence.” 

These considerations include the size of the study, whether the research can be replicated, and whether the research can identify how the radio waves might be causing the health effect.

There is a second set of standards for workers in radio-wave-using industries. These standards are slightly relaxed compared to the guidelines for the general public. Karipidis says this is because those workers wear protective equipment and are trained in safe exposure to radio waves.

The researchers hope that the new guidelines and easier access to the scientific basis for the regulations will allow more people to feel confident about the safety of the technology.

“People have very deep-seated beliefs, and changing those beliefs is one of the hardest things to do,” says Loughran.

“If we can effectively communicate the conservativeness of the new standard, that’s a good start.”