Radio waves flood our lives but new study confirms no need for concern

In a world increasingly awash with radio frequency technology and electromagnetic radio waves it may come as a surprise to learn that there have been relatively few long-term studies to discover if it is accumulating, and impacting on human health.

Society is adopting ever evolving broadcast and mobile telecommunication technologies worldwide, and Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields (RF-EMF) exposures associated with these technologies are increasing.

Traditional FM and AM radios have progressed into DAB (digital audio broadcasting) and internet radio technologies. Television broadcasting changed from analogue to digital. Mobile telecommunication technology continues to evolve from the first-generation mobile (1G) to more recent 5th generation (5G) services.

And yet exposure to sufficiently high levels of RF-EMF can heat biological tissue and potentially cause tissue damage.

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) is responsible for monitoring RF-EMF, and have now produced a new study conducted in Melbourne in Victoria, which found “levels routinely encountered in the environment by the public, as demonstrated in our study, are too low to produce any significant heating or increases in body temperature.”

ARPANSA’s electromagnetic radiation exposure assessment assistant director and study co-author, Dr Stuart Henderson, told Cosmos: “The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection’s RF-EMF exposure guidelines specify that adverse health effects have not been demonstrated below 20 watts per kilogram (20 W/kg) of human tissue.

“ICNIRP’s guidelines have formed the basis for why Australia, and many other countries, have established safety limits well below those levels to ensure that people and the environment are protected from radiation. Australia’s safety limit for exposure when you’re holding a phone in your hand or pocket is 4 W/kg and 2 W/kg when the phone is placed against the head.“

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There are some industries where exposure to RF is higher, says Henderson. “Occupational exposure limits are set higher than public exposure limits and apply to individuals who are exposed to elevated levels of RF EMF in the course of their work.

“Workers in telecommunications, industry, medicine and navigational roles have the potential to be exposed to higher RF-EMF levels. For occupational exposure, the safety standard sets requirements for risk assessment and management, training and supervision. There is no substantiated scientific evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to RF-EMF below the occupational limits.

ARPANSA says it is essential that ongoing monitoring of RF-EMF exposures should be conducted to ensure that the public exposure to various RF-EMF sources remains below national safety limits.

Monitoring of personal RF-EMF exposures has been conducted internationally and results have consistently shown that human RF-EMF exposures remains well below the ICNIRP’s (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection) public exposure limits.

The problem with mobile phones is not radio waves

But the ARPANSA team undertook what it describes in a paper in Environmental Research as “  micro-environmental personal RF-EMF exposure assessment”  to evaluate an individual RF-EMF exposure across various human public environments.

ARPANSA science officer and lead author, Dr Chhavi Bhatt, says the study was the first of its kind in Australia.

”We placed a radio wave dosimeter in a bag which we wore around our waist to collect radio wave exposure measurements as we walked around the city,” Dr Bhatt says.

The program conducted personal RF-EMF exposure assessments across 81 public micro-environments in Melbourne during 2022. Of these micro-environments, 18 were also evaluated in 2015-16.

It used notes and maps created at the time of the original measurements as a guide for pre-defined walking paths and directions for measurements.

The researchers visited the same streets, streets, shopping centres, train stations, public transport, residential indoor and residential outdoor areas.

Measurements were continuously collected at every 4 seconds over 15 to 30 minutes.

All measurements were undertaken on weekdays between 9am and 6pm. The researcher conducting the RF-EMF measurements did not use any personal RF-EMF-emitting devices, had their personal mobile phone turned to ‘aeroplane mode’ and ensured Wi-Fi and Bluetooth were disabled during the data collection.

Despite all the new technology, the total median exposure levels did not significantly change, going from 0.19% of the limit 8 years ago to 0.24% of the limit in 2022.

Henderson says there were some increases in the upper extreme exposures (99th percentile) at many of the measurement locations, but the measured values were still well below the permitted limits.

“RF-EMF exposure measured from different sources at follow-up remained well below Australia’s public reference levels and hence pose no health risk,” Henderson says.

“We receive some calls through our ‘Talk to a Scientist’ service from people who are concerned about radio wave exposure. … This study shows the community that even with more devices, transferring more data, exposures have not changed much over time,” Henderson says.

While this study was conducted in Melbourne, ARPANSA expects the results to be similar in other major Australian capital cities.”

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