Mobile "smart" phones, wireless Internet access, Bluetooth and other types of wireless communication devices and technologies are becoming so commonplace that it is getting harder to think of the time when they didn’t exist. Most people living in the European Union (EU) use some form of wireless equipment, and the number and variety of uses continue to grow.
The rapid expansion of these technologies, however, has outpaced research into whether they could pose health risks to the people who use and benefit from them. Millions of people who use wireless devices are exposed to radio waves on a daily basis, and there is lingering concern about potential health effects.
This is where the EU-funded SEAWIND project comes in. SEAWIND (short for “Sound Exposure and Risk Assessment of Wireless Network Devices”), is working to broaden the scientific understanding of the potential adverse health risks of radio waves associated with the ubiquitous presence of wireless devices.
Comprised of universities, private companies and research institutes from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece and Switzerland, the SEAWIND team is pursuing a series of significant research avenues: measuring the public exposure to wireless network devices; determining the fields induced in the various tissues of the body; examining the potential effects on cells; and providing guidance for objective communications of the exposure- related safety and risks.
“The timing of SEAWIND’s work is critical,” explains SEAWIND coordinator Niels Kuster of the Foundation for Research on Information Technologies in Society in Zurich.
“The usage and application of wireless communication will continue to grow,” Kuster says. “However, government and the industry largely stopped funding research in 2008 as public concerns were decreasing when the research programs on potential adverse health effects of the second generation mobile technology (GSM) were completed. So, only a few projects have been performed in relation to the third generation of mobile and wireless network technologies. SEAWIND is one of the largest of these projects,” Kuster adds.
Kuster’s team has measured the exposure to radio waves in typical locations such as homes, offices and schools. Based on these measurements and electromagnetic propagation theory, novel models were developed to predict human exposure. “The validation was conducted in Belgium and Greece, Kuster says, but the results can be applied anywhere in the world.”
These results could be very useful for manufacturers and service providers that need to bring their products and equipment in line with regulations that limit maximum human exposure. “With its advanced evaluation instrumentation and technologies,” Kuster says, “SEAWIND will remove the uncertainty and enable the industry to operate on well-defined grounds.”
To put their findings into practice, SEAWIND’s researchers collaborate with standardisation groups and regulators throughout the world, with an eye on harmonising regulations, and confirming or adjusting safety levels. The project also stands to benefit health agencies, risk assessors, and various organisations interested in minimising the public’s exposure to wireless network devices. The SEAWIND project could lead to new research activities or even new products and spin-off companies.
In light of a 2011 finding by the World Health Organisation and the International Agency for Research on Cancer that linked radio waves to a certain type of brain cancer, Kuster said the best rule for minimising exposure is to increase the space between devices and one’s body by using hands-free kits, using 3rd generation technologies and placing base stations at least one meter from people.
The three-year SEAWIND project, which ran from December 2009 to November 2012, had a total budget of €3.9 million, of which the Commission contributed €3 million.