The issue of whether electromagnetic field (EMF) emissions are a human health problem is the subject of on-going research and public debate. The EU regularly reviews the scientific research to ensure legislation and recommendations provide a high level of protection and health safety for citizens.
Given growing public concern and concerns on gaps in science, the European Commission held another workshop (web archive) on EMF and health in February 2009. The workshop brought together about 180 researchers, stakeholders and policy-makers from the EU and third countries to discuss uncertainties in science, the measures already in place to protect the public, and the way forward.
The European Commission's strategy is based on recommending safety limits of factor 50. In other words, emissions limits are set at one-fiftieth of the lowest levels at which experiments have shown harmful effects. To implement this strategy, the European Commission makes necessary recommendations to EU Member States on a harmonised set of precautionary measures, reviewing them as scientific knowledge develops.
Electromagnetic field (EMF) emissions are present everywhere in our environment, produced either naturally, such as by thunderstorms, or by human-made sources, such as electrical generation and transmission, domestic appliances, industrial equipment and mobile communications.
EMF emissions can have effects on the human body and there is concern that such effects could be harmful to health. Scientific experiments indicate that exposure at levels present in the environment or in the home that stay below recommended limits are not known to be harmful.
However, public concern has centred on self-reported symptoms of a variety of health problems, including cancer, leukaemia, and a variety of symptoms generally classified as "electromagnetic hypersensitivity".
Mobile phones and base stations
More recently, public anxiety has become focused on whether long-term exposure to the radio frequency EMFs produced by mobile phones and their base stations can lead to long-term health problems, such as cancer.
However, as conference participants stated, the scientific evidence available to date does not suggest that either the use of mobile phones, or proximity to base stations, has any detrimental effect on human health.
Still, long-term studies are needed to fill gaps in the research. Since the mass use of mobile phones is a relatively new phenomenon and cancer has a long incubation period, scientists have not had the data needed for such studies.
This conclusion is part of the regularly updated advice given by the EU's Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) to the European Commission. The independent scientific body's most recent opinion, given on 3 February 2009 and presented to workshop participants, differs little from its earlier opinion of 21 March 2007.
After considering the more than 200 new scientific papers issued since the 2007 opinion, the SCENIHR concluded: "Based on current evidence, the main conclusions remain that radio frequency fields used in wireless communication technologies are unlikely to lead to an increase in cancer in the human population at large. However, further studies are needed to clarify if long-term exposure to mobile phones (well beyond ten years) increases cancer risk for an individual using a mobile phone frequently and to examine the effects on children."
The SCENIHR noted that the European Commission has committed research funds to investigate the link between mobile phones and brain cancer risk in children. The SCENIHR also noted that "new improved studies on the association between radio frequency fields from broadcast transmitters and childhood cancer provide evidence against such an association."
Meanwhile data on the health effects of intermediate frequency fields used, for example, in metal detectors or anti-theft devices in shops, are still lacking. The SCENIHR called for research to be continued.
More research needed, and funding
The updated opinion also confirmed the 2007 opinion that extremely low frequency fields, used in high-voltage power lines might contribute to childhood leukaemia and that two new epidemiological studies indicate a possible link to Alzheimer's disease, all areas for further research.
Importantly, the SCENIHR concluded that there is no scientific basis for revising the current levels of precaution embedded in the EU regulatory framework on EMF.
The EC Treaty empowers the European Commission to "take as a base a high level of protection" in the areas of health, safety, environmental protection and consumer protection in any proposals it makes for legislation to improve the functioning of the internal market.
In particular, the EU's primary product legislation on EMF, the Radio and Telecommunications Terminal Equipment Directive (1999/5/EC) and the Low Voltage Directive (2006/95/EC), requires producers and distributors to put safe products on the market and into service.
Other directives ensure the public are not exposed beyond the agreed safety standards already enshrined in EU legislation, such as those setting a maximum limit on the EMF emissions produced by mobile phones.
EMF emissions below current standards
Current EU standards cover handsets, appliances and masts. For aspects not covered by the LVD or the R&TTE Directive, the EU's General Product Safety Directive (2001/95/EC) applies.
The EU has also recommended safety limits for the protection of workers; these are five times less stringent than those set for the general public.
Handsets sold in the EU operate well below the limits set by current standards. The maximum exposure they produce is, in addition, only achieved in worst-case scenarios (defined as when used at more than 10 km from a base station). So far, only one handset has been found to have breached the standards, and it was voluntarily withdrawn from the market by the manufacturer.
Meanwhile, the regulation and licensing of base or transmission masts is at the discretion of Member States. Some have introduced more stringent limits for masts than is called for by EU recommendations. Studies have shown that the exposure from such masts is a factor 100-1 000 times below recommended maximum levels.
The Council Recommendation asks Member States to adopt a framework of basic restrictions and reference levels and to implement measures in order to provide for a high level of health protection against exposure to electromagnetic fields.
High level of safety and health protection
Current EU regulation and recommendations provides a high level of safety and health protection for our citizens, and compliance with the Directives is high. In general, there is a risk that public concern about EMF will be fed by incoherent public policies, a lack of information and a lack of involvement of the public in decisions made on their behalf. This was a key message from the workshop. In particular, where policy-makers set limits more strictly than is called for by scientific evidence, citizens find reason to doubt the science.
The EU will continue with its policy of reviewing the scientific research every two years to ensure legislation and recommendations continue to provide the necessary level of protection to consumers.
The workshop concluded by calling for more focus on transparency, building trust and informed policy-making, when decision-makers set policy on EMF and completion of the gaps in science.