03/04/2020

5G and Health

The Austrian Parliament presents study shedding light on current knowledge-base

5G mobile radio offers an even faster way of transmitting data on different frequencies. In Austria, the technology is only just in its beginning stages. How should politicians deal with health concerns?

On behalf of the Austrian Parliament, the Institute of Technology Assessment (ITA) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) evaluated 24 statements from 14 recognized scientific bodies. For study author Karen Kastenhofer (ITA), this results in "an exciting mosaic of evidence, gaps in knowledge and controversial assessments. This is where technology assessment comes into play. On the basis of our detailed analysis, it is now a matter of supporting a transparent and prudent process".

The actual risk remains controversial

It is important to bear in mind that the possible consequences of 5G have hardly been researched at present. 5G is not just 5G: the technology is being introduced in several stages, with new applications being developed, new frequency bands being used. For a meaningful health risk assessment it takes data on concrete application scenarios that determine who, how and where will be exposed to which mobile phone radiation.

A common denominator across all expert committees is the assessment that short-term, acute health effects for established mobile communications (i.e. 3G and 4G) can currently be ruled out if one complies with known threshold values. Other questions, however, are discussed in very different ways - the spectrum ranges from cell biological effects to sleep disturbances and cancer: The classification of mobile phone radiation as "possibly carcinogenic" by a recognized international committee (IARC) was made in 2011 and has been controversial ever since.

5G affects us all - let's talk about it!

The question of what we know is at least as important for the socially responsible use of this technology as the awareness of what we do not yet know. It requires prudence and a robust framework.

ITA Director Michael Nentwich says: "We are prepared to closely monitor the 5G roll-out in Austria. An important step was taken by the Parliament with the commissioning of this study. The public discourse should be conducted as openly as possible so that everyone is involved, because one thing is certain: this innovation will affect all of us: the economy, politics, administration and our everyday work and life".

In expert opinions, the ITA has found the following seven options for action to accompany existing limit values:

  1. application of the protection principles of "prudent avoidance", i.e. to aim for the lowest possible exposure
  2. formulation of specific guidelines for the construction of transmitter systems, for the technical design of terminal equipment, or for the design of the basic supply infrastructure
  3. promotion of independent, national and international research of the highest quality to ensure the most reliable results
  4. greater clarity and more specific information on: the technical details of all planned roll-outs; the actually expected areas of application; the technical devices and installations and on the resulting scenarios of exposure to mobile radiation
  5. new ways of providing uncertainty and risk information against the background of uncertainty, contradiction and controversy in professional circles that cannot be resolved definitively.
  6. organisation and moderation of an inter- and transdisciplinary exchange of all actors involved in Austria
  7. evaluation of instruments currently available in Austria for dealing with uncertainty, risk and conflicts of interest in terms of effectiveness, independence and institutional separation

(DR)