5G network and radiation safety

Mobile phone operators are marketing faster, wireless next-generation telecommunications over the 5G network for consumers and businesses. The new technology has sparked discussion about radiation safety.

Radiation legislation specifies limit values for exposure in order to ensure the radiation safety of mobile networks. The values are based on advanced scientific data and cover all the current frequencies as well as the new 5G network frequencies to be adopted in the future. The limit values protect us from the health effects of both short- and long-term exposure. Therefore, there is no need to be concerned about radiation exposure caused by the 5G network.

Authorities responsible for setting limit values, operators responsible for following them

The Decree of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (1045/2018) stipulates the limit values and the action levels for the general public exposure to electromagnetic fields. The values and levels are in compliance with the Recommendation of the Council of the European Union (1999/519/EC), valid in most European countries. Great caution was exercised in determining the limit values. The heating of tissue is the only scientifically verified effect of radiofrequency radiation, and there is a large safety margin between the maximum exposure allowed by the limit values and any potentially harmful heating of tissue.  

Mobile phone operators are responsible for complying with the limit values.  Among other things, the operators must assess the population’s exposure to radiofrequency radiation before putting a new base station in service.  The exposure must not exceed the limit values in any location freely accessible to members of the general public.

The Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Finland (STUK) actively monitors the activities of operators and, for example, the implementation of the 5G network. STUK also intervenes in base station assembly if there is reason to suspect that members of the general public are at risk of exposure to radiation exceeding the limit values.

The limit values are based on advanced scientific data

STUK ensures that the limit values are up to date and monitors the development of relevant research. STUK bases its views on literature surveys concerning the health effects of radiofrequency radiation, published by independent, international groups of experts (e.g. WHO, SCENIHR/SCHEER, ICNIRP). STUK also follows research articles published in international scientific journals regarding the topic to obtain the latest information.

International groups of experts contain comprehensive and multidisciplinary competence required to evaluate the health effects of radiofrequency radiation. Such groups review thousands of studies for their literature surveys and use predetermined quality criteria to assess the studies.

In some studies, various biological effects have been observed in cell cultures, for example, but evidence of health effects other than those based on the heating of tissue has not been established. According to the surveys, the limit values for exposure in Finland are up to date.

5G technology

Even though the use of 5G is safe in the format under development in Finland, the technology is new and, as such, must be studied further.

At first, the upcoming 5G network will only operatein the frequency band of 3.5 gigahertz (GHz). In terms of exposure, this frequency does not significantly differ from the frequencies used by the previous generations (2G, 3G, 4G); in other words, previous research on the health effects of radiation from mobile communication technology can also be used when assessing the safety of 5G. At the moment, the 3.5 GHz network is already in commercial use at the centres of major cities.

Next, the 5G network will start using a frequency band of about 26 GHz or the so-called millimetre waves. Later, the network will adopt a frequency band lower than 1 GHz to serve the residents of sparsely populated areas and the users of the Internet of Things (IoT). Overall, the frequency bands of 5G are not new; they have previously been used for security scanners at airports, speed control radars and point-to-point microwave links.

The base stations of the 5G network will not significantly increase human exposure to radiofrequency radiation.  The transmit powers of 5G base stations are similar to those used in previous mobile communication technologies. There is also no reason to suspect, on the basis of current knowledge, that the millimetre waves to be implemented later would have harmful health effects at exposures below the limit values. For example, the waves travel through tissue quite weakly and do not penetrate the skin or eyes beyond the superficial layers.

In terms of technical implementation, the base stations of the 5G network differ from previous technologies. The base stations of earlier technologies radiate in a specific sector direction, whereas a 5G base station can target a narrow radiation beam at one or more users simultaneously. The exposure caused by a 5G base station will mainly be targeted at the locations of the network users. In practice, the exposure caused by a 5G base station will be occasional as the large data transfer rate means that the beam will only be targeted at the user very briefly. Even though 5G enables higher data transfer rates, this does not mean that the exposure is higher than with previous technologies.

In the millimetre wave area, the coverage of the base stations will be small; about 100 metres. Such high radio frequencies travel poorly and cannot penetrate walls, for example. Small-coverage base stations will use low transmit power, which means that any exposure to radiofrequency radiation caused by them will be minor. A tight network of base stations ensures that 5G devices can also operate with small transmit power.