EU Institutions

Stakeholder Dialogue Group on EMF:
Workshop on Risk Communication – Electromagnetic Fields and Human Health

On 20 February 2013, the European Commission held a workshop in Brussels on EMF “risk communication about electromagnetic fields“.


“Workshop on Risk Communication – Electromagnetic Fields and Human Health”,
Brussels, 20 February 2013
Venue: Auditorium, Centre de Conférences Albert Borschette (CCAB), Room 4A
36 Rue Froissart, B-1040 Brussels
Welcome and introduction by the Commission
The science on EMF and human health (Mats-Olof Mattsson, SCENIHR)
Risk Communication on EMF and human health (Peter Wiedemann)
Survey on the activities in EU countries (Gregor Dürrenberger)
The EFHRAN Project (Paolo Ravazzani)
Exchange of best practices in risk communication,
– Level of public concern
– Exposure limits
– Communication needs and strategies
– The role of non-governmental organizations and the industry
The Precautionary principle under EU law (Eileen O’Connor)
Two opposite science interpretations on long-term risks (Alex Swinkels)
The need to improve risk communication & risk perception (Dr. Isaac Jamieson)
Brief presentations from Member States covering,
– New regulatory developments at national level
– New implementation measures
– National approach to the management of the EMF issue
Perspectives & Initiatives England – Health Protection Agency (Simon Mann)
The Bulgerian approach of risk perception, communication and management – NCPHA, Ministry of Health (M. Israel)
The Utilities Threshold Initiative Consortium – EDF-RTE, Hydro Quebec, EPRI, National Grid, ENA and LHRI (Jacques Lambrozo)
National approach for radio frequencies management France – Ministère de l’Écologie (Maela Corolleur)
The Knowledge Platform EMF in the Netherlands – Knowledge Platform EMF (Mathieu Pruppers)
Risk communication strategies France – Direction générale de la Santé (Alice Kopel)
Risk Communication on Electromagnetic Fields in Finland – Radiation and nuclear safety authority (Riikka Pastila)
Truth to the risk assessment of mobile communications for public health Russia (Yury Grigoriev)

1. Regarding the protection of the general public from potential effects of EMF, the EU Treaties give the primary responsibility to the Member States and do not confer the Commission competence to legislate. The Council Recommendation on EMF exposure limits (1999/519/EC) was adopted to propose a common protective framework to guide the action of Member States in the hope to bring coherence among the various national approaches. Following the subsidiarity principle (apart from workers’ protection), the role of the EU institutions is limited to provision of independent scientific advice (SCENIHR’s work) and to coordination and harmonization of the Member States policies as well as promotion of the best practices.2. Regarding the risk communication approaches presented at the Workshop, it is apparent that there is a need for interaction between different jurisdictions. This should increase the clarity and the effectiveness of the message for the general public. Therefore, the participants of the Workshop expressed their interest in continuing the Dialogue in its current configuration (stakeholders and member states representatives) on the same, risk-communication theme.


The potential dangers of electromagnetic fields and their effect on the environment

Resolution 1815 27/05/2011

1. The Parliamentary Assembly has repeatedly stressed the importance of states’ commitment to preserving the environment and environmental health, as set out in many charters, conventions, declarations and protocols since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and the Stockholm Declaration (Stockholm, 1972). The Assembly refers to its past work in this field, namely Recommendation 1863 (2009) on environment and health, Recommendation 1947 (2010) on noise and light pollution, and more generally, Recommendation 1885 (2009) on drafting an additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights concerning the right to a healthy environment and Recommendation 1430 (1999) on access to information, public participation in environmental decision-making and access to justice – implementation of the Aarhus Convention.

2. The potential health effects of the very low frequency of electromagnetic fields surrounding power lines and electrical devices are the subject of ongoing research and a significant amount of public debate. According to the World Health Organisation, electromagnetic fields of all frequencies represent one of the most common and fastest growing environmental influences, about which anxiety and speculation are spreading. All populations are now exposed to varying degrees of to electromagnetic fields, the levels of which will continue to increase as technology advances.

3. Mobile telephony has become commonplace around the world. This wireless technology relies upon an extensive network of fixed antennas, or base stations, relaying information with radio frequency signals. Over 1.4 million base stations exist worldwide and the number is increasing significantly with the introduction of third generation technology. Other wireless networks that allow high-speed internet access and services, such as wireless local area networks, are also increasingly common in homes, offices and many public areas (airports, schools, residential and urban areas). As the number of base stations and local wireless networks increases, so does the radio frequency exposure of the population.

4. While electrical and electromagnetic fields in certain frequency bands have wholly beneficial effects which are applied in medicine, other non-ionising frequencies, be they sourced from extremely low frequencies, power lines or certain high frequency waves used in the fields of radar, telecommunications and mobile telephony, appear to have more or less potentially harmful, non-thermal, biological effects on plants, insects and animals as well as the human body even when exposed to levels that are below the official threshold values.

5. As regards standards or threshold values for emissions of electromagnetic fields of all types and frequencies, the Assembly recommends that the ALARA or “as low as reasonably achievable” principle is applied, covering both the so-called thermal effects and the athermic or biological effects of electromagnetic emissions or radiation. Moreover, the precautionary principle should be applicable when scientific evaluation does not allow the risk to be determined with sufficient certainty, especially given the context of growing exposure of the population, including particularly vulnerable groups such as young people and children, which could lead to extremely high human and economic costs of inaction if early warnings are neglected.

6. The Assembly regrets that, despite calls for the respect of the precautionary principle and despite all the recommendations, declarations and a number of statutory and legislative advances, there is still a lack of reaction to known or emerging environmental and health risks and virtually systematic delays in adopting and implementing effective preventive measures. Waiting for high levels of scientific and clinical proof before taking action to prevent well-known risks can lead to very high health and economic costs, as was the case with asbestos, leaded petrol and tobacco.

7. Moreover, the Assembly notes that the problem of electromagnetic fields or waves and the potential consequences for the environment and health has clear parallels with other current issues, such as the licensing of medication, chemicals, pesticides, heavy metals or genetically modified organisms. It therefore highlights that the issue of independence and credibility of scientific expertise is crucial to accomplish a transparent and balanced assessment of potential negative impacts on the environment and human health.

8. In light of the above considerations, the Assembly recommends that the member states of the Council of Europe:

8.1. in general terms:

8.1.1. take all reasonable measures to reduce exposure to electromagnetic fields, especially to radio frequencies from mobile phones, and particularly the exposure to children and young people who seem to be most at risk from head tumours;

8.1.2. reconsider the scientific basis for the present electromagnetic fields exposure standards set by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection, which have serious limitations and apply “as low as reasonably achievable” (ALARA) principles, covering both thermal effects and the athermic or biological effects of electromagnetic emissions or radiation;

8.1.3. put in place information and awareness-raising campaigns on the risks of potentially harmful long-term biological effects on the environment and on human health, especially targeting children, teenagers and young people of reproductive age;

8.1.4. pay particular attention to “electrosensitive” persons suffering from a syndrome of intolerance to electromagnetic fields and introduce special measures to protect them, including the creation of wave-free areas not covered by the wireless network;

8.1.5. in order to reduce costs, save energy, and protect the environment and human health, step up research on new types of antennas and mobile phone and DECT-type devices, and encourage research to develop telecommunication based on other technologies which are just as efficient but have less negative effects on the environment and health;

8.2. concerning the private use of mobile phones, DECT phones, WiFi, WLAN and WIMAX for computers and other wireless devices such as baby phones:

8.2.1. set preventive thresholds for levels of long-term exposure to microwaves in all indoor areas, in accordance with the precautionary principle, not exceeding 0.6 volts per metre, and in the medium term to reduce it to 0.2 volts per metre;

8.2.2. undertake appropriate risk-assessment procedures for all new types of device prior to licensing;

8.2.3. introduce clear labelling indicating the presence of microwaves or electromagnetic fields, the transmitting power or the specific absorption rate (SAR) of the device and any health risks connected with its use;

8.2.4. raise awareness on potential health risks of DECT-type wireless telephones, baby monitors and other domestic appliances which emit continuous pulse waves, if all electrical equipment is left permanently on standby, and recommend the use of wired, fixed telephones at home or, failing that, models which do not permanently emit pulse waves;

8.3. concerning the protection of children:

8.3.1. develop within different ministries (education, environment and health) targeted information campaigns aimed at teachers, parents and children to alert them to the specific risks of early, ill-considered and prolonged use of mobiles and other devices emitting microwaves;

8.3.2. for children in general, and particularly in schools and classrooms, give preference to wired Internet connections, and strictly regulate the use of mobile phones by schoolchildren on school premises;

8.4. concerning the planning of electric power lines and relay antenna base stations:

8.4.1. introduce town planning measures to keep high-voltage power lines and other electric installations at a safe distance from dwellings;

8.4.2. apply strict safety standards for sound electric systems in new dwellings;

8.4.3. reduce threshold values for relay antennas in accordance with the ALARA principle and install systems for comprehensive and continuous monitoring of all antennas;

8.4.4. determine the sites of any new GSM, UMTS, WiFi or WIMAX antennas not solely according to the operators’ interests but in consultation with local and regional government officials, local residents and associations of concerned citizens;

8.5. concerning risk assessment and precautions:

8.5.1. make risk assessment more prevention oriented;

8.5.2. improve risk-assessment standards and quality by creating a standard risk scale, making the indication of the risk level mandatory, commissioning several risk hypotheses and considering compatibility with real life conditions;

8.5.3. pay heed to and protect “early warning” scientists;

8.5.4. formulate a human rights oriented definition of the precautionary and ALARA principles;

8.5.5. increase public funding of independent research, inter alia through grants from industry and taxation of products which are the subject of public research studies to evaluate health risks;

8.5.6. create independent commissions for the allocation of public funds;

8.5.7. make the transparency of lobby groups mandatory;

8.5.8. promote pluralist and contradictory debates between all stakeholders, including civil society (Aarhus Convention).

1 Text adopted by the Standing Committee, acting on behalf of the Assembly, on 27 May 2011 (see Doc. 12608, report of the Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs, rapporteur: Mr Huss).

Doc. 12608 6 May 2011


The potential health effects of the very low frequency of electromagnetic fields surrounding power lines and electrical devices are the subject of ongoing research and a significant amount of public debate. While electrical and electromagnetic fields in certain frequency bands have fully beneficial effects which are applied in medicine, other non-ionising frequencies, be they sourced from extremely low frequencies, power lines or certain high frequency waves used in the fields of radar, telecommunications and mobile telephony, appear to have more or less potentially harmful, non-thermal, biological effects on plants, insects and animals, as well as the human body when exposed to levels that are below the official threshold values.One must respect the precautionary principle and revise the current threshold values; waiting for high levels of scientific and clinical proof can lead to very high health and economic costs, as was the case in the past with asbestos, leaded petrol and tobacco.

1. Introduction

1. Electromagnetic fields, whether emitted by high-voltage lines, domestic appliances, relay antennas, mobile telephones or other microwave devices, are increasingly present in our techno-industrial environment.

2. Obviously, in evolutionary terms, living or working in artificial electromagnetic extremely low frequency and high frequency fields, on top of the electromagnetic fields naturally occurring in the environment, is still a relatively new experience for human beings, fauna and flora. It goes back no further than fifty years or so, when intensive industrial and domestic exposure began with radars, radio waves and televisions and electromagnetic fields generated by high-voltage lines and household electrical appliances.

3. It was only from the 1990s onwards that the new telephony and wireless mobile communication technologies began to boom ever faster Europe-wide and even worldwide thanks to increasingly diverse and sophisticated applications: mobile telephones, cordless telephones, WiFi, WLAN (wireless local area network), etc.

4. The term “electromagnetic fields” covers all the fields emitted by natural and man-made sources. A distinction is drawn between static fields and alternating fields. In the latter case there is essentially a differentiation between extremely low frequency (ELF) fields, such as domestic electricity, and hyper-frequency (HF) fields, which include mobile telephones. Electrical fields are measured in volts per metre (v/m), whereas magnetic fields are measured in terms of current-induced exposure in microteslas (µt). Since very weak electrical currents are part of human physiology, at the level of communication between cells for example, the question of the possible disruptive effects of present levels of artificial exposure on the human environment and any consequences they might have for health may legitimately be raised.

5. It should be noted with satisfaction that a major contribution was made by the technological innovations resulting from electrification and new radio-telecommunication techniques to economic growth and the material well-being of the populations of industrialised countries. Domestic appliances, for example, have greatly helped to lighten the load from everyday chores in millions of households and played a not inconsiderable role in the women’s liberation movement.

2. Background to the debate

6. Nevertheless, it must be said that, since some of these new technologies were first introduced, environmental or health problems have emerged and become a topic of discussion in certain countries, both in scientific circles and in the field of health and occupational medicine. From the 1930s onwards, radar waves were linked to certain “microwave syndromes” among operators and technicians subjected to intensive and prolonged exposure. The former USSR and Eastern bloc countries adopted very low preventive thresholds aimed at protecting operators’ health.

7. In the United States and western Europe, discussion of potential harm to health resulting from electromagnetic fields focused, in the 1970s and 1980s, essentially on the problem of high- or very high-voltage lines and protection in the workplace (for those working on computers, in electrically powered steelworks, etc). As far as the risks from high-voltage lines are concerned, an American epidemiological study (Wertheimer and Leeper, 1979) demonstrated a link between the proximity of high-voltage lines and child leukaemia, corroborated in 2001 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which classified these fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (category 2B). At the same time, from the early 1980s onwards, another issue relating to electromagnetic fields and chemical pollution was raised at international conferences: discomforts due to office computer screens, health effects in the form of headaches, fatigue and eye and skin problems. Regarding the electromagnetic aspect of those effects, stringent preventive standards (TCO standards) were proposed at the beginning of the 1990s by the Swedish Confederation of Employees and then widely adopted.

8. The 1990s saw a boom in mobile telephony and its rapid expansion, first in the industrialised countries and then increasingly in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

9. Mobile telephony and ever more sophisticated wireless telecommunication applications have not only been taken on board in professional spheres but have also quite literally invaded our private life. This affects even very young children, at home, at school, on transport, etc.

3. Growing concerns in Europe

10. However, for a good ten years or so, Europe’s populations have begun to show increasing concern over the potential health risks of mobile telephony, with reliable information on these questions in short supply. In a recent Eurobarometer study (European Commission), 48% of Europeans stated that they were concerned or very concerned over the potential health risks posed by mobile telephony. The presumption of risk was noted among 76% of Europeans concerning relay antennas and 73% concerning the potential effects of mobile telephones respectively.

11. Such concerns over electromagnetic fields or waves have triggered the emergence and growth of a multitude of citizens’ initiatives in many countries. These initiatives are mostly directed against the installation of relay antenna stations, above all close to schools, nurseries, hospitals or other institutions caring for children or vulnerable individuals, and also increasingly challenge other aspects of wireless telecommunication such as WiFi in schools for example.

12. The Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs organised two hearings with experts on 17 September 2010 and 25 February 2011.

13. At the first hearing of experts, Mr Ralph Baden of the Occupational Medicine Department of the Ministry of Health of the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg spoke generally about the issue of very low frequency and high frequency electromagnetic fields and waves and the respective applicable threshold values. He listed the different sources of those electromagnetic fields outside dwellings: relay antennas, high-voltage lines, radio stations, television, radars, etc, but laid special emphasis on the results of measurement readings, on sources of such fields in homes or public buildings and provided concrete examples of simple and practical means of reducing exposure to these “indoor” fields and eliminating certain health problems, such as headaches, insomnia, coughs, depression, etc.

4. Effects on the environment: plants, insects, animals

14. At the same hearing of experts, Dr Ulrich Warnke of the Institute of Technical Biology and Bionics in Saarbrücken described the biological effects of certain microwave frequencies on plants. Depending on the frequencies, their intensity and modulation and the length of exposure, scientific studies demonstrated stress reactions and disruptions of gene expression. Recent studies by the cellular biology laboratory of Clermont-Ferrand University (2007), for example, clearly show the effects of mobile telephony microwaves on plant genes, in particular tomato plants.

15. Other scientific international studies show comparable stress reactions in certain types of beans, as well as deciduous and coniferous trees exposed to various frequencies (relay antennas, TETRA frequency).

16. Dr Warnke highlighted the innate magnetic compass used by certain animals or insects to orient themselves in time and space and which dictates the internal functioning of their organism, before going on to demonstrate how extremely weak artificial fields or waves could adversely affect the sense of direction, navigation and communication of certain animals or insects: migratory birds, pigeons, certain kinds of fish (sharks, whales, rays) or certain insects (ants, butterflies and especially bees). He suggested that malfunctions induced by artificial electromagnetic waves might be one of the major causes – besides problems of exposure to chemicals – of repeated incidents of whales being washed up on beaches or the death or disappearance of bee colonies (colony collapse disorder) observed in past years.

17. The great multitude of scientific studies quoted during the hearing of experts should certainly prompt policymakers to reflect on their decisions and act accordingly. One final aspect mentioned during the hearing concerned the potentially pathogenic effects observed in livestock – calves, cows, horses, geese, etc. – following the installation of mobile telephone masts nearby: unaccountable deformities of new-born calves, cataracts, fertility problems.

18. In the face of fast-growing concerns and opposition in many Council of Europe member states, the response of top executives of electricity companies and mobile telephone operators is to deny that their industrial and commercial activities have any adverse effect on human health. At the hearing in Paris on 25 February 2011, the official representatives of French and European mobile telephone operators passionately argued that the official threshold values applicable in most countries in the world were adequate to protect human beings from the thermal effects of mobile telephones and that any biological effects, if these could be demonstrated, would not have any adverse effects on human health.

19. To back up their argument, the experts quoted the scientific assessments carried out by associations such as the International Committee on Non-Ionisation Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), a small private NGO near Munich, or by official organisations: the World Health Organization, the European Commission and a number of national protection agencies. It appears that these European and national organisations or international bodies have based their thinking on the threshold values and recommendations advocated by the ICNIRP when that private association was set up near Munich at the beginning of the 1990s.

20. Yet, at the same hearing, leaders of associations of citizens and representatives of the NGOs such as “Robin des toits”, laid heavy emphasis on the numerous risks and harmful biological effects and related health problems which they believed to be linked to electromagnetic fields or waves from mobile telephony, relay antennas, high-voltage lines and other artificially generated electromagnetic fields, even at very low levels that were well below the officially applicable threshold values.

21. The representative of the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen, an official advisory body to the European Union, stressed the importance of the precautionary principle written into the European treaties and accordingly pointed to the need for effective preventive measures to protect human health and avoid painful health issues or scandals of the kind already experienced over asbestos, tobacco smoking, lead and PCBs (polychlorobiphenyls), to name but a few. He presented a convincing analysis of the scientific assessment methods currently used and the different levels of evidence to conclude, on the basis of the “Bioinitiative” scientific report and other more recent studies by the Ramazzini Institute in Bologna, that the indices or levels of proof were sufficient at this stage to prompt action by governments and international bodies.

22. Finally, another expert specialising in clinical medicine and oncology confirmed, on the basis of the findings of biological and clinical analysis of several hundred French patients describing themselves as “electrosensitive”, that a syndrome of intolerance to electromagnetic fields (SI