ICNIRP, the UK Health Protection Agency and A Role for Science


UK Health Protection Agency

A Role for Science


The ICNIRP is the International Commission for Non-Ionising Radiation Protection. Since 2000, the UK has followed the recommended exposure limits of the ICNIRP for mobile telecommunications (ICNIRP, 1998).

When the ICNIRP set its exposure limits, it believed that there were no biological effects of microwave electromagnetic radiation below those that caused heating.  Thus the limits are set so as to protect the public from the heating effects of the electromagnetic fields.

The World Health Organisation (WHO, 2008) also states 'The main conclusion from the WHO reviews is that EMF (electromagnetic field) exposures below the limits recommended in the ICNIRP international guidelines do not appear to have any known consequences on health.'

Since 1998, there have been an enormous number of scientific studies demonstrating damage to biological systems by microwaves below the ICNIRP limits.

The International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety have said 'The non-ionizing radiation protection standards recommended by the international standards organisations, and supported by the World Health Organisation, are inadequate.  Existing guidelines are based on results from acute exposure studies and only thermal effects are considered.  A world wide application of the Precautionary Principle is required.  In addition, new standards should be developed to take various physiological conditions into consideration, e.g., pregnancy, newborns, children, and elderly people' (ICEMS, 2008). 

The International Bio-Initiative report (2007) states '..... what is clear is that the existing public safety standards limiting these radiation levels in nearly every country of the world look to be thousands of times too lenient.  Changes are needed.'

The European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety have said (see A Precautionary Approach) 'the limits of exposure to electromagnetic fields which have been set for the general public are obsolete'.  It is calling for stricter exposure limits.

The European Environment Agency has said that evidence is now strong enough to reconsider the scientific basis for the present EMF exposure standards which have serious limitations (September 2009).

Sir William Stewart, the Chairman of the Health Protection Agency has stated that he thinks that the WHO are wrong to state that there are no adverse health effects from low level long-term exposure to wireless devices (Panorama, 2007).

The Scientific literature clearly demonstrates that levels of radiation below ICNIRP limits can cause biological damage and in some cases disease.

Some countries, for example Italy, Switzerland, Russia, China and Salzburg in Austria have decided to take a more precautionary approach by lowering their limits for exposure (Powerwatch, 2008).

UK Health Protection Agency

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) advise the UK Government on the use of wireless technologies in schools. The HPA (2008) have stated that:

'There is no consistent evidence to date that Wi-Fi and WLANs adversely affect the health of the general population.'

'... the results so far show exposures are well within internationally accepted (ICNIRP) guidelines.'

In 2007 the above statement said 'no evidence', this has since been changed to 'no consistent evidence'

'On the basis of the studies so far carried out in house, the Agency sees no reason why Wi-Fi should not continue to be used in schools.  However with any new technology it is a sensible precautionary approach, as happened with mobile phones, to keep the situation under ongoing review so that parents and others can have as much reassurance as possible.'

'Based on current knowledge and experience, radio frequency (RF) exposures from Wi-Fi are likely to be lower than those from mobile phones.  Also, the frequencies used in WiFi are broadly the same as those from traditional RF applications'.

The position of the UK Health Protection Agency contrasts with that of the French Health and Security Agency which is recommending that people reduce their exposure to wireless technologies because of health concerns (October 2009). 

The above UK statements raise several important questions about the safety of Wi-Fi for schools:

  1. The HPA statement does not say that Wi-Fi is completely safe, it says that the evidence is not consistent.  So, of importance is the question: how consistent should the evidence be before a precautionary approach is taken, and schools are advised not to use Wi-Fi?
  2. Should we consider the health of the 'general population', or should we be protecting vulnerable groups such as children, pregnant women, and those with existing diseases?
  3. Is it enough to be within the ICNIRP guidelines?
  4. Is allowing all UK schools to install Wi-Fi, taking a precautionary approach?
  5. Even though exposures from Wi-Fi are lower than mobile phones, is it safe for children to use routinely throughout their developing childhood and teenage years?

These questions are discussed below:

1.    As mentioned in the section 'Scientific Research', there are as yet very few studies directly looking at Wi-Fi.  However many have looked at radiation of similar frequencies, and in some cases at the lower powers relevant to Wi-Fi. Some have demonstrated damage to biological systems, but there are also some which show no effect.  Is it right to wait until all studies say the same thing?  Often research differs in the tissue types tested, exposure durations, levels or pulsed nature of the signal, criteria for inclusion in the study etc.  Such differences in study design may underlie differences in outcomes.  Whilst good science should be repeatable, positive and negative results do not cancel each other out, they highlight the need for further investigations.

If half of the scientific studies show that your child's health or functioning may be made worse by repeated exposure to wireless technologies and half say that it is not likely to be affected, would you choose for them to use only wired-up devices for now until more is known?  Would you like to be aware of the information?  Hopefully future research will shed light on why damage is seen in some situations and not others.  But as stated in its definition (see A Precautionary Approach), the precautionary principle can provide justification for action where there is scientific complexity.

Decisions about whether Wi-Fi should be used in schools at the current time are likely to be influenced by the risks that the people making the decisions are prepared to take.  If the child in question is your child and they have the option of using similar computing facilities, but they are wired-up and therefore of fixed location (and possibly more difficult to install), would you consider this an inconvenience worth putting up with if it avoided potential long-term damage to health or would you rather they had the option of being mobile but took health risks?

2.    Whilst not all children or staff may be affected by wireless technologies in schools, some may be more at risk (see Health Issues for Schools).  Should schools therefore protect all children and staff, since there are likely to be new risks identified in future/longer-term studies?  Or should schools provide safe computing rooms for some children and remove them occasionally from their classes (ensuring that they are still fully involved in the curriculum)?  Or should schools say that if you experience adverse health effects you will have to leave the school/teaching?  Or will schools decide that if the HPA says that it is OK to use Wi-Fi in schools, adverse health effects do not exist and children and staff must therefore put up with it?

Under Section 175 of the Education Act 2002 there is a requirement for governing bodies to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people.  A school governing body needs to provide a safe environment for children and young people to learn in.  The Children Act (2004) Part 2 (10) states that each Children's Services Authority in England must make arrangements with a view to improving the well-being of children in the Authority's area relating to (a) physical and mental health and emotional well-being; (b) protection from harm and neglect.  Children's Services Authorities or governing bodies also have responsibilities as employers to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of all employees and other persons who may be affected by the employer's work activities (Health and Safety at Work Act 1974).  Employees also have a legal right to be consulted on health and safety matters (The Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977; The Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996).

Schools and parents need to consider their responses to the risks identified in the scientific studies and the calls for action made by the Bio-Initiative Report (2007), International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety (2008), the Russian National Committee for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (2008), the European Parliament and others.

3.    Exposures may be within ICNIRP guidelines, but as outlined above, that does not mean that they are safe.

4.    Surely 'a sensible precautionary approach' is not allowing the use of Wi-Fi in schools until safety studies have been carried out.  Once schools have installed expensive Wi-Fi systems, it is difficult for the HPA to say that they have changed their mind about the risks to health.  They will be asking schools to spend more money to remove the Wi-Fi and install wired-up computer points.  They will need very strong evidence to ask schools to make such major financial committments and organisational changes, by which time many children may have been affected.

5. Wi-Fi does use lower powers than mobile phones.  However, some studies show damage from low powers.  The electrical field strengths of up to 6V/m from Wi-Fi computers are much greater than the 0.194V/m recommended as the maximum indoor exposure limit by the Bio-Initiative Report (2007), or the 0.02V/m recommended by the Public Health Department of the Government of Salzburg (2002).  For Wi-Fi exposures see Wi-Fi exposures and guidelines.

Also, the duration of exposure, age and vulnerability of the individuals concerned is important.  Children are likely to be exposed to regular 1-2 hour stints at the computer (more if they are used in the classroom throughout the school day), and constant exposure to the classroom transmitters, five days a week from age 4-18.  Schools are currently being encouraged to incorporate ICT into the whole curriculum.  We do not know what the cumulative effect of long-term exposures of low-powers on children will be (who absorb more than adults), or even as stated in the Bio-Initiative report (2007) whether over time there is any safe level of exposure for some people.

Traditional radio and TV signals are not the same as Wi-Fi, they are generally at lower frequencies (most at KHz or the lower MHz frequencies).  The microwaves used by mobile phones, phone masts and Wi-Fi are mainly 800MHz-5GHz (the microwave band being 300MHz-300GHz).  Most Wi-Fi computers in schools use 2.45GHz, the same frequency as microwave ovens.  Radio and TV signals are also continuous, not pulsed (Powerwatch, 2008b).  The pulsed nature of signals from wireless devices can play an important part in their effects on biological systems (Blackman, Bio-Initiative Report, section 14, 2007).  The frequencies are also important when it comes to modifying the human body.  For example, different frequencies may differentially modify physiological processes according to whether the frequency matches durations/intervals/timing of cellular signalling and function.  However, radio and TV broadcasting is changing, new frequencies are being used/planned and health concerns may become more of an issue in the future.

A Role for Science

Points for thought:

  • Whatever your views on the safety of wireless technologies for human/animal health, the areas of concern already identified in the scientific literature mean that there is a need to continue to be able to carry out good scientific studies into the long-term health effects.  But good science needs to have control subjects who/that have not been exposed, for comparison.  Agarwal et al. (2008) state 'To conduct a scientifically robust epidemiologic study, a control group of people who are not using and have not used cell phones in the past is a necessity.  However, enrolling a pool of such control subjects in today's culture is extremely difficult.'  The siting of Wi-Fi and WiMAX throughout public places, all schools, hospitals and towns, mobile phone masts in all regions, does not allow for good science to be carried out.  If we value the role of science in identifying health issues then we need to protect the conditions necessary for studies to be performed.


  • Professor Havas from Trent University, Canada, has said 'Science is one of the tools society uses to decide health policy.  In the case of telecommunications equipment, such as cell phones, wireless networks, cell phone antennas, PDAs, and portable phones, the science is being ignored'Why do we teach science in schools and train talented scientists in Universities, only to ignore the research that they publish when it is economically or politically inconvenient?


  • Should it be necessary for safety studies to be carried out before a new technology (which emits radiation or alters a process in the body) is released for public use, as is the case for new pharmaceuticals?  Scientific studies have raised serious questions about the safety of modulated microwave radiation.  But what about, for example, the safety of nanotechnologies or other electromagnetic fields for use in medicine?  With a wider range of technologies now being designed that will alter the way our bodies work, is it time to reassess whether we need safety studies before they are made available?  Does a technology which alters the way our bodies function require less safety testing than a chemical entity?  Governments don't want to be left behind when it comes to technology and they want to reap the financial rewards.  But if a country can identify whether a technology may damage its population in important areas such as their cognitive abilities, behaviour, reproductive success or state of their DNA, then it may be able to introduce restrictions where appropriate.  Not all drugs created make it to market.  Those that do, come with a list of their potential contra-indications.  By developing technologies that bring benefits and don't damage human, animal or environmental health, we can enable workforces, communities and economies to flourish well into the future.   

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Agarwal A., Desai N. R., Makker K., Varghese A., Mouradi R., Sabanegh E. and Sharma R., 2008, Effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic waves from cellular phones on human ejaculated semen: an in vitro pilot study, Fertility and Sterility, In Press.

BECTA, 2007, WiFi Health Issues, http://schools.becta.org.uk/index.php?section=re&catcode=ss_res_env_02&rid=13417 (accessed Aug 2008).

Bio-Initiative Report, 2007. A Rationale for a biologically-based public exposure standard for electromagnetic fields (ELF and RF). http://www.bioinitiative.org/index.htm (accessed Aug 2008).

European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, Mid-term review of the European Environment and Health Action Plan 2004-2010, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=REPORT&mode=XML&reference=A6-2008-0260&language=EN,  http://www.europarl.europa.eu/oeil/resume.jsp?id=5564632&eventId=1046703&backToCaller=NO&language=en (accessed Sept 2008).

Health Protection Agency, 2008, http://www.hpa.org.uk/web/HPAweb&HPAwebStandard/HPAweb_C/1195733779274     (accessed Aug 2008).

ICNIRP, 1998, Guidelines for Limiting Exposure to Time-Varying Electric, Magnetic, and Electromagnetic Fields (up to 300 GHz). Health Physics 74 (4), 494-522,  http://www.icnirp.de/PubEMF.htm (accessed Aug 2008).

International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety (ICEMS), 2008. The Venice Resolution June 2008,  http://www.icems.eu/resolution.htm. Press Release (6/6/2008), http://www.icems.eu/workshops.htm (accessed Aug 2008).

Panorama 21st May 2007, BBC1, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/panorama/6674675.stm and http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/panorama/6683969.stm (accesed Aug 2008).

Powerwatch, 2007, Philips, A., Public Exposure levels from WiFi systems 10/12/2007, http://www.powerwatch.org.uk/pdfs/20071210_wifi_signals.pdf (accessed Aug 2008).

Powerwatch, 2008, International Guidance Levels, http://www.powerwatch.org.uk/science/intguidance.asp (accessed Aug 2008).

Powerwatch, 2008b, WiFi overview - WiFi and health, http://www.powerwatch.org.uk/rf/wifi.asp (accessed Aug 2008).

WHO, 2008, Electromagnetic fields, Standards and guidelines, www.who.int/peh-emf/standards/en/  (accessed Aug 2008).

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