On March 3rd and 9th, 2019, British ‘The Telegraph’ has published two articles by Margi Murphy, US Technology Reporter, San Francisco, titled: Do smartphones cause cancer? World Health Organisation to assess brain tumour link and Mobile safety standards relaxed ahead of 5G networks.

Writing this article Margi Murphy interviewed Chairman of the ICNIRP, Dr. Eric van Rongen. After reading the articles I have sent few questions to Dr. van Rongen, and he graciously provided responses that further clarify his opinions published by ‘The Telegraph’.

Both, my questions and Dr. van Rongen answers are unedited, copied directly from our e-mail exchange.

On relaxing recommended safety limits

Leszczynski: As I understood from your comments for The Telegraph, ICNIRP plans to relax limits for cell towers. If indeed it will happen, please, kindly advise when and what is the specific science basis for it. I understand the technology part where the relaxed limits make it easier to locate cell towers in very close proximity to where people live, but what is the scientific rationale that is used to justify the lack of the health hazard?

van Rongen: As you know, ICNIRP is currently working on the revision of the RF guidelines and we hope to publish them in the course of the year. We will discuss them with the Commission during our Spring meeting early April, and I hope we can finalize them. So the information below is currently only preliminary.

In the GHz frequency range, there will likely be some changes. The relaxation I was talking about in the interview with the Telegraph is not exactly the factor 2 as it might seem from the article. I forgot to mention that we changed the exposure parameter in that frequency range. In the old (current) guidelines it is the incident power density, i.e. the amount of energy that falls upon the body, so a factor external from the body. In the new guidelines it is the absorbed power density, i.e. the amount of energy absorbed in the body; that is not equal to the incident power density, since part of that will be reflected and thus not enter the body. From a biological perspective of course only the power density inside the body is of relevance, hence the change. In addition, we also changed the area over with the power density is to be measured from 20 cm2 to 4 cm2 (up to 30 GHz, and to 1 cm2 >30 GHz) and the averaging time to 6 min (while in the 1998 guidelines these were time-dependent). Overall, there is possibly some relaxation, but that depends on how much of the power density gets reflected, which in its turn depends on the frequency and on the surface upon which the power density falls. Any relaxation will be between none and a factor of 2, I suppose. In any case, the goal was not to change the limits in order to get relaxation, the goal was to provide a better biological rationale and dosimetric background to the limits. And these are described in detail.

I regret that I was not accurate enough in providing information to ‘The Telegraph’.

On selection of scientific studies for the review of scientific evidence

Leszczynski: From your interview it also appeared as if ICNIRP and WHO would be in the process of selecting studies that will be used for evaluation of health risk by ICNIRP (?) and by WHO (?). Is it indeed so that there will be pre-selection of studies that are considered as “suitable” and the rest will be simply thrown out? This is risky, in my opinion, as such action may be considered as excluding “inconvenient” research. I am certain that it will be the interpretation of activists, no matter what explanation/justification ICNIRP and WHO will provide.

van Rongen: For the WHO review we have drafted exclusion criteria based on the quality of the studies, e.g. lack of a sham-exposed group in experimental studies, or lack of information on the exposure or exposure level. Studies of insufficient quality will not be included in the analysis (which will, by the way, be done by a WHO Task Group, and not by the Core Group that is preparing the review). There is no ‘inconvenient’ research. All studies of sufficient scientific quality are included, no matter what the topic. The WHO review is as objective and transparent as possible; the exclusion criteria will of course also be published as part of the review. The same is the case for ICNIRP. We use the 2014 public draft of the WHO review, the 2015 SCENHIR review, more recent SSM reports and even more recent studies not included in any of these as basis for our own review of the science. That is described in an appendix to the guidelines. In the guidelines, a concise description and rationale is provided of the biological basis of the proposed exposure limits and the choices made.

On the lack of pre-market testing for health hazard – safety recommendations based solely on assumption, not on actual test results

Leszczynski: you were quoted in ‘The Telegraph’ article as saying (emphasis added DL):

“…“It is not set up as a public health experiment but of course you can consider it as such. It will be necessary to gain more information about the exposure and any health problems that might come from an effect of that exposure,” however, he added, “this is not any different to monitoring prescription drugs that we rely on…”

This statement is completely incorrect. Any and all medicines are extensively tested for their effects on humans, as well as on animals and in vitro cells. Fact that the use of medicines is being followed up after they are put on market is just a logical follow-up to pre-market testing.

However, cell phones and any other wireless devices are sold on assumption that low power will not cause health effects. This was in 70’s and 80’s when 1G phones were marketed… but over time research has shown that there is possible hazard and radiation, the “harmless low-power”, was classified as possible human carcinogen.

The same seems to be happening with 5G devices. When I asked at BioEM in Hangzhou whether any health research is being conducted on 5G radiation emitting devices, Joe Wiart stated simply that these devices emit low power so… again no problem. Time will show what research on 5G will reveal in coming years…

van Rongen: I disagree with you. Mobile telecommunication systems are brought on the market with the assumption, based on available knowledge at the time of introduction, that they are safe. If they have not been tested specifically, this inference is made from general knowledge of effects of exposure to EMF. However, also in this case, post-market surveillance is useful to perform (by the way, you might consider the relevant case-control studies such as Interphone –that are by design retrospective- as some sort of pms). The classification of RF as a possible human carcinogen does not change anything in this, but indeed provides even more reason for doing these sort of studies. I think it is not correct if one considers the monitoring of possible health effects resulting from exposure to RF EMF from mobile telecommunication systems as a human health experiment. It is not an experiment, since it was never the intention to expose people and see what happens. The exposure is a by-product of the system, which, as I explained, was considered to be safe at the time of introduction, for which the monitoring of any effects is a useful (and indeed necessary) thing to do.

On the dismissal of inadequate evidence with another, inadequate, evidence

Leszczynski: ICNIRP and WHO seem to criticize case-control studies showing increased risk of developing glioma, by saying that the design and execution had flaws and, therefore result is unreliable. However, to dismiss these case-control studies, ICNIRP and WHO use other inadequate studies, as e.g. Danish Cohort or trend-studies. So, dismissal of inadequate evidence with another inadequate evidence? What is logical justification?

van Rongen: We do not generally dismiss case-control studies. Unfortunately there is no ‘perfect’ study, so there will always be some criticism or comment to any study of whatever type, case-control or cohort.