Mobile networks are constantly growing in importance to society, and ever larger volumes of data are being exchanged wirelessly. The general public's exposure to electrosmog has been monitored on a national level since 2021. Research is being funded to help fill the knowledge gaps regarding the health impact. The federal government is addressing the issue of electrosmog by setting limit values based on the precautionary principle.
1. Growing mobile communications sector, digitalisation and increasing electricity consumption (drivers)
The term ‘electrosmog' is widely used to describe all technically generated electrical and magnetic fields.
Low frequency electrical and magnetic fields arise wherever electricity is generated, transported and used.
Mobile telephone base stations, radio transmitters and other radio applications also generate radiation in the high-frequency range. In both cases this is in the form of non-ionising radiation (NIR).
Switzerland's energy consumption has stabilised since around 2000 while gross domestic product and the population have continued to grow. Electricity consumption has not been tracking the GDP and population growth rates since 2005 either.
The number of mobile communications devices in Switzerland has increased to over 11 million since the 1990s.
The volume of data transmitted over mobile communication networks has doubled each year since 2008. To cope with the rapidly increasing data volume and ensure high network availability, the mobile networks must be constantly expanded.
2. Numerous sources of radiation exposure (pressures)
Up until the end of 2021, mobile antennae were installed at over 23,000 sites. While every new generation of mobile devices has shown a reduction in radiation, the data volume has doubled every year. In addition to mobile communications, radio broadcasts, radio relay systems, cordless telephones and wireless local area networks (WLANs) also emit radiation in the high-frequency range.
Sources of low-frequency radiation are electrical wires, overhead lines of railways and electrical appliances in households. The increase in electricity consumption and intensification of trade on the liberalised electricity markets have resulted in higher electricity transmission rates via the distribution network. This means that low-frequency magnetic fields will continue to increase along existing transmission lines.
3. Good compliance with specified limit levels (state)
The first report on the monitoring of non-ionising radiation in Switzerland (2022) shows that the population as a whole is exposed to moderate levels of radiation. At places where people spend a large part of their time, the field strengths are clearly below the defined limits. The protection of people’s health is therefore safeguarded. The highest values were measured at tram stops, in industrial areas and city centres, and the lowest values in agricultural zones and nature reserves.
In publicly accessible outdoor areas, mobile communications antennas generally contribute the most to non-ionising radiation. On trains, the main source of exposure is other passengers’ mobile phones, except when using one’s own mobile phone: as is known from other studies, radiation during a call on one's own mobile phone is responsible for a higher level of exposure than all other sources of radiation.
4. Unknown health risks (impacts)
The effect of non-ionising radiation on humans depends on the intensity and frequency of the radiation.
Very intensive low-frequency radiation can trigger nerve impulses and involuntary muscle contractions, while intensive high-frequency radiation can cause tissue warming. Internationally applicable limit values provide protection against levels of exposure that trigger such effects.
Various studies present evidence of biological effects, however, including in the case of weak radiation exposure below these limit values. For example, weak high-frequency radiation can alter electric brain activity and influence brain metabolism and blood flow. Whether these effects have an impact on health is still unclear.
According to the studies carried out up to now, short- to medium-term health impacts should not be expected from exposure to weak non-ionising radiation. There is no definitive answer, however, concerning the impacts of long-term exposure. For example, it is suspected that weak low-frequency radiation increases the risk of leukaemia in children. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified both low-frequency and high-frequency radiation as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
The Mobile Radio and Radiation Working Group set up by the Federal Council published a report in 2019 summarising the current level of knowledge about health effects and identifying important gaps in the research – in particular with regard to the new frequencies planned for the 5G network.
In addition, some people firmly believe that they suffer from impaired well-being and health impacts due to very weak radiation. Ways of helping so-called electrosensitive persons are only beginning to emerge.
Nearby mobile radio antennas or high-voltage lines can also reduce the value of properties because their radiation is perceived as a risk.
5. Protection against electrosmog (response)
In order to protect the population against electrosmog, the Federal Council adopted the Ordinance on Protection against Non-Ionising Radiation (NISV), which specifies thresholds for the radiation emitted by stationary installations such as high-voltage electricity lines, mobile phone base stations and radio transmitters.
The exposure thresholds provide adequate protection against the scientifically recognised effects on health (warming of tissue, nerve impulses, muscle contractions), and have to be complied with wherever people are present, including for short periods of time.
Based on the principle of precaution principle that is applied in environmental legislation, when it adopted the NIR ordinance the Federal Council also specified significantly more stringent requirements on installations. The main aim here is to reduce long-term radiation at an early stage while science continues to carry out research into the effects of low-frequency radiation on our health.
An enforcement aid published at the beginning of 2021 gives the competent authorities at federal, cantonal and communal level recommendations for assessing adaptive antennas that will be used with the introduction of the 5G standard. The Federal Council incorporated parts of this document into the ordinance on 17 December 2021. At present, the protection afforded the population from non-ionising radiation remains at the previous level.
The federal government also promotes research and established an expert group on non-ionising radiation in 2014.
In 2020, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) also assessed the research that is currently available and published new guidelines for limiting exposure to electrosmog. These support the applicable exposure limits.However, the documented knowledge gaps concerning the effects of low radiation also justify Switzerland's strict limit values.
Last modification 19.12.2022