Electrosmog: In brief

Every year, the data volume transmitted over mobile communication networks doubles. Competition is fierce in liberalised electricity markets, and electricity’s share of the energy supply mix is increasing. Overall, the population’s exposure to electrosmog is likely to rise. Representative data and sufficient knowledge of the extent of the exposure and its effects on health are lacking.  The federal government intends to fill these knowledge gaps.

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. In addition, the volume of data transmitted via mobile communication networks increased by a factor of 375 between 2008 and 2016.

According to the Federal Council’s Digital Switzerland Strategy, Switzerland should make consistent use of digitalisation. This requires the constant availability of mobile services and therefore a further expansion of the wireless infrastructure. Given this development and the rising share of electricity in energy consumption, it must be assumed that electrosmog will continue to increase.

2. Increasing radiation exposure (pressures) 

As a result of the boom in mobile telephony, there has also been a significant increase in high-frequency radiation in the environment in recent years. Up until mid-2016, mobile antennae were installed at over 18,500 sites. While every new generation of mobile devices has shown a reduction in radiation, the data volume has doubled every year. The resulting increase in exposure has yet to be assessed. 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 limit values for radiation exposure are only reached or exceeded in very exceptional cases in the immediate vicinity of installations that emit radiation. In most everyday situations, the level of low-frequency electrosmog pollution generated by infrastructure is well below the ambient limit value.

The limit values for fixed antennas are not exceeded in terms of high-frequency electrosmog either.

Exposure is generally higher in urban than in rural areas, and highest in public transport systems.

A person’s level of exposure to high frequency radiation mainly depends on the extent of their use of mobile services.

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.

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 existing legislation governing environmental protection does not apply to electrical devices such as mobile telephones and microwave ovens, since these primarily affect users rather than the environment.

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.

This means that Switzerland's legally binding regulations governing locations at which people spend considerable amounts of time (houses/apartments, schools, hospitals, offices etc.) are among the most stringent in the world.

The federal government also promotes research and established an expert group on electromagnetic fields and non-ionising radiation (BERENIS) in 2014, which reviews scientific work in order to recognise potential health risks early on.

Further information

Last modification 30.11.2018

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