With the ever-increasing use of wireless communications technologies, such as the latest 5G mobile phone systems, there comes a need to balance their benefits against potential harms. The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) provides this balance in its Guidelines, which are then mandated via law in countries such as Australia. It is now over 20 years since ICNIRP released the last Guidelines, which means that the vast majority of research in this area occurred since their publication. Led by Professor Rodney Croft, a senior member of the Health Psychology Research Group and ICNIRP Chairman-Elect, the first update of the ICNIRP Guidelines in over 20 years has now been released.
The Guidelines are freely available on the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) website.
Have you ever wondered or worried about whether mobile phones can harm you? Many have, and there has been an ongoing debate about the issue for decades. The debate has become more and more heated lately given that a new mobile telecommunication technology is being implemented. This technology is referred to as ‘5G’ (because it is the 5th Generation of mobile telecommunication technology), and it will greatly improve a range of telecommunications capabilities. For example, it will increase download speeds to over 1 gigabyte per second (yes that’s right, it will only take 3 seconds to download a movie on your phone), and it will reduce the lag between data being sent and received to 1 millisecond (which will enable real time communication between not only phones, but also automated systems).
But what about health consequences? Are there any risks associated with these technologies? This question centres around whether the electromagnetic radiation that enables wireless telecommunication devices to operate, is harmful. University of Wollongong’s Faculty of Social Sciences Health Psychology Research Group has been researching this issue for many years now. So what has the research found? In a nutshell, if the power of that radiation is large enough it can be harmful, but if it is lower than the levels specified in the ICNIRP Guidelines, then it won’t cause any harm. Importantly, the levels currently used by all mobile telecommunications devices (regardless of whether they are the older 3G and 4G devices, or the newer 5G devices) are very low relative to the ICNIRP Guidelines, and so cannot cause harm.
So how does this fit within the field of Health Psychology? Health Psychology covers a range of research areas, and although historically it focused on improving physical health through behaviour modification techniques, Health Psychology has extended its reach to that of improving health through psychological science more generally. For example, although there is a great deal of research aimed at determining whether mobile phone-like radiation can cause cancer and a host of other diseases, there is also a large research domain dedicated to determining whether the radiation can affect psychological function and disorder. This latter research has been a strong focus of the Health Psychology Research Group.
In addition to this, the strong methodological rigour that has been emphasised in psychological research training has proven extremely useful in the interpretation and implementation of the results from traditionally non-psychological research domains, such as toxicology. For example, thorough understanding of such factors as placebo and nocebo effect mechanisms, the meaning of statistical outcomes, and the consequences of methodological limitations such as lack of blinding in research, has enabled the Research Group to better inform the community about the relevance of the medical research to health than would otherwise have been the case. Indeed, as the research community becomes increasingly multidisciplinary, the contribution that psychology can make to health research is similarly becoming increasingly apparent. Determining the relation between health and exposure from mobile telecommunication radiation requires a particularly multi-disciplinary approach, and Health Psychology has proven to be invaluable in ensuring safety in what is now a highly technological community.