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Radiofrequency Radiation

Topics: Contaminants and Hazards, Radiation

Radiofrequency (RF) radiation are electromagnetic waves emitted from a variety of common wireless communication devices, including cell phones, cordless (DECT) phones, Wi-Fi computer networks, smart meters, and baby monitors. The frequencies of RF waves range from 3 KHz (3,000 Hz) to 300 GHz (300 million hertz). Personal exposure to RF waves is highest when devices, such as cell phones, are held close to the body. Because of the increasing use of multiple RF devices, there are concerns about potential health effects to the public.

  • Safety limits – To protect the public from harm, exposure guidelines are established by Health Canada’s Safety Code 6 (Health Canada, 2015) and the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) (ICNIRP 2010).
  • Exposure - A cell phone held to the ear can reach 10%−70% of the exposure guideline, while for a bystander 30 cm away it can reach 2% of the guideline (BCCDC, 2016). By comparison, at a distance of 30 cm a baby monitor was at 2.2%, a Wi-Fi router at 0.05% and a smart meter inside the home was 0.01% of the exposure guideline.
  • Health concerns - Exposure to RF waves has been classified as Group 2B (possibly carcinogenic to humans) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, 2013), based on some studies associating the incidence of glioma, a type of brain tumour, with frequent and long-term cell phone use. However, findings are controversial and may be biased. Although sperm abnormalities, such as decline in sperm motility and increased DNA damage, have been noted in some studies of cell phone users, the study findings are not consistent and the mechanism is unknown. (Houston et al. 2016).
  • Precautionary principle - The most effective means to reduce personal exposure to RF radiation is by limiting cell phone use, using the speaker or text options or wearing headsets. (Government of Canada, 2012). 

NCCEH Resources

  • Summary: Radiofrequency and Health (2016)
    This summary document briefly describes radiofrequency radiation, exposure sources, and potential health effects. It is based on the document, “Radiofrequency and Health” (2016), available on the BCCDC webpage on Radiofrequency with links to the “Radiofrequency Toolkit” (2013), an extensive review of the literature (371 pages).

Selected External Resources

  • Radiofrequency fields (Health Canada, 2015)
    This webpage briefly describes Safety Code 6 and provides links to government documents outlining health risks from exposure to cell phones, towers, and other wireless telecommunication devices, as well as exposure measurement data.
  • Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones (World Health Organization, 2014)
    This fact sheet outlines radiofrequency exposure and potential for health effects from mobile phones as well as plans for further research.
  • Frequently Asked Questions on Radiofrequency Energy and Health (Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, 2013) 
    This webpage was jointly developed with Health Canada to answer questions on radiofrequency energy, biological effects, exposure limits, and protecting the public. 

Peer-Reviewed articles

This list is not intended to be exhaustive. Omission of a resource does not preclude it from having value.

Last updatedJun 14, 2017